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Food prairie

It takes a tremendous amount of ongoing work to disrupt the tendency of the land in the Plains to try to become a prairie, or the land in the Northeast to become a forest. Ecosystem succession is a force of nature to contend with, and it requires huge amounts of energy to disrupt it with the plow or the herbicide tank. Then it takes even more energy to substitute for the ecosystem services that got disrupted…
– Tim Crews, The Land Institute

On my recent cross-country trip east, I finally made it to the Land Institute. What took me so long? It’s just a smidgen south of Salina, Kansas. A lovely way to break up a tedious journey. Salina, with its 20 inches of precipitation per year, tips into the more humid, green, fertile part of Kansas. Here a fascinating experiment has been unfolding for some thirty years, hitting its stride only recently. On the surface, these dedicated folks are breeding perennial grains. But their heart’s desire is to re-think and re-do food agriculture altogether. I kept hearing of the project for years. I expected to find monocultures of perennial crops that could end the frequent plowing associated with annuals. But joy, I found a whole new paradigm.

What was once a tiny homestead with a dream has bloomed into some 200 acres with a small but impressive research facility. And what was once a “crazy idea” has moved into the mainstream: a number of universities are well into perennial grain projects, here and in Canada. Land Institute’s first grain, kernza, which is mostly a wild grass with some wheat genes brought in the old-fashioned way, is now grown on significant acreage at the University of Minnesota, and will be developed into “sustainable foods” under the auspices of Yvon Chouinard’s Patagonia company. The Land Institute is focusing at present on four perennial crops: kernza (Thinopyrum intermedium), wheat, cold-hardy sorghum, and a couple of species of sunflowers. Other institutions have been crossing maize back to ancestral teosinte, and perennializing other grains (notably rice).

Perennial grain research has a long history of frustration and failure, not even counting those talented ancient breeders from whom we’ve inherited most of the annual crops that feed us. The Soviets abandoned their decades long breeding program in the 60s. Others too threw in the towel. The main obstacle to developing perennial grains is the conflict between perenniality and seed production. An annual plant throws its all into the seeds and dies. So it becomes easy to breed for bigger seeds. But a perennial plant throws itself into establishing deep roots meant to overwinter the plant and allow repeated survival. Therefore, its seed production is lackluster compared to annuals. Those plants that do survive have lower yields, while those that give higher yields die. A conundrum. In the old days, yield was everything, and that was the final nail in the coffin of all those early projects. But now that we know about soil and habitat loss, and the loss of carbon and nitrogen from the soil in the wake of the plow, the yield numbers look quite a bit more favorable.

I must report that kernza is wonderfully tasty, and its flour can be obtained at the Institute’s yearly celebration — the Prairie Festival — at the end of September, along with plenty of goodies made from it, of course. The word is that small farmers and gardeners will be brought into the kernza project in the coming years to help test the new grain in a variety of conditions and climates. The Institute is collecting a list of interested folks.

The first thing my tour guide did was to walk out to the land to show me a stand of old prairie. I was more interested in the experimental field of kernza in the distance. Only later, as I worked through all the information and Wes Jackson’s early book, New Roots for Agriculture, did my paradigm go pop! They are not aiming to grow monoculture fields of perennials. Their vision is to grow an edible prairie.

Imagine! An edible prairie where grains, legumes, oil seed plants and other forbs coexist for years without replanting. The harvest is timed in such a way that most of the seeds can be plucked together, then mechanically sorted. Just as a food forest is a fusion of garden, orchard and woodland, so the food prairie is a fusion of garden, field, and grassland. This is the sort of plant community that can feed humans sustainably in places where nature herself prefers open grasslands of one kind or another.

Take a good look. These “amber waves of grain” were grown by Mother Nature in South Dakota.

dakota prairie

Springtime at the Coyne Prairie in Missouri… ah.

coyne prairie

And Indian paintbrushes feeding a hummingbird along the grasses of a Wisconsin prairie. I just could not resist.

piantbrushes

Shocking, isn’t it, to contemplate a vast expanse of ripening grasses that thrive, year in and year out, century in and century out, without outside inputs, without fertilizers, and pesticides, without weeding, and without human “management.” And build soil in the process!

While food forests were utilized by subsistence farmers in Amazonia, Oceania and southeastern North America, there is no record of ancient food prairies that I am aware of. Perhaps those neolithic farmer/breeders took the easy way out. Breeding grassy/herby perennials and combining them into complex communities, then harvesting them successfully presents so many obstacles even today that Wes Jackson’s crew has had to endure disbelief for years. And indeed, the Land Institute does not have many of the answers even now. In order to learn grow an edible prairie, first you must have the plants to do it with.

kernza

kernza

Yet… I have this tickly feeling that when the prairies were plowed up and blown away, we all lost more than good deep soil and critter habitat. Would it be so far out of the range of possibility to think that the Sioux — who had been farmers, growing maize, beans, squash, melons and tobacco, leaving that livelihood behind with the coming of the horse — did not abandon their plant selection and modification skills as they followed the buffalo? Most of the time, it was the prairie that fed them, not the big animals. Surely they tended the land just like the tribes in California (described so vividly in Tending the Wild). Did they sprinkle their favorite grass seeds in the way of the buffalo to be trampled in? Did they replant nutritious tubers and nurture and spread patches of their favorite berries? Did they encourage lamb’s quarters with particularly big seeds? Certainly they lit fires that set back the annuals and encouraged new growth. Applying their skills toward making the prairie around them even more edible, even more abundant, they may have left an inheritance that would simply not have been noticed by European observers. After all, westerners caught on to the role Amazonian tribes played in the creation of that fecund jungle just a few years ago. Such gentle, mutually enhancing coexistence with the surrounding biome comes to us as a surprise.

There seems to be enough evidence that modestly-well yielding and tasty perennial grasses, oil seed plants and legumes that also survive for several years are not too distant a goal. But I see a temptation to take the most promising of these and grow them in monocultures. Why? Because that is what the first farmers involved in the project are already doing, right now. Even for organic farmers, the jump to perennials and polycultures might be too big to make. On the other hand, for permaculture-oriented folk, it’s the natural step, because we are rooted in the polyculture vision to begin with. An alliance of perennial plant breeders, those with prairie restoration experience, and permaculturists is needed to guide this project on the next leg of its ambitious, far-seeing journey.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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