Transforming Agriculture, Perennially


USAID Grant Expands Sorghum Research Globally

The Land Institute’s work in developing perennial grain sorghum has attracted two grants totaling more than $650,000, allowing the addition of a researcher and technician to the staff and giving the program greater international scope.

Both grants are part of larger grants awarded to the University of Georgia, which has been a longtime collaborator with The Land Institute on sorghum research. The Land Institute is a nonprofit organization southeast of Salina working to develop grains that survive in mixed plantings from season to season; it has a year-round staff of 31 and an annual budget of $2.8 million.

Perennial Sorghum Land Institute Scientist Pheonah Nabukalu

Dr. Pheonah Nabukalu examines perennial sorghum plants under development at The Land Institute. She is a native of Uganda who recently earned her doctorate at Louisiana State University and was hired with funding from grants targeting international applications of perennial grains.

The first grant, from the US Agency for International Development, provides The Land Institute $500,000 over five years. It is part of a larger, $5 million grant that funds sorghum work at the University of Georgia, as well as research institutions in South Africa, Mali, Ethiopia and India. The research will seek to determine whether perennial sorghum strains developed in Kansas and Georgia could be used to breed varieties for sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia that could lessen soil degradation and improve food security.

“For some time, we have discussed the potential of these perennial lines for production in the tropics and subtropics, and for smallholder, low-income farmers, and this grant will allow us to answer those questions and perhaps contribute to efforts to conserve and restore African soils while making agriculture more sustainable,” said Stan Cox, the Land Institute’s senior scientist and leader of sorghum research.

The other grant, from the United States Department of Agriculture, channels $159,111 to The Land Institute over the next two years. That money will fund genomics analysis of sorghum populations grown at The Land and in Georgia. The genomics work, to be done at the University of Georgia, will allow researchers to identify young plants most likely to have perennial characteristics, thereby improving the overall populations of plants being tested in the field.

“This is research that has been badly needed for some time, but we did not have the funds or capacity for the genomics work,” Cox said. He noted that The Land does not artificially transfer genes, but uses genetic analysis to better understanding plant potential and guide traditional crossbreeding.

The grants have enabled The Land Institute to hire another researcher, Dr. Pheonah Nabukalu, and a technician, Kris Boele, to bolster sorghum work. Nabukalu, from Uganda, recently received her doctorate from Louisiana State University. She was hired as a two-year post-doctoral fellow who will handle field experiments in Salina and work with the group in Georgia to analyze data. Boele, who formerly supervised seasonal workers at The Land, was promoted to technician to work with sorghum. The additional staff will allow Cox to have more plants under review in his test plots southeast of Salina.

Cox said both grants enhance The Land’s core work in developing grains that survive from season to season, thereby keeping in place a root structure that protects soil from erosion and lessening the need for chemical applications. In addition, the grants will allow researchers greater opportunity to foster development of varieties for semi-arid and other parts of the world, which is another goal of The Land.

Among the questions to be answered, Cox said, are: “If you don’t have a winter to kill the above-ground part of the plant and tell the rhizomes to go dormant what will the plant do?” and “Can the rhizomes stay alive during the kinds of very long, warm dry seasons that are typical in the sorghum-growing areas of Africa and India?”

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