The Land Institute Sows a Revolutionary Grass in Kansas

Maia Welbel

Technician Marty Christians selects heads of wheatgrass for selective breeding. The heads are placed in paper bags to ensure that pollination occurs according to the breeding plan.

Each grow­ing sea­son, con­ven­tion­al farm­ing meth­ods require that fields are tilled, sprayed, fer­til­ized and reseed­ed. This prac­tice result in near­ly 1.7 bil­lion tons of soil ero­sion every year. In Sali­na, Kansas, how­ev­er, sci­en­tists at the Land Insti­tute have devel­oped a strain of wheat­grass that grows year after year with­out hav­ing to be replant­ed. This grain, dubbed (and trade­marked) Kern­za by its archi­tects, is a domes­ti­cat­ed ver­sion of inter­me­di­ate wheat­grass, a peren­ni­al wheat species. It rep­re­sents a notable step for­ward in Wes Jackson’s vision for the future of sus­tain­able agriculture.

The Land Insti­tute, a non­prof­it research and edu­ca­tion orga­ni­za­tion found­ed in 1976 by Jack­son — a pio­neer of the sus­tain­able agri­cul­ture move­ment — seeks to pro­mote an agri­cul­tur­al sys­tem that will feed mankind with­out destroy­ing the soil — its life source — in the process. A Kansas native, Jack­son found­ed and chaired one of the first Envi­ron­men­tal stud­ies pro­grams in the coun­try at Cal­i­for­nia State Uni­ver­si­ty-Sacra­men­to before mov­ing back home to cre­ate the Land Institute.

Cur­rent­ly, the world’s pop­u­la­tion gets more than half of its calo­ries from annu­al grain crops. And this is high­ly prob­lem­at­ic for the future of our soil, a resource that, accord­ing to Scott Seir­er, Man­ag­ing Direc­tor of the Land Insti­tute, is more valu­able than oil by far.” It is also a resource that is dis­ap­pear­ing at an alarm­ing rate due to the effects of annu­al monoculture.

Cre­at­ing a New Crop

Peren­ni­als have deep­er roots than annu­als, allow­ing them greater access to water and nutri­ents, which makes for hardier plants. Exten­sive root webs also pro­vide struc­tur­al sup­port for the soil, lock­ing it togeth­er to pre­vent ero­sion. Most sig­nif­i­cant­ly, farm­ers need not re-seed their field each sea­son for peren­ni­als to sprout. Because no till­ing is involved, soil nutri­ent loss is min­i­mized and farm­ers are not bound to the cycli­cal use of chem­i­cals to increase soil fertility.

Despite its mer­its, no peren­ni­al grain is cur­rent­ly on the mar­ket for farm­ers. Kern­za is the first peren­ni­al plant to be devel­oped by the Land Insti­tute, which is plan­ning to release the seed on a nation­al scale with­in the next 10 years.

Kern­za was trade­marked in 2011, but the wheat­grass is still being fine­ly-tuned in the Land Institute’s fields to opti­mize yield, seed size, mat­u­ra­tion rate and thresh­ing abil­i­ty. In 2013, two Cal­i­for­nia firms pledged to pur­chase this unique grain. Patag­o­nia, a com­pa­ny known for its envi­ron­men­tal­ly con­scious out­door appar­el, is devel­op­ing a line of sus­tain­able food prod­ucts under the name Patag­o­nia Pro­vi­sions and Kern­za will be an ingre­di­ent in some of their goods. Ven­tu­ra Spir­its Co., a small dis­tillery devot­ed to cre­at­ing liquors from unusu­al, nat­u­ral­ly derived ingre­di­ents, plans to dis­till Kern­za for their Grass Roots Whiskey.

Kern­za is cur­rent­ly grown on site at the Land Insti­tute Research Facil­i­ty in Kansas, as well as on a 90-acre pro­duc­tion plot at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta, which col­lab­o­rates with The Land Insti­tute. The har­vests from the Min­neso­ta field will go direct­ly to the two Cal­i­for­nia companies.

Devel­op­ing a new crop vari­ety is a long and research inten­sive process. In the Land Institute’s Fall 2013 Annu­al Report,” Shuwen Wang, a Land Insti­tute sci­en­tist, writes, In our search for peren­ni­al wheat, more than 2,500 indi­vid­ual hybrid plants have been inves­ti­gat­ed for seed fer­til­i­ty, seed size, peren­ni­al­i­ty, vig­or, dis­ease resis­tance and oth­er traits, and we are test­ing some elite breed­ing lines at 21 loca­tions across eight countries.”

Kern­za is in the final stages of devel­op­ment. The Land Insti­tute is work­ing on devel­op­ing peren­ni­al legumes, oil crops like sun­flow­ers, wheat and sorghum. Our goal,” says Seir­er, is to have dif­fer­ent crops in the field at the same time shar­ing the space like you would find in a prairie, for instance, or any oth­er ecosystem.”

Con­fronting the System

The idea that agri­cul­ture should mim­ic prairie con­di­tions is a cen­tral prin­ci­ple that guides the efforts of The Land Insti­tute. Prairie ecosys­tems fos­ter eco­log­i­cal sta­bil­i­ty owing to the com­plex rela­tion­ships among the liv­ing things that thrive in them. The Insti­tute aims to cre­ate an agri­cul­tur­al sys­tem that pro­vides sim­i­lar ben­e­fits by using com­bi­na­tions of peren­ni­al crops.

For exam­ple, some plants pro­duce sub­stances that attract ben­e­fi­cial bugs and microor­gan­isms, there­by con­tribut­ing to the rich­ness of the soil ecosys­tem. Oth­er plants repel harm­ful pests. Group­ing crops in con­fig­u­ra­tions sim­i­lar to those found in prairie ecosys­tems is a sus­tain­able alter­na­tive to chem­i­cal meth­ods of soil enhance­ment and pest deterrence.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the major­i­ty of farm­ers around the globe are not reap­ing the eco­log­i­cal ben­e­fits of what’s known as peren­ni­al poly­cul­ture.” Around 70 per­cent of agri­cul­tur­al land is cur­rent­ly used to pro­duce annu­al crops, rather than employ­ing the pro­duc­tiv­i­ty and resilience of more bio­log­i­cal­ly diverse peren­ni­al systems.

Farm­ers are trapped in the sys­tem of annu­al mono­cul­ture,” Seir­er says. In fact, so much has his­tor­i­cal­ly been invest­ed in this mod­el that it seems beyond reform. Between 2008 and 2012, 5.3 mil­lion acres of row crops were plant­ed on high­ly erodi­ble, pre­vi­ous­ly uncul­ti­vat­ed soil.

It’s increas­ing­ly clear that annu­al mono­cul­ture is not a sus­tain­able method of land cul­ti­va­tion. Soil is a non­re­new­able resource (at least in our life­time) and we need to be work­ing on ways to pre­serve it.

As the Land Insti­tute sees it, peren­ni­al plant­i­ng, inte­grat­ed pest man­age­ment and no-till fer­til­iza­tion meth­ods — all eco­log­i­cal­ly sta­bi­liz­ing fac­tors that are nat­u­ral­ly present in a prairie ecosys­tem — are a first step toward a more sus­tain­able future for food production.

Seir­er says he is excit­ed at the pos­si­bil­i­ty of chang­ing some­thing as fun­da­men­tal as the source of our food, and pro­duc­ing that food with respect for the environment.”

A prairie can sus­tain itself for thou­sands of years with no help from humans. It’s that sort of long-term eco­log­i­cal sus­tain­abil­i­ty that Wes Jack­son and his team of sci­en­tists are try­ing to pio­neer — a sus­tain­abil­i­ty that they hope will per­vade glob­al agri­cul­ture in the not-so-far-off future.

Maia Wel­bel is an intern at Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times. She is a ris­ing junior at Pomona Col­lege where she stud­ies envi­ron­men­tal analy­sis and dance. She is also a con­trib­u­tor to The Stu­dent Life.
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