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The perennial search for perennial grains

Most would agree that there is no single solution to the challenges brought about - currently and in the future - by inexorably declining, worldwide oil production rates, or Peak Oil.  As Steve Andrews, one of the co-founders of ASPO-USA likes to say - there are no Silver Bullets, only Silver BB's.

So, Silver BB's - also known as partial solutions - can likely be lumped into two categories:  Substitution and Conservation.  It is becoming increasingly apparent how dominant the Conservation category will be.  After only a few years, it is obvious that we can't ever produce enough biodiesel and ethanol to create what Jim Kunstler would deride as "Happy Motoring As Usual".  And even if we could produce enough, it is obvious from a food supply standpoint that we should not attempt to totally replace gasoline and diesel with ethanol and biodiesel.  Nevertheless, even these maligned fuels have niches - they are Silver BB's.  Meanwhile, cellulosic ethanol and algal oil appear to be ever on the horizon, much like fusion or better batteries.  Maybe one of these will experience a true breakthrough, but once again, trying to totally replace the current consumption of gasoline and diesel with these fuels is likely the incorrect path.

This brings us to the topic at hand, a Silver BB of both Conservation and Substitution, and the focus of various research and development efforts, namely "the perennial search for perennial grains".  Why perennial grains?  Primarily to eliminate the fuel, fertilizer and herbicide required for planting, cultivating and growing plants which must be seeded each year - also known as annual crops.  And of course there are other reasons why staying out of the pasture would be a good thing - with topsoil loss being chief among them.  Essentially all of our current grain crops - wheat, corn, oats, barely, rye, millet - require seedbed preparation, weed control and fertilization in order to become established and yield a crop - all within a few months.  The hope is that perennial crops, while they might yield far less, would require a lower energy investment per pound of food produced.

So, what's the status on this perennial grain effort?  A substantial effort is spearheaded by The Land Institute, whose principal, Wes Jackson, recently spoke to ASPO - USA.  Mr. Jackson and his group have been working this problem for decades - a dedication that deserves applause.  However, he explains that the creation of perennial wheat might take another 25 years, and that creation of perennial crops in general might require an incremental ... $1.6 billion!  Meanwhile, a recent success of theirs is Kernza, a relative of wheat, native to Turkey and Afghanistan.  Kernza is touted as currently having yields of around 15 % of wheat.  Importantly, the yield advances that have been made to date have been via selective breeding rather than genetic engineering.  Nevertheless, Mr. Jackson mentions that Kernza as a commercial crop may be ten years in the future.

So, where to find some other plants that might yield better returns, faster ... and for less than billions?  One might guess that plants that are already native or naturalized would be a good place to start looking for domestic solutions.  But what is amazing is how little we know about our native and naturalized plants.  Sure, there is a lot of information out there, but there is no central aggregation of that information such that it can be assimilated into research and development, as well as conservation, education and wise use.  What is needed is a single source which documents all known uses - from prehistoric to modern.

Enter The Useful Wild Plants Project.  For over 30 years, this effort has flown under the radar of most of the public.  To date this group has published three archive-quality volumes, and the fourth will soon go to the printer.  Much of the data is already gathered for the remainder of the volumes, however the effort must be accelerated in order to finish the 14 volume set as soon as possible.

Here's a case-in-point:  Chasmathium latifolium, common name Inland Sea Oats.  It is native in the shady creekbanks around Austin, and it ranges throughout much of the Southeastern US.  It is already a perennial grain!  And I likely wouldn't know about it if it weren't for The Useful Wild Plants Project.

Inland Sea Oats is also commonly used as a drought and shade tolerant landscape plant.  Recently, I noticed a neighbor had, over several years, established two small beds of Chasman­thium latifolium. The beds are intended as a landscape accent, not food, but they made me think, here is a place we could get a semi-realistic yield number, because it is a mature stand and the plants are about as densely spaced as possible. And one of the beds is square, the other semi-triangular, so it is easy to calculate the area.

So, a month or so ago we harvested the seedheads. We had two boys use the “walk through and scrape the seeds off between your fingers into a shoulder bag” method. It took 30 minutes to harvest 148 sq. ft.
I dried the seed heads for a few weeks, and then threshed them using the “Ellison taped blender blades” method from UWP Newsletter 19. I winnowed and screened them and was con­servative as I did not want to lose much seed. A few years ago I purchased a number of small framed screens. The 10/64" round hole screen worked best. It let some hulls through­. The secret to minimizing this is to watch what you are doing, shake it a few times, stop when you don't see any more seeds and discard the hulls. More shakes will lead to more hulls in the product. The threshing took 15 minutes, and I spent 45 minutes on winnowing/screening.  It shouldn't have taken so long - I was piddling and trying to not lose any seeds. Basically, it took about an hour for both.

We started off with 1½ gallons of seed heads, and this, by coincidence, weighed 1 lb 8 oz. The cleaned seeds occupied 6.5 oz. by volume and weighed 5 oz.
This has been a year of record heat. The owner watered to keep her oak trees alive, so the plants got some relief. Neverthe­less, the seeds were half the size of those in a normal year. The yield could easily be twice this in a normal year.
So, here is a perennial grain that is ready today! Of course, the above calculates out to only about 92 pounds per acre.  In the summer of 2011, in one area of North Dakota the wheat yield was 43 bushels/acre (or 2580 lb/ac at 60 lb/bu).  (In 2010, the wheat yield was 65 bushels.)  But, these C. latifolium yields are without fertilization or weed control and under extreme conditions. The important aspects are that this crop is already “perennialized”, it is drought tolerant and it is a native which is already accustomed to our ecosystem in general.  Further, yield improvement is likely a lot simpler than turning an annual into a perennial.

How many other prospective perennial grains might there be?  The completion of The Useful Wild Plants Project must be accelerated so that we can begin to discover and develop other potential perennial grains, as well as Silver BB solutions to other Peak Oil challenges.



Martin Payne is an upstream oil and gas professional with 30 years of experience. Past Chairman, Houston Chapter of the American Petroleum Institute (API). Member of American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE), American Solar Energy Society (ASES). He also serves on the Board of Trustees of Useful Wild Plants, Inc., a 501 (3) (c) non-profit.

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