Cultivating long-term relationships
In the dry lands of eastern Washington, WSU plant breeder Steve Jones is working with—and for—farmers to develop a commercially-viable perennial wheat.

By Lisa M. Hamilton
Posted September 13, 2004

The 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 all.

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 since.”

“My grandfather took this land out of grass in 1896, and now it’s time to put it back in.”

--Jim Moore

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 red.

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.


Ritzville, WA

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 . . . 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.”

“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.”

--Steve Jones

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 full time.

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 genetic engineering.)

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.


Ritzville, WA

“Farmers know their fields, they know the crops and the environment. They’re the people to be out there selecting what works best.”
--Steve Jones

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’ fields.

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.

Participatory breeding 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 their stock.

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 right here.”


Lisa Hamilton is a freelance writer based in Mill Valley, California. Her feature stories appear regularly on NewFarm.org.