road to Kahlotus, Washington, is a study in desiccation.
As the asphalt treks west through increasingly thirsty hills,
it passes the town of Dusty, then Alkali Flat Creek, then Dry
Lake. If you miss the town of Kahlotus, before long you find
yourself at sand dunes 130 feet high.
It's easy to miss,
since the 'town' is long gone and so there are no signs pointing
travelers in its direction. But then, no travelers come here
anyway. The only local attraction is Windust Park and, for
obvious reasons, it’s not much of an attraction after
The reason most people are in Kahlotus is to grow wheat.
It’s a cruel place to do such work, for there is water
here, but no one can touch it. It rolls by tauntingly in the
majestic Snake River. It sits in the deep, deep springs that
inspired the very name Kahlotus, a Palouse Indian word meaning
“hole in the ground.” If local farmers had water
rights or could afford to pump up for irrigation, they would—and
then grow something more profitable than wheat. Because they
don’t and they can’t, Kahlotus is dryland wheat
country. Its farmers rely entirely on water that falls from
the sky, about seven inches a year.
When planting here, to reach the moisture necessary for germination,
farmers drill their seeds eight inches into the soil. Then
they pray for no rain. Planted at this depth, each seed relies
on a surprisingly muscular sheath to guide its green shoot
to the surface; but if rain falls before the sprout emerges,
the soil turns to cement and even these armored germs are
buried alive. When that happens the only thing to do is plant
again and again, increasingly late in the season, with increasing
danger of rain, until finally, the seeds break through.
Once they do, the farmer’s prayers turn 180 degrees.
Any bit of moisture is a gift, for every drop translates into
yield; after the four inches it takes the plant to head up,
each new inch means another seven bushels to the acre. Jim
Moore puts it—well, dryly: “Just last week it
rained 15/100ths of an inch,” he says. “We started
building the ark.”
If anyone can squeeze a life out of this land it is Jim.
He is tall and broad-shouldered, with hands that people compare
to catcher’s mitts. He was born into this farm 65 years
ago, when it had no electricity and its water was pumped by
a windmill. Ask him if he has lived here all his life and
he’ll say, “Well, I did spend the first four days
at the hospital in Walla Walla, but I’ve been here ever
took this land out of grass in 1896, and now it’s
time to put it back in.”
It’s not entirely true. He studied agronomy at Washington
State University and has traveled widely around the world.
Otherwise, though, he has been here, farming wheat, like his
father and his grandfather did before him. As his neighbors
have dropped out, Jim has taken over some of their land, and
he now works 8,000 acres. Survival is a matter of hard work
and thrift: He runs his combines through the night. He doesn’t
buy on credit. And rather than shell out for new equipment,
he builds his own with those massive hands.
Still, though, his hands cannot build soil, nor can they
bring rain. Jim gets yields equal to the national average—40
bushels per acre—but there’s a hitch: it takes
him two years to do it. Because the ground is so dry, he can
sow only half of his acreage each year. The other half sits,
unplanted, to accumulate moisture. The earth here has been
tilled continuously for a century and could surely use a rest,
but Jim cannot afford it. Growing a cover crop would suck
up so much precious moisture that it would put him in the
Add to that picture the issues of steady erosion, legislation
to curb farms’ dust emissions, and a ruthless wheat
market, and Jim’s enterprise seems destined for failure.
He has a solution, though, which would dramatically alter
the farm’s difficult equation. “My grandfather
took this land out of grass in 1896,” he says, “and
now it’s time to put it back in.”
This doesn’t mean Jim intends to stop farming. Instead,
he imagines his hills covered in grass that he can harvest:
a perennial wheat. For half a century he nagged researchers
with the idea, and finally his persistence has paid off. Steve
Jones, a plant breeder at Washington State University, has
had wheat plants coming back now for 5 years and counting.
The two men are a good team: Both go easily between shooting
the breeze and getting straight to the point. Steve is tall
and broad-shouldered like Jim, but his hands are those of
a scientist, with flat, clean fingernails and dexterity tuned
to decimals rather than acres. If Jim knows perennial wheat
must succeed, Steve knows that it will.
More diversity, fewer inputs
When it does, the benefits will be extraordinary. Steve and
his team, which includes WSU plant pathologist Tim Murray,
are currently aiming for a wheat plant that stays productive
for five years. That would allow the now-annual cycle of tilling,
planting, and disking to be done only twice a decade, and
thus reduce immensely the associated expenses, including hundreds
of man-hours and an ocean of diesel. Farms could reduce their
equipment and machinery and therefore the cost of maintaining
it; those who don’t own such equipment would have rental
fees cut 80 percent. A perennial plant will likely use water
more efficiently, require less fertilizer, and face weeds
with greater success.
Perennial wheat would also create a defense against the pests
that thrive amidst monocultures. It would lend biological
diversity, both when planted on a small scale, as buffers
and borders amidst conventional fields (this is how Steve
sees the crop’s initial incarnation); and when used
on a large scale, as entire fields in wheat-growing areas
that otherwise have millions of acres planted in a single
annual variety. Further, because perennial wheat would mean
year-round plant cover, its fields would provide critical
wildlife habitat. This would be especially beneficial to birds,
for tractors would clear the fields only at autumn harvest,
leaving nests undisturbed in spring.
best wheat-growing areas, the average farm
annually loses 15-20 tons of topsoil per acre;
the steeper slopes can lose 400 tons . . .
Each farmer faces the conundrum of now or
later: he must reap a crop and thus bare the
field to stay in business, but in doing so
he causes more erosion, which means less topsoil
for the future.
Perhaps the greatest benefit would be erosion control. In
Washington’s best wheat-growing areas, the average farm
annually loses 15-20 tons of topsoil per acre; the steeper
slopes can lose 400 tons. Plant roots anchor soil, but annual
plantings of wheat require the ground to be bare for months
at a time. Each farmer faces the conundrum of now or later:
he must reap a crop and thus bare the field to stay in business,
but in doing so he causes more erosion, which means less topsoil
for the future.
The current solution is less a solution than a bandage. The
federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) allows farmers
to plant high-erosion lands with stabilizing but inedible
plants, and pays them a percentage of what a harvest would—in
Kahlotus, about $50/acre. In essence, it pays them to take
the land out of production.
“Basically, the CRP is killing rural communities,”
Steve tells me. “There are almost whole counties up
north covered in CRP, and what happens is these people aren’t
buying fertilizers or tractors or nuts and bolts. They’re
not hiring people. It just kills the communities that were
based on agricultural sales.”
With CRP, farmers have less incentive to build viable businesses
that would entice the next generation to remain on the farm.
Some farmers even use it as a retirement plan: they put all
their acreage into CRP, sell their equipment, and live off
the annual payments and interest. Yet the security is insecure.
Congress repeatedly threatens to eliminate the costly program.
As soon as payments stop, the land will go back to production—back
to erosion—as soon as the owner can borrow equipment.
Perennial wheat instead marries protection and production.
With it, farmers could retain their soil and still reap a
crop. Granted, the lower inputs required would not fully restore
fertilizer sales and the other transactions eliminated by
CRP, but ultimately it could inspire an even deeper economic
rejuvenation. As Wes Jackson of The Land Institute has said,
“With a perennial system the reward goes to the farmers
and landscape rather than the spires of industry.” This
crop would help remove farms from the public life support
system that holds so many together, and in that it is a step
toward true sustainability.
It’s not long into any discussion before perennial
wheat sounds like a panacea. And yet it faces a major obstacle:
For all the questions that perennial wheat will address, farmers
already have answers. For erosion there is CRP. Farming in
buffers and borders isn’t practical. Habitat and diversity
aren’t priorities. And reducing inputs is useful only
if the bottom line improves. Perennial wheat might be great,
but before that it must be practical.
Mark Schoesler, a fourth-generation grower in Ritzville who
is also interested in perennial wheat, explained it plainly:
“Years ago, if you made a mistake, the banker would
give you a loan on your good name. But things have changed.
You no longer have that margin for error. These days you can’t
throw a couple hundred acres into a pig in a poke. Sure, I
want to be the first guy out there to plant perennial wheat,
but I don’t want to gamble 100 years of my family.”
Reviving a perennial idea
The process of actually creating a wheat that’s perennial
turns out to be the easy part. “For some reason, people
think it’s a real big deal to change the life cycle
of a plant that in its ancestry was a perennial,” Steve
Jones told me in his office at WSU. “Biologically it’s
not that big a stretch. There are perennial grasses and there
is wheat, and we just combine them. It’s straight breeding.
It’s not like we’re asking the wheat to drive
itself to the elevator to be sold.”
it’s not that big a stretch. There are perennial
grasses and there is wheat, and we just combine them.
It’s straight breeding. It’s not like we’re
asking the wheat to drive itself to the elevator to be
Steve is the only plant breeder in the country currently
developing perennial wheat. Wes Jackson and The Land Institute
are breeding perennial grains (as Peggy Wagoner did at The
Rodale Institute in the 1970s), but their approach is to domesticate
wild grasses. They find perennial species and select for commercially
viable seeds. Steve uses commercially viable wheat as a base
and breeds for the ability to regrow.
He is not the first. Russian scientists bred perennial wheat
between the 1920s and ‘60s, and Coit Sunesun at UC Davis
did the same from the ‘40s to the ‘60s. The Davis
trials even achieved yields 70 percent of an annual variety’s.
But back then, “yield was everything,” as Steve
says, so the project was abandoned.
Today, 70 percent would be plenty, since the equation now
also includes severe erosion, higher farm-operating costs,
and modern environmental factors. Jim and Steve both wince
when they consider that if only the research had not been
abandoned, they would already have perennial wheat growing
As it is, Steve has patiently committed to restarting the
long process of breeding. He works the old-fashioned way,
hand-pollinating one individual plant with another. The seed
that results (F1) is grown to make new plants that bear more
seed (F2), and so on. With each round Steve and his technicians
use chromosome imaging to examine the results and select the
most desirable plants, which they then regrow. (They also
use DNA mapping, but it is strictly for identifying which
plants have certain traits, never to transfer genes, as in
The lab work takes place in a tiny, crowded room at the end
of Johnson Hall, on the WSU campus in Pullman. The crosses
are made in a multi-million-dollar greenhouse. The growing
out is done in digitally controlled chambers that, with the
push of a button, can replicate a hard freeze or the longest
days of summer. Eventually, plants move to the school’s
260-acre farm, but even that is still a simulation of reality.
That’s because the school and its farm are in the Palouse,
the country’s most fertile wheat-growing region.
The conditions of the Palouse are unlike any in the United
States. From the air you can see that the land occurs in waves,
mounds of dirt blown east from the center of the state—from
places like Kahlotus. Because this has been going on for millennia,
today the blowing dirt settles on topsoil already so deep
that its measurements—10 feet, 20 feet—sound like
hyperbole. Farms in the Palouse get 20 to 30 inches of rain
a year and produce about 100 bushels an acre, more than twice
the country’s average. Here, the towns are named Diamond,
Eden, and Sunset.
know their fields, they know the crops and
the environment. They’re the people
to be out there selecting what works best.”
That is to say, success in the Palouse guarantees nothing
for a farmer in Kahlotus. A new variety that thrives at the
university farm might not even make it out of the ground at
Jim Moore’s place. Steve’s solution is simple
but revolutionary: in addition to breeding perennial wheat
at the university, he does it in Jim’s and others’
The approach is called participatory breeding. The initial
crossing and seed production still happen at the WSU greenhouse,
but instead of being planted at the university farm the seeds
go directly to the farmers. Steve tracks the trials and gives
advice, but the farmer ultimately selects which plants to
keep and regrow. Some people would see this as an impediment,
thinking research is most effective when left to the experts.
Steve disagrees. “Farmers know their fields, they know
the crops and the environment,” he says. “They’re
the people to be out there selecting what works best.”
At the Moore farm, the experimentation is a family affair.
At the helm is Jim’s 14-year-old granddaughter Lexi,
who is breeding perennial wheat for an FFA project. She began
last year, going through all the steps herself in the Pullman
greenhouse and growth chambers. In January she harvested the
F2 seeds and planted them by hand in a corner of her grandfather’s
field, behind the garage where he parks his combines. This
summer, she and Jim and her parents will pull out the plants
they don’t like, harvest the rest, and replant.
“Do that for 10 or 15 years,” Steve says, “and
she’ll have her own wheat variety.”
It’s a substantial time commitment. Even an annual
wheat would take at least six years, and this teenager will
be nearly 30 before she has her own perennial. That’s
because once the breeding produces a plant that will regenerate
and yield well, one must figure out how to fertilize it, control
its weeds, and otherwise make it commercially viable. That
requires moving from the current plot-size—about 100
feet by 30—to at least two-acre fields. To do that,
one must generate considerable quantities of seed.
Maintaining the integrity of public breeding
On the farm in Pullman, when a new variety is ready, Steve
must put it through protocol testing before he officially
releases it. With annual wheats, this means three years of
growing in fields throughout the state to prove the variety
can perform in different environments and unpredictable weather.
Steve then gives the seed to the Crop Improvement Association,
which grows it out and gives it to dealers, who then produce
it for sale to farmers at a meager profit. This testing procedure
is required of public breeding (though not of private breeders),
as insurance to farmers who will rely on the seed. It's not
clear what a comparable procedure would look like for perennial
wheat—if annual wheat requires three life cycles, should
perennial wheat that lasts for five years be tested for 15?
“We have no great illusions—or delusions—that
in five years we’re going to have millions of acres
of perennial wheat,” Steve says. “The more we
work on it, the more complicated we realize it is in terms
of getting it out to the growers. But we are certain that
we can do it. I can retire in 18 years. There’ll be
farmers growing perennial wheat by that time.”
Participatory breeding helps to speed things up. Because
farmers grow the seed themselves, they bypass the official
process of testing. In effect, they have proven it to themselves.
Plus, they already own the seed, so they don’t have
to wait for a dealer to sell it to them.
Needless to say, many farmers in Washington want the trials
done on their land. In fact, Steve has received queries from
growers throughout the country. Once there is ample seed,
he would like to extend the participation by sending seed
to distant farmers and having them cultivate it for their
climates. Other public breeders would be invited to join in,
but this way the growers wouldn’t need them to get started.
turns public breeding, after years of diversion, back
to the objective for which it was instituted in 1862:
to help the farmer.
The process doesn’t make scientists such as Steve irrelevant,
for the work they do in labs is crucial to participatory breeding’s
success. Farmers who replant the same seed year after year
are always choosing from a single gene pool, which means they
eventually lose the critical variation that keeps a population
healthy. Steve sees his job as providing carefully chosen,
highly effective variations that farmers can introduce into
Together, they make seed that is the best of both worlds:
The scientist uses his or her microscopes and DNA maps to
select the very best of the many options that breeding creates.
The farmer uses his or her eye and intuition to select a well-rounded
population with enough diversity to survive unpredictable
conditions. Combining the two techniques yields varieties
that are dynamic yet stable, ideal but also based in reality.
The process turns public breeding, after years of diversion,
back to the objective for which it was instituted in 1862:
to help the farmer.
In Kahlotus, Jim can feel the effects. The plots before him
are tended by his granddaughter yet still bear the mark of
his grandfather’s hands. As I watch him watching the
field, I see that his buoyant hope for the future is matched
by pride. With inherent determination, the 65-year-old tells
me he will be alive to see these hills covered in perennial
wheat. But then, Jim no longer needs to see to believe. “The
way we’ll survive?” he says. “It’s