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Researchers consider next step in quest for perennial grains

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Matthew Weaver
Two Washington State University researchers attended an international meeting on perennial grains.

Washington State University researchers say the next step for perennial wheat is field trials.

John Reganold and Stephen Jones recently returned from a three-day meeting of researchers in Rome, Italy, hosted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Reganold, a professor of soil science, said about 10 countries were represented at the meeting, where they heard about the development of perennial grains.

Jones, director of WSU’s research and extension center in Mount Vernon, Wash., bred a new species by crossing wild wheats with domestic wheats. They are not genetically modified organisms.

The next step is to submit an article on the new species to a scientific journal, Jones said. The new species is not yet named, but will likely be classified in the Triticum genus.

“Once you get into the real details, which is where we are right now, we’ll have to see,” Jones said. “There may be other genera names that it fits into better.”

The process will stretch into early 2014, Jones said.

Research on the new species is continuing in farmers’ fields in Ritzville and Kahlotus, Wash. It will be planted at a western Washington dairy in the fall.

“That’s really key — to see how it does in the farmer’s hands,” Jones said.

Jones has also shared material with other researchers, who are growing it experimentally in Italy, China and Australia.

Researchers are also baking with it. It’s not currently comparable to existing wheat for breads, having lower strength and loaf volume, Jones said, but there are efforts to blend the new species into bread products.

“It’s not unexpected, but it gives us these benchmarks to work from,” he said.

Reganold hopes to test the new species in a variety of plots. He called for more grants from the USDA and foundations to step up breeding and field trials.

In 2010, Reganold published an article predicting perennial grains would be available by 2030. He believes efforts are on track to meet that timeline.

“There’s going to be all kinds of farming systems represented, so (we could) have one or two different crops that are successful as perennials, like wheat or sorghum,” he said. “It might be that they’re grown with annuals at the same time, in rotation with annuals or grown by themselves.”

Reganold expects testing of combinations of perennials and annuals in the next five years to see how they interact.

Perennial wheat would give farmers more variety, especially in the Pacific Northwest, Reganold said. Perennials could enhance soil quality and decrease erosion.

“With perennial grains you’re going to have deeper roots, thicker roots, fibrous roots,” he said. “They’re going to hold the soil together better, they’re going to build the soil up better.”

Perennial grains would also mean fewer equipment passes, especially for farmers raising perennials for two to three years, Reganold said.



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