October13, 2005: Every now and then it's
good to take a long, LONG term view of our farms. The kind
of look that really gives you a different perspective on things.
For example, The Rodale Institute’s farm was once home
to members of the Lenni Lenape Indian tribe, also known as
the Delaware, whose lands stretched throughout the Delaware
River Valley in what is now New Jersey, Delaware, eastern
Pennsylvania and southeastern New York. Archeologists from
our local university have told us these people had a rudimentary
agricultural system going back as far as 10,000 years. Wow!
I don’t care what time frame you want to put that in,
10,000 years is a long time to be producing crops on a piece
Now obviously the food production system they participated
in was drastically different from what we do today. But it
does beg the question: What will food production systems look
like 10,000 years from now? I'm willing to bet that whatever
the system is, it will be quite different from what we see
today. The farming systems of the future will probably look
as foreign to us today as the farming systems of 10,000 years
This type of perspective thinking is not just an exercise
to pass the time of day. Rather, it should encourage us to
think about how we are treating our resources. If we continue
to farm the way we are farming, will our soil still be productive
thousands of years from now? As farmers and stewards of the
land, it's our responsibility to ask ourselves that question.
One of the projects we have been working on here at The Institute
that takes a long-term view of food production is our Perennial
Grains Project. It may not survive for thousands of years,
but it's designed to work for many years just the same.
Most agricultural grain crops currently being grown are annual
crops. We till the soil to prepare a seed bed and plant these
crops every year. But, what if you only had to plant a crop
once every 5 to 10 years and could harvest a crop from it
every year? Sounds good to me. As you can well imagine there
are many benefits to a system based on perennial grains, including
reduced soil erosion, lower annual inputs, less fuel consumption
and less labor. Not to mention that systems including perennials
will build up soil organic matter, increase water infiltration
and boost biological activity.
We started on this project many years ago by screening a
number of perennial grains for traits such as vigorous growth,
favorable flavor, ease of threshing, large seed size and potential
for machine harvesting. Based on these criteria, intermediate
wheat grass, Thinopyrum intermedium (also known as Agropyron
intermedium), was selected for its potential as a cash grain
crop. Since that initial selection we have been working on
designing cultural practices to enhance the perennial nature
of the crop while exploiting its ability to produce seeds.
We have also begun a small breeding program with partners
at the USDA-ARS Plant Introduction Center by taking single
plant selections and growing them out repeatedly.
It’s true that annual grains will out-produce perennial
grains every time. This is because they have been bred to
maximize their seed production, putting no energy into perennializing
their root structures. On the other hand, the massive amounts
of inputs needed to support annual production come with a
hefty price tag in terms of dollars and environmental damage.
It’s been estimated that for each pound of food consumed
in the United States, 22 pounds of soil are lost to erosion.
That is a enormous loss. Since perennial grasses exist in
the same site from year to year, most have developed built-in
resistance or tolerance to insect pests and diseases. When
coupled with a legume understory to fix nitrogen, a grain
growing polyculture could be an economically sound alternative
to annual crop production.
The Rodale Institute isn’t the only organization to
recognize the potential for perennial grains. Similar work
is being conducted in the United States in the Upper Midwest
and Great Plains, as well as in Canada and Russia. The development
of perennial grain cropping systems is far more complex than
the development of a single crop species. But that doesn’t
mean we shouldn’t try.
By developing a system based on annual crop production, our
ancestors created a highly productive agricultural system.
But that system has shown a greater and greater dependency
on external inputs. Now, as we look to the future and our
need to protect soil and water resources, it is time to put
our increased knowledge of agronomy, plant breeding, and ag-engineering
together with improved technologies to develop systems that
include perennial plants in the cropping sequence.
Today we are dealing with a whole different set of circumstances
than we were 10,000 years ago. Regardless of the type of agricultural
system you follow, as you look to the future for that long
term perspective I think you’ll see that perennial grains
can form an essential ingredient within a regenerative and
sustainable farming system.
Enjoy your long term perspective and let me know what you
see in your future.
From One Farm to Another