FAQ

Annual plants must be sown every year; they die at some point after reaching maturity and will not re-grow. Perennials plants live for more than one year. They may go dormant, but will re-emerge from their roots. A polyculture is when you have different species in an area. Prairies are a polyculture. They have a variety of many different plants growing interspersed, about 80 percent of which are perennials that remain alive for many years; the rest are annuals that grow for only one season.

Because we have very little turnover in our staff, new employment opportunities at The Land Institute are limited. Although at one time we did offer an internship program that was focused on educational benefits for students, it has not been in place for several years. Our Fellows Program has likewise been discontinued for the foreseeable future.

We do hire a small number of temporary employees (college students, typically) for the summer to help us with field tasks. It's hard work. They hoe weeds in the hot Kansas sun and wind, for instance, and thresh grain by hand. These jobs don't offer the educational component that many who inquire are seeking. Also, we can't always offer housing and that proves to be a deterrent to many applicants from afar. Consequently, most of those we hire are from the immediate area.

If a temporary fieldwork job does have appeal, please send your contact information to Tim Crews at crews@landinstitute.org. We will keep your inquiry on file in case our needs and opportunities change.

During the week of the Prairie Festival, we often need volunteers to help prepare and serve the large Saturday evening meal. If you would like to volunteer for this, please just call 785.823.5376 or email info@landinstitute.org. Other than Prairie Festival, we rarely use volunteers as our work is of a technical nature and consistency in performing tasks is critical to the outcome.

On occasion, we make Kernza flour available for those attending our fall Prairie Festival, but it comes from excess experimental seed and milling trials.  It is not available in sufficient quantities to offer for sale at other times of the year.

It is not yet ready for release.

We love to give tours, but they are available on a limited basis, by appointment. With advance notice, staff who double as tour guides are able to offer personal tours during our business hours, Monday-Friday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.  Tours generally take a little over an hour, though abbreviated tours are possible.    

Driving directions and lodging information are under the Visit tab on our home page. We are also happy to send you a packet of materials in preparation for (or in lieu of) your visit if you provide us a mailing address.

 

This question arose so frequently over the years that we finally decided to plant a polyculture of four annual crop species: corn, soybean, sorghum, and sunflower. The seed mixture was planted with an air drill. At harvest we opened the concave on the combine and cut the air (so as not to blow the sunflower seeds out the back). Progress through the field was slow, but not prohibitively so. Seeds were separated with a standard seed cleaner. The point is that mechanical equipment already in existence, and with a little fine tuning can do the job. The larger problems are agronomic, not engineering.

We wish we could offer seeds to you, but as we are still in the breeding and development portion of our research, we are not yet releasing them except to other breeders and researchers.  They will be readily available to farmers and growers after wide-spread testing of plants, growing and harvesting techniques...just not yet!

Thank you for this generous offer! While we have sufficient land for our current needs, we are collecting names and locations in our database so that when the time comes, we have people in multiple climate zones who are willing to let us conduct field tests of our perennial crops. Please email us at info@landinstitute.org.

Perennial plants will hold the soil more effectively than any annual, to be sure. But not all perennials grow equally well in different regions of the country. We suggest you talk to a horticultural agent at your local Coop Extension office (now called USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture) or your local county extension agent. You can find a local office via the web by searching for USDA.gov.extension, which gives info for local offices via an interactive US map. Phone directories may list under the name of your land-grant college as it does here in Kansas, Kansas State Research and Extension, or under US Government Agriculture Department. Once the plants you require have been identified, there are numerous on-line sources for perennials and grasses.  

A recent study called Losing Ground published by the Environmental Working Group gives some very effective methods for helping contain runoff. Grass or tree strips, also called filter strips planted in strategic locations and along the edges of fields has been proven to tremendously reduce erosion and runoff. Their research states that these buffers trapped 41-100% of the sediment, 9-100% of the runoff water, 27-96% of the phosphorous and 7-100% of the nitrogen. (http://www.ewg.org/losingground/)

Much like the question above, we advise you to contact your local extension office. We are not experts in prairies; we are plant breeders working toward a new agriculture. While we use the prairie as our inspiration and a measure of success, we are not qualified to tell you how to convert your land to one. We applaud your interest in this valuable endeavor!

No, not in any significant sense. We are not a line-item in any government budget. If we do receive any government funds (which are minimal and rare), they are acquired through competitive grant writing. Yet in 2011, the US Federal Government budgeted up to $501 million dollars for biofuel research. Wouldn't it be encouraging if there were as much interest in  feeding humans as in feeding our vehicles?

Our work is funded by individuals, businesses, foundations, and through competitive grant applications.

No. In our case, breeding new crops involves time-honored methods of pollen transfer. After generations of crossing and selection, we assemble desired traits into a new variety. Many techniques that can assist in this process have become available in past decades, in particular genome editing. This involves enabling or disabling targeted genes. Any of these techniques may be used by us or our collaborators as needed to make perennial grains a reality.  At this time, we do not plan to utilize transgenic plants, also known as genetically modified organisms. Transgenes have little to offer in the development of perennial grains at the current time. We can accomplish our task using sexual hybrids and traditional breeding, augmented by forms of genetic technology other than transgenics.

Small-scale testing has proven to be ineffective in predicting consequences of large-scale transgene release; therefore, if use of transgenes were deemed necessary in the future, only those thoroughly tested (already released, used by farmers, and studied over large geographical areas for several years with no negative effects) would be considered.

We hope not, but we do need to move as fast as possible. New strategies are needed that emphasize efficient nutrient use in order to lower production costs and minimize negative environmental impacts. The sooner successful alternatives are available, the more land we can save from degradation. It is likely global agricultural acreage will expand over the next two to three decades, especially if the human population increases to 10 billion people. Recent projections call for an 18% increase in agricultural land by 2020.

The best soils on the best landscapes are already being used for agriculture. Much of the future expansion of agriculture will be onto marginal lands (Class IV, V, and VI) where risk of irreversible degradation under annual grain production is high. As these areas become degraded, expensive chemical, energy, and equipment inputs will become less effective and much less affordable.

Thirty-eight percent of global agricultural lands are currently designated as degraded, and the area is increasing. To minimize encroachment onto non-agricultural lands in the future, currently degraded lands will need to be kept in production AND restored to higher productive potential. In regions of the world where high inputs of fertilizers, chemicals and fuels are not an option, agricultural systems that are highly efficient, productive, and conservative of natural resources are needed...and will be needed even more 25 years from now.

a) There is sufficient evidence that reasonable reference yields of annual crops can be matched on high-quality lands and exceeded on poor-quality lands by diverse perennial systems with fewer negative impacts.

b) It depends on which annual yields are used as a standard. For example, the world record wheat yield was harvested in the Palouse region of Eastern Washington State where wheat yields can top 100 bushels per acre. Annual wheat production in that region, though, has resulted in extensive erosion. All of the topsoil has been lost from over ten percent of the region's landscapes. On eroded sites Palouse wheat yields may be less than 25-30 bushels per acre. Crop yields that come at such a high cost to the soil resource, or that depend on an extravagant use of chemical fertilizers, should not be used as a standard of comparison.

The short answer is no. The theoretical limitations to seed yield in perennials are no more serious than in annuals. In annuals, yield is limited by shorter growing seasons, water shortage due to short roots and poor seedling establishment. In perennials, yield can be constrained by the need to overwinter, but rapid spring growth of perennials, combined with season-long access to sunlight and water deep in the soil profile, means that perennials such as alfalfa are over-all more productive than related annuals like soybeans. Much of the journey-work of plant breeders has been to shift the allocation of resources from leaves, stems, crowns, and roots toward seed in the development of perennial grain crops.

Yes. Although no-till technology has reduced erosion in many areas, some problems remain due to the biological limitations of annual plants. Chief among the problems associated with no-till is water quality. Annual crops, even in no-till situations, are relatively inefficient in capturing nutrients and water. Because annual crop plants are often either absent or too small to use and manage water during times of rainfall, as much as 45 percent of precipitation may drain below root zones of annual crops, whether produced with no-tillage or conventional tillage practices. These rates of water loss under annual crops can be five times greater than under perennials.

This is a problem because water flowing through the soil profile carries soil nutrients and agrochemical that pollute rivers, lakes and coastal waters. This problem can be compounded under no-till production, which often requires greater inputs of agrochemicals. A 2002 EPA survey of the nation's water quality shows a downward trend from the late 1990s. The problem is getting worse, despite increased adoption of no-till and minimum-till systems.

Crop seeds need warm, well-drained seedbeds in order to properly germinate. No-till limits this. That is why tillage remains an attractive practice in northern regions. Warming and drying of the seedbed can be hastened. Advances in plant breeding may eventually allow for optimal germination in cooler, wetter conditions, but in the Midwest, seedlings will still be small when the rains come.

The answer to both parts of the question is, "It depends." It depends on the resilience and fertility of the soil, climate, disease pressures, and types of crops. Nearly all of nature's land-based ecosystems feature perennial plants grown in diverse mixtures. Natural ecosystems, in general, use and manage water and nutrients most efficiently and build and maintain soils. For that reason, nature is our standard. The level and spread of diversity varies. The characteristics of the region in which they are to be grown will have to be assessed.

Diversity is of two kinds: multiple species and genetic diversity within species. Current grain production practices commonly involve planting a single genotype (near-zero genetic diversity) across a field often larger than 100 acres. Furthermore, that single genotype and other genetically similar plants are being grown on millions of acres in a region. Increases in genetic diversity at the species, field, and landscape levels are needed. The final ordering of the components of that diversity will be determined by what is useful and can be practically achieved by local farmers.

History need not be a source of discouragement. In the case of wheat, most involvement with perennials had to do with bringing desirable genes (for resistance, say) from a wild perennial relative into the annual crop. The perennialization effort, in most cases, was carried on, more or less as a hobby, by an interested researcher but with no institutional commitment for a sustained program to guarantee continuity. When the researcher retired, the effort ended. The Soviets had the most ambitious perennial wheat program, but political decisions halted these efforts in the late '50s or early '60s.

We are now in a new era in two ways:

a) In recent years, the costs to our soils and waters due to annual cropping are increasingly weighed against bushels per acre, making some reduction in yields acceptable.

b) With recent advances in plant breeding, more knowledge of the genome and greatly increased computational power, thinking about breeding limits has changed and we have prototypes in our fields.

We focus on the crops that occupy 70 percent of global cropland and provide about the same percentage of food calories: annual grain crops grown primarily in monocultures. Any number of approaches, alternative or conventional, could be used in managing perennial crops and distributing the harvest.

This is not to say that efforts aimed at reducing the scale of industrial agriculture and increasing local food security are misguided. They are not! They are necessary to transform our food system over the long term. But while promoting local, small-scale, organic agriculture we must also assess how and where the bulk of our calories can best be produced. If all or even a large portion of the calories consumed by New Yorkers came from New York State there would be few trees left and the state's thin, poor soils would be quickly degraded. The bulk of the calories consumed by New Yorkers must come directly or indirectly from grain crops which grow well in the Midwest and Great Plains states.

People like to eat our Kernza (a perennial wheatgrass seed) and we see little reason for people to find significant or undesirable taste differences in perennial grains generally. Greatest short-term success in developing suitable perennial crops will come with perennializing current grain crops with which the public is already familiar. Indeed, one of the strongest arguments for perennializing those grains is that it does not require large dietary shifts.

Here proof is in the pudding. Perennials dominate most native landscapes and constitute roughly 80% of North America's native flora. Perennials have thrived throughout the evolutionary history despite the pressures of pests and disease. In some fields or some regions, some perennial crops will prove to be more problematic than others and breeding for complex traits like yield and perenniality can unintentionally purge genes involved in resistance responses. There will undoubtedly be pest and disease problems. But these problems also afflict our most productive annual crops. And there are many examples of herbaceous perennial plants (alfalfa, switchgrass, brome) that remain highly productive for many years despite exposure to pests or disease. Diversity (whether at the field or landscape scale or over time), field burning, and selecting for resistance in a plant breeding program are essential elements of our work.