Transforming Agriculture, Perennially


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Interview with Spencer Barriball

Spencer Barriball, Research Technician, Perennial Legumes

What got you interested in your field of research?
I was taking a plant breeding and genetics my senior year of college at the University of Minnesota while working on my Horticultural Sciences degree and was excited about the opportunities there were to create something new or improved upon previous work in many agricultural and horticultural species. The professors where great mentors and excellent plant breeders in soybeans and potatoes, and they offered to let me tag along on some of their field work days. When looking at the type of crops being grown, potatoes interested me a great deal and I began to work with the potato breeder shortly after graduation. In a few months I had taken the job as his research technician managing field plot research in the Red River Valley of the North and South Central Minnesota.


What brought you to TLI?
Salina, KS is where my wife was born and raised. We had met in McPherson, KS before I moved to Minnesota. It was sometime between graduation and beginning the job at the University of Minnesota that we were married. We had lived in the Red River Valley for three years when we began looking to relocate back to Salina. In 2017, The Land Institute posted a job looking for a research technician in the newly minted Perennial Legume program, led by Dr. Brandon Schlautman, and I began working for TLI in September. The extraordinary challenge of developing a new agricultural production system is what drew me to TLI. It is a unique and audacious goal to try and create perennial cropping systems that produce similarly to their annual counterparts. It is work that has inspired tens of thousands through the decades and will need to continue in order to realize a more resilient agricultural landscape.


What is a general timeline of your work throughout the year?
Perennial legumes include common species such as alfalfa, clover, and vetch and lesser known species like sainfoin and lupine. Spring and fall are generally our busiest planting seasons with many transplants put into the ground in the spring and direct seeding occurring in the fall. Legumes grown for seed are harvested in the summer while legumes grown for forages are harvest in spring, summer, and fall. Winter is typically reserved for threshing and sample processing. Currently, we are wrapping up our seeding and will have planted a combined 16+ acres across three locations at and near TLI.


What are some of your biggest challenges?
Working with lesser known species can be challenging mainly because there has been little to no selection for seedling vigor, weed competition and establishment, and usually they have not been utilized in Kansas. Kansas can have long periods of hot and dry weather in spring and fall leading to little available moisture for our small seeded legumes. Once thriving, our crops require cross pollination from other individuals, and we utilize bumblebees as well as alfalfa leaf cutter bees. To control pollen flow, we must isolate our target plants into a concentrated population. Pollination cages are assembled during the flowering period and our bees are placed inside to encourage cross pollination.


Have you/has your team made any important discoveries this year?
Our team has begun to learn the limitations of growing perennial legumes in a harsh environment such as Kansas with limited rainfall. Additionally, many equipment modifications are necessary to adjust for the smaller seeds of forage legumes compared to annual grain legumes such as soybean.


Do you have any personal research projects that you are particularly excited about?
2020 is the third season of a long-term Alfalfa/Intermediate wheatgrass (Kernza®) experiment. This project looked at the many types of commercially available alfalfa varieties and their compatibility with Intermediate wheatgrass and the impact on grain yield potential. The term most used for these types of cropping systems is “dual-purpose”. The exciting aspect is the ability to harvest Kernza®, the grain of intermediate wheatgrass, while also harvesting the forage from the alfalfa, thus giving greater revenue opportunities for producers.


What are your personal research goals for the next 5-10 years with perennial agriculture?
Over the past four years, I have been working towards obtaining my Master’s in Agronomy from Iowa State University with support from TLI. Focused on agronomic production, I would like to build on the excellent breeding and crop development from the lead researchers at TLI and incorporate the diverse species into new cropping systems. Blending the grain, oil, and forage ability of Intermediate wheatgrass, perennial wheat, perennial sorghum, silphium, alfalfa, clover, and sainfoin is an enormously large task, as these have been largely researched in isolated fields and limited environments.

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