A Perennial Possibility: The Potential of Perennial Wheat

Farming is hard work! It means long hours in the fields, seeding and harvesting and all the preparation, hope and prayers in between. With organic agriculture, it also means watching each field for signs of disease and pests while closely monitoring weed competition and adjusting crop rotations to accommodate. This includes adding some aspect of “no till” which would reduce the need for tillage to keep down weeds. For me, this is one of the reasons there is a definite appeal in the idea of perennial wheat.

Perennials and biennials aren’t an unfamiliar concept on our farm; we companion seed alfalfa and clover with our wheat or other cash crops as part of our crop rotation to save time, energy and resources when planting. As I mentioned before, reducing the need for tillage is a potential benefit of perennial wheat which we take advantage of with our alfalfa and clover. For our clover, we do not till the soil for about 14 months. And for the alfalfa, it’s 26 – 38 months, depending on how long we let the alfalfa grow! So we are able to reduce tillage to zero on some of our fields occasionally, but we use both clover and alfalfa as green manure crops, not cash crops. If you follow me on Facebook, you already know my land is as much an organic research center as it is a farm and we always have several agricultural experiments growing throughout the season, be it in our prairie orchard, our dry land vegetables, or testing different crops in our fields. This year, we added a perennial wheat trial to the list.

But what is perennial wheat? To expound on the general definition of perennial, which means “having a life cycle lasting more than two years,” perennial wheat is a hybrid of annual wheat and wheatgrass that can keep growing back after each harvest and survive the winter in between. The perennial wheat plant itself develops a root system that can go as deep as 10 feet and, lucky for us, grows best in cooler climates. While the head of perennial wheat can produce more seeds than an annual plant, the seeds themselves are considerably smaller, with an overall yield at about 50-70% of an annual wheat harvest. But it’s still a work in progress.

Here on the farm, we planted two small test plots, using a particular variety called Kernza®. Kernza® is one of many varieties of perennial wheat being developed by The Land Institute and Rodale with focuses similar to my own grain experiments including yield and grain quality. Our initial test was to compare row spacing of 14 inches with 24 inches and both did very well. Due to the relatively small size of the plots we hand-pulled the weeds this year and found the yields-per-row were about the same. So the wider spacing provided no additional advantage for overall production. This next year we will continue watching for weed control and yield differences as well as compare the grain quality from each plot.

As a farmer, yield and grain quality are among our top priorities—how much grain can I expect and how much can I contract it for? But there are other concerns, such as incorporating a perennial cash crop into an annual crop rotation, which is something my farm manager and I would need to consider more in-depth should we choose to take our perennial wheat production to a larger scale.

But, as with any crop we grow here on the semi-arid plains of northern Montana, my greatest concern is moisture—water is the biggest challenge with any dry land crop. And this summer truly put this particular concern to the test, with more than three months of consistent high temperatures and no rainfall. However, our perennial wheat plot pulled through and if it can survive a drought season like that, moisture shouldn’t be an issue going forward.

With our first season growing perennial wheat coming to a close, it will be interesting to see how this particular test plot progresses. Next year we will add a perennial legume to the mix, so I’ll be sure to keep you apprised!