Perennial Optimism

In these rather dismal days it was nice to see an article in The Washington Post that inspires a bit of optimism about human ingenuity and the future. The article, which actually ran a couple of months ago (Judy sent me a link, which I lost and then found again) is about the development of perennial grain crops.

Kernza: the next generation of wheat? Photo from The Land Institute. 

Specifically, a perennial wheat dubbed Kernza, developed by a scientific organization called The Land Institute.

Kernza roots. Photo from The Land Institute.

While still a distant prospect, a conversion of agriculture from annual to perennial grains could yield vast environmental benefits. The deep roots of perennial grasses (Kernza’s are up to 10′ deep), combined with reduced tilling, would minimize soil runoff and improve water quality. Those roots might also store vast amounts of carbon, providing some mitigation for climate change.

Kernza grains.


Kernza was developed from a type of wheatgrass, something like the wild wheat our ancestors picked many thousands of years ago. The seeds are getting bigger, but a grain of Kernza is still one fourth the size of conventional wheat. Also, Kernza is very low in gluten, so a challenge for bread making.


While Kernza has a long way to go, there is progress. The food giant General Mills is evaluating the plant. Entrepreneurs are mixing Kernza with conventional wheat to make noodles, crackers, and bread. Plus, it’s being brewed into a beer called Long Root Ale, now being sold in supermarkets throughout the West Coast.

The Land Institute is also working on perennial rice (being tested in China) and sorghum. They are working with the Missouri Botanic Garden to identify new wild perennial plants that could be domesticated for agriculture.

Waving fields of Rosinweed in our future? Photo from Prairie Moon Nursery.

Personally, I may be most excited by their work on the prairie native Rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium) to yield a food oil that could compete with annual sunflowers. Imagine farmers cultivating thousands of acres of blooming Silphium!

Perhaps positive ingenuity really will outweigh the willful ignorance and hatefulness so evident in the current political moment. It’s a nice thought.

52 Comments on “Perennial Optimism

  1. A nice thought, indeed! We will need cultivate and appreciate progress, in large and small ways, during the difficulties ahead.

    • I think that’s true. Though the danger is when accentuating the positive is a way to avoid reality. On the other hand, getting depressed doesn’t solve anything. By the way, is there any chance that my comments on your blog are going to the spam folder?

  2. That is a good news story, Kernza seems to have great potential as a future food. And, if it doesn’t have much gluten….all the better, more like the bread our ancestors ate, and probably much better for us all.

  3. Those roots! Very interesting. I think you’ve been very restrained in mentioning the bizarre ‘climate’ at the moment 🙂

  4. I prefer now to focus on solutions and new developments , have read too much doom and gloom. If we heard more about this sort of thing maybe people would become inspired to act and to vote for and support such innovation. The climate change deniers are The stuff of nightmares. I saw a cartoon yesterday, it was a picture of a library and there was a sign among the shelves that read:”Our dystopian collection has temporarily been merged with current events.”

  5. Thanks for the encouraging post, Jason. Always nice to get a little sunshine (real or metaphorical) on gloomy days 🙂

  6. I like the sound of it: Rosinweed oil! It makes sense. I had never heard of Kernza grass, though–that sounds promising. I hope to hear more about it in the months/years ahead. Thanks for the hopeful post.

    • I hope it can make headway in those conservative wheat growing states like Kansas. The Land Institute is based in Kansas, so maybe that helps.

  7. A very nice thought. We sometimes see fields of sunflowers here, but mostly oilseed rape is grown for oil (or animal feed) here. Silphium would be even prettier!

  8. I love this. I have shared to the Queensland Rural Regional and Remote Women’s netowrk which I am part of. Thank-you AGAIN for your lovely blog.

  9. Good to see developments like theses. That kind of wheat would do well here with our hot dry summers, as the roots could certainly reach down enough not to be affected. I bookmarked the Natural Systems Agriculture Land Use website

  10. How interesting, and most positive, certainly the way to go. As for the bizarre climate…’s all rather unbelievably to me. I am no longer able to watch the

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