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Perennial Wheat, Cherries

Posted by | June 30, 2010

Agriculture’s Next Revolution, Perennial Grain, Is Within Sight

Earth-friendly perennial grain crops, which grow with less fertilizer, herbicide, fuel and erosion than grains planted annually, could be available in two decades, according to researchers writing in the current issue of the journal Science.

Perennial grains would be one of the largest innovations in the 10,000-year history of agriculture, and could arrive even sooner with the right breeding programs, said John Reganold, a WSU Regents professor of soil science and lead author of the paper with Jerry Glover, a WSU-trained soil scientist now at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas.

“It really depends on the breakthroughs,” said Reganold. “The more people involved in this, the more it cuts down the time.”

Published in Science’s influential policy forum, the paper is a call to action as half the world’s growing population lives off marginal land at risk of being degraded by annual grain production. Perennial grains, say the paper’s authors, expand farmers’ ability to sustain the ecological underpinnings of their crops.

“People talk about food security,” said Reganold. “That’s only half the issue. We need to talk about both food and ecosystem security.”

Perennial grains, say the authors, have longer growing seasons than annual crops and deeper roots that let the plants take greater advantage of precipitation. Their larger roots, which can reach 10 to 12 feet down, reduce erosion, build soil and sequester carbon from the atmosphere. They require fewer passes of farm equipment and less herbicide, key features in less developed regions.

By contrast, annual grains can lose five times as much water as perennial crops and 35 times as much nitrate, a valuable plant nutrient that can migrate from fields to pollute drinking water and create “dead zones” in surface waters.

“Developing perennial versions of our major grain crops would address many of the environmental limitations of annuals while helping to feed an increasingly hungry planet,” said Reganold.

Perennial grain research is underway in Argentina, Australia, China, India, Sweden and the United States. Washington State University has more than a decade of work on perennial wheat led by Stephen Jones, director WSU’s Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center. Jones is also a contributor to the Science paper, which has more than two dozen authors, mostly plant breeders and geneticists.

The authors say research into perennial grains can be accelerated by putting more personnel, land and technology into breeding programs. They call for a commitment similar to that underway for biologically based alternative fuels.

by Eric Sorensen

Check out the short video that accompanies this story at http://bit.ly/aB03Wt.


Cherry Growers Meet to Discuss Research, Strategies

A few miles north of WSU’s Prosser research station, acres of cherries are being grown to test new growing techniques and equipment. The location was also a natural fit for the annual Cherry Field Day.

The event gave growers from across the western United States an opportunity to talk with other farmers about concerns with the industry, and what is being done to fight rising costs, weather and world competition.

WSU horticulturist Matthew Whiting said seeing farmers come to Prosser shows how important the industry is, and that growers are eager to utilize the resources at Washington State University.

“The goal of what we do is to develop pragmatic solutions to real world issues that growers face, and so it’s very rewarding for us to be able to extend those results and describe those results to the industry that relies upon those results to remain competitive and profitable,” said Whiting.

Check out this video about the Cherry Field Day: http://bit.ly/aqu48z.

Learn more about cherry research at http://bit.ly/dmFnSK.