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Dordt College News

Dordt students help advance the search for perennial crops

August 20, 2011

The Dordt College Prairie was in full bloom this summer

As students returned to campus, a thicket of Indian Grass, Big Blue Stem Switchgrass, Canada Wild Rye, and others swayed in the gentle breezes that rippled through the prairie.

Maximilian sunflowers, Tick Trefoil, Coneflowers, Compass Plant, and Goldenrod bloomed profusely through each other across the 20 acres of restored prairie on the south end of campus. Walkers along the paved path that winds through the area quickly come to understand what a “tall-grass” prairie is.

But then, near the soccer field on the east end, there’s a small plowed patch, carefully planted and weeded. It’s here that Dr. Jeff Ploegstra,  Zack Peterson, and Michelle Alkema, environmental studies students from Minnesota and Nova Scotia, have spent many hours this summer. They are conducting research on intermediate wheatgrass, a perennial being developed as a crop plant. It is higher in protein and lower in carbohydrates than annual wheat.

“There are huge benefits to growing a perennial crop,” says Ploegstra. A field can be harvested for six to seven years without replanting.  Perennials not only save farmers seed cost, but also the cost of other “inputs,” as farmers call them: fertilizer, herbicides, and pesticides. Intermediate wheatgrass remains in the field all year, builds soil organic matter, and allows the roots to grow larger and deeper to reach more nutrients, thus requiring farmers to apply less fertilizer and need less water. And because the ground is not tilled, erosion is reduced.

“I am very excited about this type of research,” says Alkema. “It is important that we learn how to feed ourselves in a way that is less taxing on our environment, and this research is a way we are starting to look into alternatives to our current agricultural systems.”

Intermediate wheatgrass has been used as forage for cattle for some time. Its development as a crop is still in the research stage, but the plant has the potential to be the first widely grown perennial grain crop. The Dordt research is part of a bigger project based at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, and led by Dordt College alumnus Lee De Haan (’95).  It is one component of a larger effort funded by SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) of USDA to develop intermediate wheatgrass as a perennial grain.

In addition to reducing the need for tillage, pesticides, and fertilizers, perennial crops improve wildlife habitat and ecosystem services,” adds De Haan.

De Haan’s collaboration with three college campuses in Kansas, New Mexico, and Iowa are designed both to expose students to the research and gain useful research results.

“We have the same genotypes (plants split into parts) growing at each of these locations. Therefore, we can see how plants that are genetically identical respond to very different environments,” he says.

Ploegstra and his students run the Iowa part of the project. They, with the help of a few others, planted 70 varieties of the wheatgrass early in the summer, and then helped it get established by weeding and watering it throughout the summer. Each year, Ploegstra and student researchers will collect data, harvest the grain, and ship it to De Haan. He selects harvested seeds based on size, height, overall yield, shatter resistance (how easily seeds fall to the ground), and tillering (how many new shoots a plant sends up). These seeds are then replanted for further selection in following years.

De Haan expects to visit campus about once a year, talking to the researchers and also speaking in classes.

“Having students participate in the research is important to build awareness and support for the important and transformative research of developing new perennial crops,” says De Haan. “We need young researchers to come into this field with energy, enthusiasm, and open minds.”

“This is the right thing to be doing, and we’re excited about being invited to participate,” says Ploegstra. He notes that more and more people today agree that agriculture is going to have to shift its focus from primarily high yield to sustainable.

“As Christian scientists we ask ourselves how we can have a positive impact on the structures that are in place in our society,” he says. “We’re trying to provide alternative options for low-input farming that farmers might find attractive, especially on marginal land.”

De Haan hopes that intermediate wheatgrass will be grown profitably by some farmers, at least on a small scale, within a decade.

“I’m really drawn by the possibility of working on three problems at once: feeding people, protecting the creation, and improving the economic situation for farmers,” says De Haan. “Often the solutions that are suggested for one of these areas require sacrifices from the others. This approach requires a long-term investment, but will ultimately be a triple win that is worth the wait.”


SALLY JONGSMA

The Land Institute

Lee De Haan ('95) has been a plant breeder at the Land Institute since 2001 His work there has focused on breeding intermediate wheatgrass and domesticating Illinois bundleflower. "Raised on a farm in Minnesota, he combines practicality with an idealistic nature," says the Institute's website. De Haan earned his M.S. and Ph.D in agronomy, specializing in agroecology, at the University of Minnesota. He received two awards there: an outstanding graduate student award from his department and a scholarship fro meritorious graduate students from the Crop Science Society of America. His graduate research focused on development of new leguminous perennial crops. Read more about The Land Institute at www.landinstitute.org.

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