The push toward perennial agriculture

Originally published in the Kenosha News

By Agriculture Educator, Leigh Presley

Retirement means more fun and travel and less time for planting, watering and carefully tending to the marigolds, petunias and coleus that were often destined to compete at the county fair.

I’ve found in my own flower garden that perennial plants are also a better fit for my busy summer schedule. I don’t need to plant them every spring, and they don’t need much, if any, water, but they’re still nice to look at when I’m around to enjoy them.

In agriculture, there is a similar effort underway to incorporate more perennials into cropping systems, and for some of the same reasons.

Because they don’t need to be planted every year, perennial crops can reduce fuel use, soil disturbance and erosion often associated with planting and tillage.

Perennial plants also have the potential to reduce inputs, like water and pesticides, not to mention a farmer’s valuable time spent planting and applying those inputs.

Below ground, perennial root systems can get much bigger than an annual’s relatively shallow roots, and above ground, perennials provide consistent cover. Together these features help increase soil’s water-holding capacity and build soil health.

Perennial plants definitely aren’t a new trend in farming; apples, asparagus, berries, nuts and forages and pasture for livestock are examples of common crops that produce year after year without needing annual replanting.

Integrating more of these plants into existing cropping systems, though, is a growing trend as farmers look to reduce inputs and diversify their operations in times of low commodity crop prices.

According to the USDA, land in permanent, perennial pasture grew by 1.6 percent from 2007 to 2012, and land in orchards grew by 3 percent.

Another area of opportunity in the perennial realm is in perennial grains.

The interest in developing high-yielding, low-input perennial versions of staple annual grain crops, like wheat and corn, is a relatively recent development.

While it doesn’t yet compare to annual wheat in terms of yield, Kernza is currently being incorporated into beer, bread and other products by brewers, food processors and restaurants.

You can learn more about this unique grain on the website of the Land Institute, an organization dedicated to the development and adoption of perennial crops, at www.landinstitute.org.

Though it will likely never replace most of our important annual grain and vegetable cropping systems, perennial agriculture may be part of the solution as our world faces a growing population, environmental challenges and a decreasing amount of farmland and farmers.