Maker Monday: Perennial Grains

Here’s a good example of why science and technology is important for resilience.

Most of the grains and vegetables we currently grow are annuals.  That means we plant them, grow them, and harvest them in a single years.  This approach requires:

  • Lots of energy.  From machinery to fertilizers.
  • Lots of water and additives.  Dead soil and erosion. Annuals have shallow root systems.
  • Reliance on industrial scale, which means: government subsidies, corporate intellectual property, and commodity markets.
This makes farms that use this approach vulnerable to energy price spikes, drought, weed species (insects, disease, etc.), government corruption, corporate monopolies, and financial manipulation.

With all of these vulnerabilities, how did we end up with this a focus on annuals?  Socio-technological path dependency.  That’s a fancy way of saying that the decisions made a long time ago by ancient farmers — who likely selected this approach due how well it worked with flood plain and slash and burn agriculture — locked us into this approach.

So, while it is hard to change due to this path dependency, we might be able to use a bit of technology to offer us a bit more freedom of action.  How?


One of the ways to mitigate the vulnerabilities we suffer due to a reliance on annuals for the production of staple crops is to use perennial grains.  Remember, a perennial is a plant that yields a harvest year after year from the same root system.  Here’s a picture of the root system for perennial wheat in comparison to annual wheat.

Perennials provide the following benefits (as compared to annuals):

  • Reduced energy use.  Less work and fertilizer required.
  • Less water (1/5), fewer additives, rich soil, less herbicide, and low erosion.  Perennials have deep root systems.
  • Works well in smaller scale farms in a larger variety of climates.  It also yields stubble that animals can feast on.

While definitely not a silver bullet (no technology ever is), it’s a good step towards more food resilience at the local level. So, why aren’t we switching to perennial grains for greater resilience at the local level?  Perennial grains that are productive enough to use for food production don’t exist yet.

Fortunately, they are being developed right now across the world.   It will move forward faster if more people are involved, and these projects are open sourced.  A true maker project.

Your thinking about farm ecosystem designs that incorporate perennial wheat analyst,

John Robb

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  • johnrobb


    Definitely love sweet potatoes. Thanks for pointing out all of the other suggestions.

    I believe that perennial grain is a great addition to the plants we can grow at the small scale in northern climates (not many staple crops for northern permaculture guilds). It can also help us continue thousands of years of culinary tradition that we all know and love at the small scale.

    I think it is important to point out that efforts like this perennial wheat breeding program is increasing our options for resilience. Allowing us more freedom of action. That’s a good thing.



  • pragmatic sustainability

    A perennial based plains agriculture is Wes Jackson’s life’s work at the Land Institute.

    Bill Mollison and David Holmgren of Permaculture fame have both worked on this issue for a long time.

    I think the UG99 wheat rust fungus issue should also be a major motivation to develop resilient grain crops.

    • johnrobb


      Thanks much for the links. All great stuff.


  • Alan

    The flavor of Wheatgrass will have to be very much improved. Some health food stores juice wheatgrass as part of a mixed raw vegetable juice which is served in the store and the flavor (to me) is awful. I always ask them to leave out the wheatgrass.


    • johnrobb


      Concur. That’s what the breeding program is trying to do (as well as increase yields and other beneficial characteristics).


  • BrianSJ

    How do perennial grains fare at missing human manual? If wheat is bad for us (as it iseems to be), let’s move to something better, rather than a better form of a bad thing.

    • johnrobb


      Lots of views on what are good and bad diets for us. I think old school wheat, like the type being worked on with these programs, is fine (although I’m not a big fan of the new and novel proteins engineered into industrial wheat over the last two decades since there is the possibility they are responsible for immunological and allergenic problems).

      However, the diet you chose is up to you. What works with your body.

      John Robb

  • http://TheIntegratedLifeProject Matt Smaus

    The Land Institute in Kansas has been working on this for 30+ years.

    “Our purpose is to develop an agricultural system with the ecological stability of the prairie and a grain yield comparable to that from annual crops.”

    If you’re not a farmer, this doesn’t apply to you so much. Annual crops can be perfectly sustainable when intensively managed at the garden scale, and very satisfying to work with. Annual cycles offer a lot of opportunities to learn!

    But even if you’re not a farmer, the Land Institute and comparable research is very worth supporting, because you’re probably not growing your own grain, and this is how you encourage sustainable systems for producing the bulk of what you eat. Rural collapse has been the downfall of most empires (at least according to historians like Ronald Wright –

    • johnrobb


      Thanks. It’s important at the community level to have staple perennial for small farms and large permaculture guilds.


  • Matt

    Where can a person get seeds for perennial grains?

    • johnrobb

      Matt – lots of places sell wheat grass. Although the perennial varieties currently available aren’t that tasty yet. JR

  • c.

    Don’t forget that it’s not just annuals that are a major source of energy around the world. There are a number of biennial crops that provide quite a few calories, most root crops being biennial.

    • johnrobb

      Thanks. JR

  • c.

    Although that probably doesn’t help with the breeding of perennial grains. There are some people working on that. Two of the best books on breeding food, not animal husbandry, but plants are by Carol Deppe. She’s got one book that is more of an intro and one that is very technical but explained in terms you can follow even if you don’t have a college genetics class or two under your belt.

    There, a more constructively useful comment. 😀

    • johnrobb


      Thanks for the contribution on plant breeding.


    • Matt Smaus

      Carol Deppe is my hero. Her book “The Resilient Gardener” is frankly a must-read for anyone interested in food self-sufficiency. Quick bio sketch:

      “This venerable Taoist based in Oregon’s Willamette Valley has introduced the art of plant breeding to home gardeners around the world. Trained as a plant geneticist at Harvard, she has chosen to spend her days improving vital staple crops the old-fashioned way on a 2-acre organic garden near her home. Gluten-intolerant herself, Carol has revived traditional corn, beans, squash, and potato varieties as staple crops, and offers expert advice for anyone hoping to grow, harvest, store, and prepare their own food without sacrificing every waking hour to the endeavor. She is also acutely aware of the need for farmers to adjust to climate instability, and has begun breeding plants and developing cropping sequences and systems that have the potential to offer a dependable food supply even in times of dramatic weather fluctuations. Her books include Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties and The Resilient Gardener.”


      • johnrobb

        Thanks Matt. JR

  • Grouch, MD

    A great example of leveraging technology to create something that is not dependent on technology to produce it.

    • johnrobb

      I think it is. Thanks. JR

  • Captian America

    For a NA example –the Land Institute and Wes Jackson — Kansas — have been at it for over 20 years

    • johnrobb

      Thanks Captain. JR

  • Dallas

    One thing to consider are tree crops to replace grains. An oak tree could likely yield as many acorns per tree as the same area of wheat or corn, is more nutritious, and is actually more palatable for humans than field corn, even without the minor processing needed to remove the tannins found in many, but not all varieties of acorns. Its suitable for animals, at the very least. There is an issue with some (again not all) oaks that only produce every other year or so, but that’s what garage geneticists are for!

    • Dallas

      AND you can also plant crops under it, that can handle shade and would be harvested before the acorn harvest. High value leaf crops, shallots, and new potatoes could probably work. Mushrooms too.

    • johnrobb

      Thanks Dallas. JR

  • different clue

    Someone whose work you may very well already know about and be following is named Wes Jackson of The Land Institute (and other ongoing efforts). He and his group have been studying exACTly this problem of perennializing edible grain-crops and edible-seedifying perennial plants. He and his group have been working on the doing and the science and the deep philosphy and purpose for all this. Here is a link to a wikipage.

    But given how people did grow annual grains before oil and how some people still do so today without soil degradation or non-renewable resource depletion (the Amish and so forth), I would still keep annual graingrowing in mind even as I keep track of perennial graingrowing progress. The aging organic farmer curmudgeon Gene Logsdon , author of many books, wrote a good one (recently revised) called Small Scale Grain Growing.

    And work on growing more rice with less water in the same land area as before with no fuel-powered machines at all is moving ahead and . . . umm . . . plowing new ground.

    System of Rice Intensification.

    ( now wouldn’t perennialized rice be interesting. . . . )

    • johnrobb


      Thanks much. Small scale annuals do work. Just require more work.


  • different clue

    Rob L. Murphy,

    As a mere layman and total amateur, the only thing I can think of to say is to see if The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, feels it has any of its perennial seed crops ready enough to send samples to the public for beta testing. Such things really don’t quite exist yet because before the land institute, nobody ever did the work.

    But of course you can already get nut-bearing trees and shrubs and bushes right now already. Surely some of them would be good in a Georgia setting.

    Also, I’ve heard rumors of people here and there trying to crossbreed annual corn with perennial teosinte to get a perennial cornteosinte which would give some small ears of real corn year after year. But I don’t know how its going or if its even going anywhere.

    • johnrobb

      DC, lots of opportunities to amateur plant breeders to do something very cool. JR

  • Nick Raaum

    Late in the conversation but just gotta throw out one of my favorite ideas on perennial crops. Throw the grains out and go with tree crops! Plenty of starchy and oily nuts out there to adapt for replacement of conventional commodities. Check out Russel Smiths early work on the subject

    • johnrobb

      Thanks Nick. Starchy tree crops are great. However, the point of this article is that there’s no reason we can’t have both if we work on it. The best of both worlds. New foods + grains that preserve thousands of years of culinary tradition. JR

  • ConnGator
    • johnrobb

      Thanks CG. Anything specific from it of particular note? JR

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