Perennial wheat could fulfill a tradition and transform a landscape.
No matter what you have on the stereo or how preoccupied you are with your week at work or with the upcoming football game or whatever else might pull you back to Pullman for the weekend, as you drive through eastern Washington, you can’t help but be absorbed by those endless stretches of fields, those fields that just go on forever. Sometimes they’re covered with snow and nearly featureless, a monotonous infinity broken only by a distant cluster of buildings or a spectral windmill left behind by another time. Sometimes they’re bright spring and startlingly green. Sometimes they’re absolutely bare, denied even the Russian thistle or bunchgrass tough enough to make it here where rainfall can be as little as eight inches a year, every little green thing rod-weeded or herbicide-sprayed in order to preserve as much precious moisture as possible so that a crop of wheat can be teased from the arid soil next year. And sometimes those fields are all in motion, the relentless prevailing wind out of the southwest lifting the fine particles of soil loose from the surface, blowing them, by the thousands of tons, in a billowing, murky cloud, eastward to wherever the wind drops them.
Steve Jones and Tim Murray want to change all this.
Jones is the winter wheat breeder at Washington State University, Murray a plant pathologist. Together with a small team of postdoctoral and graduate student researchers, and a growing number of farmers who understand that their wild vision might just be possible, Jones and Murray want to make that immense area of eastern Washington—or at least a good chunk of it—less prone to blow, less often bare, even more, if you will, unchanging.
The way they’ll do this is to convince a plant that is content to die after it sets seed in late summer that it actually wants to live.
Unlike many of its wild-grass relatives, wheat is an annual. It must be replanted every year. Somewhere along its coevolutionary journey with agricultural Homo sapiens, probably earlier rather than later, wheat—or more correctly, its selectors—decided that making grain was more efficient if it became an annual.
That genetic history is not clear, says retired U.S. Department of Agriculture wheat breeder Bob Allan, who started working at WSU in the 1950s with legendary breeder Orville Vogel. Wheat derives from three separate genomes, none of which shows any perennial tendency.
Early farmers probably selected wheat ancestors for annual-growth habits, recognizing that the best wheat, like the best weed, as Allan points out, is an annual. Put everything into your seed to regrow next year, with no need to put energy into the relatively uncertain roots. At least that has been the conventional wisdom for the past 10,000 years or so.
Indeed, annual plants do have certain advantages over perennials. Among them, says Murray, is that the plant’s death provides a natural deterrent to insect pests. Annual wheat dies in July or August, leaving nothing green in the sunbaked fields to harbor insect pests.
So why take a plant that works perfectly well and make it perennial?
“I’ve been trying to talk someone into developing perennial wheat since the 1960s,” says Jim Moore, a Kahlotus farmer and former head of the Washington Wheat Commission.
“Vogel told me they couldn’t get enough yield out of it. I don’t care about that. I want something to hold my soil in place.” The dry, powdery soil of the Columbia Basin, composed of volcanic ash and glacial silt, blows easily. The fine soil particles are not simply annoying, but a possible health risk, exacerbated by the fact that Spokane’s population is directly downwind from the dryland wheat-growing region. Various means have addressed the dust problem, the most effective to date being minimum tillage. Planting directly in a previous year’s stubble without tilling is an excellent conservation practice, but it still requires annual planting and a substantial investment in specialized planting equipment—and a lot of herbicides.
But perennial wheat’s attractions are not limited to holding the soil in place. Somewhat surprisingly, in an unrelated interview last fall, pharmacy dean Bill Fassett told me that he thought perennial wheat was the most important research being conducted on campus. The largest new health threat that looms over the medical community is global climate change, says Fassett. Carbon dioxide is a major contributor to the increased greenhouse effect and resulting global warming. And soil tillage is a major contributor to the release of carbon into the atmosphere.
Conversely, a permanent, or at least semi-permanent plant cover, such as perennial wheat, greatly contributes to sequestering carbon in the soil. As oceans and forests are gigantic “sinks” of carbon, so is farmland planted in non-annual crops. Not only could a perennial wheat crop greatly contribute to the sequestration of carbon in eastern Washington soils, land owners could sell carbon credits in what can only be a growth industry.
Perennial buffers next to streams or on highly erodible land not only filter water but are also attractive to birds and other wildlife, which is a reason the state Department of Ecology has provided Jones and Murray with funding.
But from an economic point of view, there’s an even more fundamental attraction.
“If you look at planting costs annually,” says Ritzville farmer (and state legislator) Mark Schoesler, “planting once instead of four times starts looking really good.”
Earlier hopes for perennial wheat generally dimmed, because in addition to lower yields, there was little economic incentive regarding input. Fuel, fertilizer, and labor were all cheap. But now, input costs have greatly increased. Fertilizer costs have tripled over the last few years, says Allan. Diesel fuel costs $1.37 a gallon and is unlikely to fall in price. Fuel costs for a single tillage of a 2,000-acre field can run to several thousand dollars, and a new tractor can set you back a couple hundred grand.
The problem with commodities is the price is set by the world market. Too much wheat results in low prices. The only way to increase profit is to cut costs.
“There’s two things educated people have taught me,” says Schoesler, who has experimental plots of perennial wheat on his land. “You can be the low-cost producer, or you can sell quality. I don’t know that you can do both.” Some large producers have chosen the quality niche. For example, Karl Kupers of Harrington (Washington State Magazine Fall 2003) produces specialty grains and bypasses commodity brokers to produce his own flour. On the world commodity market, though, efficiency is everything. Anything that can add to economy of scale, anything that can squeeze another penny of profit out of a bushel of wheat, helps Washington stay afloat.
Perennial wheat is not a new idea. Russian scientists worked on perennial wheat early in the 20th century. Unfortunately, the resulting germplasm was lost during the Soviet era. “It’s a shame all this stuff has been lost,” say Jones. “Multiple lifetimes of work is just gone.”
Breeders at University of California, Davis did extensive work on perennial wheat in the 1950s and 1960s, and some of their breeding material made its way to Pullman. Allan remembers perennial strains included in wheat trials at Washington State College in the 1950s. Though it’s unclear whether she had perennial wheat in mind, Washington State College botanist Hannah Aase worked with many of the same crosses between wheat and its wild relatives in the 1930s as Jones and Murray.
Aase was known internationally for her work, says Jones. Aase’s work seems to have been directed purely at understanding wheat’s ancestry. Unfortunately, all of the genetic material that resulted from her pioneering work has been lost. And more sadly, even though Aase was a major figure in WSU’s scientific tradition, few on campus remember the significance of her work.
But Schoesler remembers researcher Dick Nagamitsu, with the Lind Research Station, talking about the problems faced by perennial wheat in the 1950s. One of the main problems that Nagamitsu dwelt on, says Schoesler, was how difficult it was to thresh.
Technology, harvesting and otherwise, has changed dramatically over the last 50 years. So have a number of other factors, leading Schoesler and others to think the time is finally ripe for perennial wheat.
When scientists abandoned the idea in the 1960s, the yields simply couldn’t compete, considering the low input costs, says Jones. But now, in the dry parts of eastern Washington, yields wouldn’t need to be even 50 percent of conventional varieties, as fields are planted only every other year to conserve moisture. Then figure in the potential savings in inputs, primarily tillage, as well as the value of erosion control, and perennial wheat starts to seem pretty attractive nowadays.
Murray points to actual value placed on erosion control. Although payments vary by area—and, some say, legislator—land in the federally supported Conservation Reserve Program averages around $55 an acre. The CRP pays farmers to put highly erodible land into permanent grass cover, which cannot be harvested. “If you get 20 bushels an acre and average $3 a bushel, perennial wheat competes pretty favorably,” says Murray.
Finally, perennial wheat could provide a last-ditch solution to the dilemma faced by dryland wheat farmers. Although production costs have increased dramatically, the price of soft white winter wheat has remained static, dampened by increased production in Australia, Argentina, and other countries with lower input costs. In contrast to the large physical area that these wheat farmers control, their political power has dissipated. Even though the wheat industry contributes an impressive $1.2 billion to the state’s economy, the farmers themselves number barely 2,500, a small voice in a diverse state dominated by west-side urban voters. Unfortunately, those urban voters see little in wheat farming for themselves.
“People probably won’t go hungry if Washington farmers don’t grow wheat,” says Jones. “There are plenty of exporting countries that would be happy to fill the void instantly.” Most of eastern Washington’s wheat is shipped to Asia, where it is used in pastries.
Because of this lack of political clout, farmers have little recourse against political pressure. “They lost on burning. There are huge salmon issues looming,” says Jones. “They’re just going to continue to have a tough time, because there’s not enough of them.”
Low input, reduced soil erosion, increased wildlife habitat, carbon sequestration—all these factors would raise the environmental image of a beleaguered industry. Maybe, say the dreamers, such a system could lead toward a truly sustainable agriculture. Aesthetically, the region might even more closely resemble the original prairie to the east, if not the shrub-steppe of the dryer areas.
A particularly intriguing part of this vision recalls the argument made by one of WSU’s first visionaries, William Spillman. Spillman was recruited by President Enoch Bryan in 1894 to teach agriculture at the fledgling Washington State Agriculture College and School of Science. Spillman stayed in Pullman only eight years. But in that short time he not only taught agriculture, he also coached the football team, traveled the state offering scientific advice to farmers, and independently rediscovered Mendel’s laws of genetic inheritance, one of four scientists worldwide to do so.
Not surprisingly, Spillman was recruited away from Pullman by the USDA. But he returned to the Palouse in 1924, where he gave a series of lectures on “Balance Farming for the Inland Empire.” He warned that a single crop, wheat, could sustain neither the regional economy nor the rich loess soil. Only by diversifying, only by bringing livestock back into the system, he argued, could the area’s agriculture endure.
Eighty years later, Schoesler notes a somewhat ironic problem with his stand of perennial wheat. It just won’t quit. Following harvest, rather than setting its stock in its seed and dying, his perennial wheat not only didn’t die, but started setting heads again.
“Years ago, producers grazed their stubble,” he says. “In some parts of the country, they still graze winter wheat. I’ve told Jones and Murray, let’s put sheep on it after we get excessive green-up.”
So now imagine not only four million acres of farmland safely anchored with stands of perennial wheat, but herds of cattle and sheep grazing it in the fall and winter, giving you something to watch on your drive through eastern Washington.
But Jones and Murray stress there’s still a lot of work to do before that vision can be initiated. One of the most serious problems still facing them is disease. Not only will perennial wheat be susceptible to the same diseases as annual wheat, says Murray, there will be other viral diseases that are generally not that great of a problem with annual wheat. Because of its very nature, perennial wheat, once infected, carries the virus into the next year.
So Jones and Murray are cautious. They know that their wheat will be accepted only when they have all the kinks out.
Research on perennial wheat has proffered not only promise, but genetically, a big surprise. Conventional wisdom has long held that the factors determining whether a plant is annual or perennial are very complex, influenced in subtle ways by genes spread over a number of the plant’s chromosomes.
Faced with this complexity, breeding perennial habits into domestic wheat would seem daunting, if not impossible, due to the fact that the chromosomes of wheat and its wild relatives do not pair.
Even though hybridization is still possible, if chromosomes do not pair, says Jones, two things are likely to occur. One is sterility. The other is that the chromosomes cannot exchange genetic material.
“If you cross normal wheat A with normal wheat B,” says Jones, “they combine and recombine chromosomes like most living things do. But in these crosses they don’t. So that greatly complicates things.”
Complicated as combining the best traits from wheat and its wild relatives is, however, what Jones and Murray have found concerning the genetic stimulus toward perennialism very much contradicts the conventional wisdom.
“We have plants that have only a single chromosome arm, or less, from this wild wheat,” says Jones. And these plants decided to live.
Jones and his lab are also interested in the biological cost of a plant’s living rather than dying. The classic assumption has been that annuals yield more because they go for broke, putting all their energy into producing seed rather than the plant material necessary to get them through the year. What Jones and his colleagues are finding, however, is that plants, at least wheat and its kin, seem to have plenty of energy to go around. In fact, they have some hybrid lines that are producing the same yield of seed as conventional wheat, yet are still signaling their roots and crowns that they want to live.
“We’re getting very close,” says Jones, referring to understanding what confers life or death. In fact, he believes it may be determined by a single gene. Such a discovery would have enormous implications for both agriculture and our understanding of plant genetics, and a whole region of Washington might soon be transformed, beginning with a single gene.