Renee Jean, Williston Herald
Wheat feeds the world, but it has an enduring downside. It’s an annual, and that means replanting it year after year after year — along with all the other problems that reality creates. Erosion and loss of nutrients, for one. Annual costs of labor and fuel, for another.
A revolution is coming to the wheat world, however, and area growers will get to learn more about that at the annual Hard Spring Wheat Show in Williston Feb. 7 and 8 at the Grand Williston Hotel.
Agronomist Dr. Lee DeHaan, with the Kansas Land institute in Salina, has been developing a perennial wheat called Kernza, and he is among the slate of speakers at the two-day conference, which also includes programs on intercropping grains, the weather outlook for 2018, DON testing, precision agriculture, grain marketing in 2018 and much more.
In addition to the usual two days stuffed full of programs and lectures, there’s also an evening banquet and dinner program with the Peterson Farm Bros, in conjunction with Business After Hours. The trio have made themselves an Internet sensation with a variety of parody videos that showcase farm life in an entertaining, but also educational way.
DeHaan recalls hearing about perennial wheat when he was just 13, during the 80s. He was growing up on a farm in Minnesota, and times were hard for farmers and their families. His dad was looking for new options to survive the agricultural crash, which is how they came to hear that particular presentation.
“He realized there wasn’t any great news for him in his situation at the time,” DeHaan recalled. “But in the long term, it would be a great improvement to the way we do agriculture if we could develop these kinds of crops. As a young person, I realized it was something I could help with, to make a difference.”
In college, Dehaan obtained a bachelor’s degree from Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa in biology and plant science, and later earned a master of science and a PhD in agronomy and applied plant science from the University of Minnesota.
He remembered that talk on perennial wheat, and actively sought places where he could work on something like that as a young grad student. At the time, there wasn’t much. Still, an opportunity eventually became available to work with the Land Institute on perennial wheat. DeHaan seized it.
“Since then, we have really expanded those efforts and achieved quite a bit of funding for work, and we have numerous grad students working on perennial grains,” he said.
While he estimates that perennial wheat is still 10 to 20 years away from economic viability, the product has already found some niche markets that are helping it to grow.
One of these is with General Mills for its Cascadian Farm organic brand, and another is with Patagonia Provisions for a beer it is selling on the west coast called Long Root Ale.
Kernza’s protein content is actually too high for use as a malting agent, but it’s used in the beer for its sweet, nutty flavor profile.
On the flip side, the protein is too low in quality for bread baking on its own, but it is a suitable addition to the mix.
“The big hurdle here is the time required to develop these crops,” DeHaan said. “I’ve been working on Kernza; it’s been under development since about 1990. That’s decades of work, and the yields are still much lower than wheat. So it will take even more decades to get equivalent to wheat.”
Still, the potential benefits will ultimately be worth the lifetime of research and development, DeHaan believes.
Kernza has deep roots that extend more than 10 feet — twice as deep as conventional wheat. That can do a lot of good things for soil, such as reducing erosion and helping it retain organic matter. It will also help hold onto more nitrogen and the other amendments farmers typically must apply to their fields annually.
“The idea of having a perennial that you don’t need to plant or till the ground every year, that’s big,” DeHaan said. “There’s a nice association between the economic benefits and the environment, as well.”
Perennial wheat is not the only perennial grain crop the Land Institute is working on, either. There are also projects to grow perennial rice in China, which DeHaan said is also showing great promise.
“That’s a project that’s been going on since the ’90s,” DeHaan said. “And the relative ease of making a plant that the grain harvested from it is essentially identical to rice, so it can fit right into the normal diets of people. The yields are nearly the same as annual rice, and the plants are living for three harvests or more.”
Rice is typically hand transplanted in fields. The ability to plant the rice once and harvest it three or four times will dramatically reduce the labor that’s traditionally been required to cultivate a rice crop.