Geeking out with Perennials

Here at Gateway Research Organization we are so excited to have received Kernza perennial wheat seed and ACE 1 perennial rye seed for our demonstration trials this year! These trials are sure to get the plant nerds in all of us geeking out about the numerous possibilities that perennial grains could hold and eager to discover the trial results! Just imagine what the future could look like if we could grow crops that not only feed the masses, but also help to rebuild soil and sequester carbon. All of this without having to save or purchase new seed each year, without having to spray or till and then replant in the spring, without having to spray pesticides and purchase fertilizer. And reducing agricultural runoff on top of it all. The possibilities are endless.

Our intent with the trial is to determine whether or not perennial wheat and rye is reasonably adaptable to the Westlock climate. We are also looking to determine the winter hardiness of the plants, to determine how harvestable the grains of these perennial plants are, what the forage yield quality might be and how the plants adapt to being placed in polycultures.

With all of that being said, I think it is time to introduce the newest crops in our varied field trials! First up we have perennial rye of the ACE 1 variety. This crop is one of the perennial cereals closest to being ready for commercial production. The seed was developed at the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada Research Centre in Lethbridge. The source germplasm came from Germany in the 1960’s with the Lethbridge Research Centre starting their breeding program selecting for winter hardiness.

From all of the research, perennial rye appears to be easy to establish and competes well with weeds. It grows early in the spring and produces more biomass than barley and fall rye. It does produce less seed than high yielding fall rye cultivars. The forage quality of ACE 1 is comparable to barley.

This plant has an extensive root system, which makes it a terrific candidate for soil rejuvenation, adding to soil organic matter and making it drought tolerant. It also has good winter survivability, is resistant to shattering and has not shown susceptibility to disease or insect pressure in western Canada, outside of experiencing ergot infection during wet seasons.

With all of this information in our toolkit as we go into trialing ACE 1, we are impatiently waiting for the snow to melt and planting to start!

Next in our line up, it is time to introduce Kernza, or perennial wheat! The breeding efforts of perennial wheat began in the Soviet Union almost 100 years ago. This cool season, domesticated version of intermediate wheat grass does not yield as much as it’s conventional counterparts, yet according to an Australian economic study perennial wheats would only need to yield 40% as much as annual wheat in order to be a viable economic option. Part of this is due to the fact that it provides good grazing for several years after being planted.

In 1988 researchers with the USDA and the Rodale Institute began seed selection for perennial wheat in New York State. After that, in 2003 the Land Institute began their work with the trademarked Kernza. Since then it has begun its integration into the American mainstream food system with breeding efforts being made to eventually have Kernza be an economical alternative to annual wheat.

Currently Kernza produces seed that is a fifth of the size of most conventional wheat seeds and grows best in cooler, northern latitudes, which is what makes it such an interesting trial for our Westlock region. The roots of these plants can extend over 10 ft. beneath the soil, which will offer a fantastic addition to our soil organic matter. It has also been found to be resistant to Fusarium Head Blight, which is a fungus that affects the heads of conventional wheat crops, decreasing yield.

For obvious reasons our team at Gateway Research Organization cannot wait to bring you more information about our perennial plant line up as we get our geek on! As the weather starts to warm we are getting incredibly eager to get out of the office and into the field. Keep an eye on our social media pages for more information and our trial results as they become available!

Amber Kenyon
Gateway Research Organization