How scientific minds changed toward perennial grains
Early boosters were voices on the fringe: Today, perennial crops are sought by researchers worldwide — including Manitoba.
In the early days of kernza — a perennial grain crop related to wheat — plant breeders at The Land Institute in Kansas couldn’t get a government grant to save their lives.
“We got very nice compliments on our writing of the grant proposals and harsh criticism on the value of actually doing the work,” said Lee DeHaan, lead researcher on the project.
Once dismissed as a non-competitor, perennial grains have gained new attention as a potential low-input option for future fields.
As far as the U.S. government was concerned in the early 2000s, a perennial grain was too ‘pie in the sky,’ too risky to put cash behind, and the attitude was not limited to the U.S.
At the University of Manitoba, researcher Doug Cattani, had long run into the exact same thing. He had asked his own professors, back in the early ’80s, why there weren’t perennial grains. The answer: they couldn’t compete with annuals.
The fact was that, from the perspective of yield, annual grains had, and still have, worked really, really well. Average yield data has shown a generally upwards trend in annual yields since the early to mid-20th century. Between 1993 and 1998, for example, producers could expect an average 31.5 bushels of red spring wheat to the acre (bu./acre), according to data from the Manitoba Agricultural Services Corporation. By 2016 to 2021, that five-year average had jumped to 59.4 bu./acre.
Today, however, the conversation is increasingly becoming about more than just yield. Financially, there has been the hit of supporting high-input crops when those input costs have mounted by orders of magnitude. There is social pressure, with producers urged to supercharge sustainability practices. There is shifting government policy, with fertilizer use becoming an increasingly hot topic between the western provinces and Ottawa.