Potential for perennial wheat
There is nothing unique about plant scientists trying to develop commercially viable perennial wheat. Russian researchers were actively involved in the effort from the turn of the nineteenth century through the 1950s. And wheat breeders from the University of California at Davis engaged in similar activities until they abandoned their quest for a consistently high-performing perennial wheat in 1965.
“The reason perennial wheat went away in California in the 1960s was because of yields,” says Steve Jones, a Washington State University (WSU) wheat breeder. “The thinking at the time was unless perennial wheat lines could yield as well as annual wheat, they were nonstarters.”
Times have changed. Now, WSU plant breeders view perennial wheat as practical. Higher production costs include rising fuel and fertilizer prices. This is coupled with an emerging global consensus of developing sustainable cropping systems to turn the world's most commonly grown small grain annual into a perennial.
Jones notes that there are real changes in how some in the agricultural community view wheat production.
“These growers are still interested in yield but not yield at any price,” he says. They are also trying to find ways to stabilize and reduce input costs while attaining a higher sustainability level.
This new ethos is particularly relevant to eastern Washington's grain-growing communities. While their farms are some of the world's most productive, the light soils are highly susceptible to erosion. When fields are left fallow, they are vulnerable to wind erosion throughout the year. Much wheat production occurs on 5° to 30° slopes prone to severe runoff on exposed ground between November and May. Soil losses of over 200 tons per acre per year are not uncommon on steeper, conventionally tilled production sites.
Jones and others in the Northwest believe that perennial wheat could play a major role in reducing soil disturbance by eliminating the need to till and plant every year.
Producer Pushes Perennial Wheat
A 27-year supporter of perennial wheat development in the Northwest is Jim Moore, a Kolutus, Washington, wheat producer. “I've taken my share of teasing over this,” he says. “But I just keep pushing.”
In the early 1980s, Moore was told by a previous generation of wheat breeders at WSU that perennial wheat was impractical. They cited the breeding program conducted by University of California at Davis.
Moore resumed his quest after being elected Washington State Wheat Commissioner in 1991. “The district I represented is extremely dry and prone to wind erosion,” Moore says. “I figured if we could find perennial wheat, we could keep the soil from blowing and get something off it.”
Meanwhile, Moore found a new wave of wheat breeders at WSU far more receptive to his vision for perennial wheat.
In 1997, with the support of the Washington State Wheat Commission, Jones and Tim Murray, a WSU plant pathologist, began collecting germplasm for WSU's new perennial wheat-breeding program.