Associated Press

ROSS TOWNSHIP, Mich. (AP) -- As Steve Culman squatted in the southwestern Michigan farm field, he used his left hand to gently clasp several dead wheat stalks still in the ground, then pointed with his right toward something remarkable near the bottom of them.

There were new sprouts of wheat, emerging shortly after the summer harvest.

Culman is a researcher at Michigan State University, which recently won a four-year $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to further the development of a new type of wheat that would help reduce soil erosion while saving growers money, time and labor.

In short, it's a perennial wheat that wouldn't have to be replanted each year like annual varieties that die after harvest. Researchers hope to create a perennial variety that is productive for at least five to seven years.

"There are lots of lines of perennial wheat that are showing very much promise," Culman said earlier this month while in the farm fields run by the school's W.K. Kellogg Biological Station in Kalamazoo County's Ross Township, about 115 miles west of Detroit. The school started conducting perennial wheat trials at the research facility in 2006.

The idea of crossing an annual wheat with a perennial relative such as intermediate wheatgrass isn't new. U.S. and Russian scientists had perennial wheat breeding programs in the 1920s. More studies were done during the 1940s and 1950s at the University of California at Davis.

That early work has been advanced in recent decades by researchers at The Land Institute in Salina, Kan., and at Washington State University in Pullman, Wash., both of which have gotten close to creating marketable products.

Modern research has been aided by tremendous advances in technology, such as high-throughput gene-sequencing machines that make it more affordable to identify genetic traits.

But researchers still are working on perennial wheat hybrids that reproduce reliably, provide good yields and are tolerant of pests, heat and drought.

"I think we've got more than a decade of work before we'll have something that farmers can grow properly," said Lee DeHaan, a plant breeder at The Land Institute.

While much of the nation's wheat is grown in the Great Plains, it's also a major crop in southeastern Washington, where the dry, light, glacier-deposited earth is "subject to very high soil erosion potential," said Tim Murray, a plant pathologist at Washington State.

The USDA's Conservation Reserve Program pays farmers there to take erodible lands out of production and plant perennial grasses to hold the soil in place, he said.

Because there's not enough money in the program to cover all the affected acres, Washington State officials began looking for other alternatives. In 1991, the university's perennial wheat breeding program was born.

"We thought that if we could develop a perennial wheat, you could plant it, it would be in place for several years -- you would have the benefits of a perennial grass but you would (also) have the benefit of being able to harvest a commodity that you could sell," Murray said. "That really resonated with the farmers."

He said he doesn't believe a perennial type of wheat will ever yield as much per acre as an annual variety in southeastern Washington, but it has the potential to be an environmentally friendly alternative, given the region's soil conditions.

Perennial wheat's large roots would help preserve the soil while reducing the loss of fertilizer through leaching and runoff. Fields could be used to graze livestock between harvests.

"What we're essentially proposing is kind of using a more natural model to keep plants on the landscape," Culman said.

Gary Reif, a farmer in eastern Michigan's Saginaw County, said he probably wouldn't plant perennial wheat because he uses wheat as a rotation crop but understands why other growers might be interested.

"Sometimes the spring weather doesn't cooperate to get your crop in on time, so it would already be planted," he said.

Wheat is mostly a rotation crop in Michigan, grown spottily throughout the Lower Peninsula but primarily in the eastern Thumb region, said Jim Doyle, senior vice president of King Milling Co. in Lowell. As a comparison, No. 1 Kansas harvested 356 million bushels of wheat last year, more than seven times as much as the 49 million bushels reaped in Michigan, according to the USDA.

Farmers who choose to grow perennial wheat when it becomes commercially available will save money, energy and labor, Doyle said.

"Anything that makes the crop so that it's more successful to the grower is to our advantage," he said.

The Land Institute also is trying to come up with perennial varieties of sorghum and sunflowers, DeHaan said. Perennial rice is under development in Asia, Murray said.

Meanwhile, the researchers said other important annual crops, such as corn and soybeans, have characteristics that would make them very difficult -- and extremely time-consuming and expensive -- for researchers to try to develop into perennials.


On the Net:

W.K. Kellogg Biological Station: http://www.kbs.msu.edu

The Land Institute: http://www.landinstitute.org

Washington State University: http://www.wsu.edu

King Milling Co.: http://www.kingmilling.com

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

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