Transforming Agriculture, Perennially

Perennial Legumes

Legumes are members of the plant family, Fabaceae, and include common crops such as peas, soybeans, alfalfa, and clovers. 

The Land Institute is developing human edible perennial grain legumes and perennial legume ground covers as nitrogen-fixing companions in polycultures with other perennial grains.

Why Legumes?

  • Legumes produce highly nutritious, high-protein seeds for human and animal consumption and high-quality forage for livestock.
  • Through a symbiotic relationship with rhizobia bacteria, legumes convert atmospheric nitrogen into plant useable forms through nitrogen fixation. Legume nitrogen fixation is a sustainable strategy for decreasing synthetic nitrogen fertilizer inputs for grain production. The Land Institute is currently experimenting with intercropping Kernza® with legumes to help provide nitrogen for the grain.
  • A potential new use for perennial legumes is as a living mulch in annual, agroforestry, and perennial grain cropping systems where they have demonstrated effectiveness for suppressing weeds, reducing soil erosion and nitrate leaching, and providing nitrogen credits for companion cash crops.
  • With more than 20,000 legume species in the world and only around 15 pulse (grain) and 40 forage legumes traded globally, there is great opportunity to develop new perennial grain and companion legume crops. We have identified a short list of candidates using ideas from the pipeline strategy for grain crop domestication and some of the legume specific criteria our program has developed.

Legumes share space in Land Institute test plots with Intermediate Wheatgrass (Kernza®). The legumes fix nitrogen in the soil, which provides fertilizer for the IWG. The work is part of the institute’s goal of developing self-sustaining biculture crops that don’t demand chemical applications and routine tilling of the soil.

At The Land Institute, we are working with legumes in two major ways.

Perennial Grain Legumes: Temperate adapted perennial grain legumes, though currently non-existent, would be uniquely situated as crop plants able to provide relief from reliance on synthetic nitrogen while supplying stable yields of highly nutritious seeds in low-input agricultural systems. We are currently evaluating some native perennials such as lupins and some non-natives (alfalfa, sainfoin, etc.) as possible new grain legumes.

Companion Legumes: We are also exploring various temperate-adapted wild and cultivated forage legumes as continuous living cover companion species (intercrops) with other Land Institute perennial grains. We are particularly interested in alfalfa, kura clover, and some Astragalus species that fit our criteria for perennial legumes: facilitate biological nitrogen fixation and nitrogen-transfer in perennial polyculture cropping systems.

Learn about other perennial crops under development at The Land Institute.

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Project Team

Brandon Schlautman
Lead Scientist, Perennial Legumes

Spencer Barriball
Research Technician, Perennial Legumes

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Related Scientific Publications

The Land Institute’s Perennial Legumes and Crop Stewardship teams, with support from research partner Muhammet Şakiroğlu, co-authored the third installment of a series of papers documenting the characteristics of perennial…

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The Land Institute’s Crop Stewardship and Perennial Legumes teams released a paper detailing the nutritional composition of Perennial Baki™ Bean, the edible pulse derived from the perennial legume sainfoin, to…

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