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The Hunt for New Crops

08:59AM Feb 07, 2015

Midwest researchers hot on trail of domesticating wild plants

Every crop begins as a specialty crop, and the road from possibility to fruition is littered with fallen candidates, a seldom broken chain of minimal impact failures. Why? Typically, new crops are agronomically and ecologically similar to current crops—but require greater management. 

Near misses will often breed innovation, and two Midwest researchers are working to shape wild plants toward domestication, bringing the past to present, and stretching the crop basket available to agriculture.

Plant geneticist Lee DeHaan is gaining ground on perennial grains at The Land Institute (TLI) in Salina, Kan. Raised on a farm in southern Minnesota in the 1980s, DeHaan grew up in a family that recognized the promise of perennials. “The idea took root with my father, and I never let it go, even as a 12-year-old. Later, I became one of the first people in the world to work full-time toward making that vision a reality,” DeHaan says.

He began at TLI in 2001, crossing wheat with perennial grasses, hoping for a product that would function like wheat but would grow back each year without planting—providing competition with weeds, soil conservation and a reduction in planting costs. DeHaan also worked on a side project taking a perennial grass and selecting for wheat-like traits. After seven years of work, progress was moving rapidly. In 2010, he began working full-time on intermediate wheatgrass. Initially, he believed it might take 50 to 100 years to develop a useful wheatgrass product, but the time frame has drastically narrowed with the introduction of what DeHaan hopes will be a viable crop for agriculture—Kernza.

Kernza has an extensive root system that stretches 10' down and is vital for hillside growth where annual grain crops are subject to erosion. 

“When we apply nitrogen to fields and rains move it down, it’s difficult for a freshly planted crop’s short roots to catch up with nitrogen before it moves down into groundwater,” DeHaan says. Essentially, Kernza’s extensive root system keeps a larger amount of nitrogen from getting lost. His trials show extremely high rates of nitrogen uptake.

“We’ve looked at the similarities between the genetics of wheat and intermediate wheatgrass and found them to be distant cousins that share most genes,” DeHaan says. 

“We use our knowledge of barley and wheat to work on intermediate wheatgrass and give us breeding shortcuts, particularly for traits such as bread-making quality,” he adds. “We’re getting a lot of excitement from universities and collaborators at USDA.” 

DeHaan is also beginning to use genetic markers and DNA sequencing, which will play a big role in the next 10 years of his work.

Intermediate wheatgrass lacks spark as a commercial name, so TLI has trademarked Kernza. DeHaan is cautiously proceeding with marketing, aiming for small acreage in the first few years. Yield is DeHaan’s primary objective, and Kernza grain size is currently too small. Initially, Kernza grain was one-fifth the size of wheat grain, but DeHaan has since increased it to one-third. “We’re also working on shatter, and I’m confident we can achieve shatter-resistance,” he says.

DeHaan says he’ll have a marketable product within one to two years, and from that starting point, he wants to expand quickly. “Within five years, I hope to have strong varieties with shatter-resistance and good pre-threshing qualities. Right now, Kernza has done well from coast to coast, as long as it’s in northern-tier states,” he notes.

Sitting in a field, Kernza looks like a pasture waiting to be grazed. It has the potential to function differently from any previous grain crop. Within five to 10 years, DeHaan hopes Kernza will be easier to manage and less expensive to grow than other grain crops. 

“Kernza isn’t solely about grain harvest but can protect soil and water quality, diminish input costs on weed control and provide sustainable values that society is starting to expect in agriculture. Essentially, it offers food and conservation at the same time.”

Agriculture has a fair share of orphans—crops left behind or ignored for a variety of reasons—that never make it to mainstream production. Soybeans might be a classic U.S. example, with limited planting before World War II despite being a staple in China going back 4,000 to 5,000 years. 

Steven Cannon is on the trail of a neglected and forgotten orphan crop that grows wild along streambanks in a vine-like fashion—potato bean. Early European settlers had contact with potato bean, which was a Native American food harvested in the wild. 

Research geneticist Steven Cannon is creating a genetic map to boost early potato bean breeding work.

“It never gained the first settlers’ attention toward domestication,” Cannon says. “Maybe it faced a bias as a wild-harvested crop, and second, it doesn’t look like ordinary row crops.”

Potato bean anatomy is the same as a common potato, with the tubers growing on underground shoots or stolons. However, potato bean stolons are much longer at 3' to 4', with multiple tubers per stolon. 

“We’re trying to understand the agronomy and genetics, and there’s a lot of work to be done. We’re a ways from something that would be a potential row crop, but potato bean is a very interesting crop,” Cannon says.

In his work with legumes, Cannon, a research geneticist with USDA-Agricultural Research Service and Iowa State University, came across the potato bean data of Bill Blackmon at Louisiana State University. “We 
requested material from Blackmon, and he sent us the lines from his breeding work from the 1980s.” 

Cannon recently published a field evaluation in “Crop Science” of the 53 lines received from Blackmon. The next step will involve characterizing the genetics. Cannon has sequenced most of the genes from the 53 lines, along with some wild varieties. Those two pieces together, phenotyping and genotyping, are the start of a potato bean breeding program. In 2015, Cannon will put together a genetic map, which will boost early breeding work.

By weight, potato bean yields are about half of potato yields, but the perennial contains three to four times the protein of a potato. It’s packed with nutritional benefits and tastes similar to a potato, but slightly drier—more like a russet than a red potato—possibly due to higher protein. 

“Potato bean is gathering strong interest from small farmers, and I predict it will first take off with small market growers,” he says. “It might stay there, but it could also be a significant vegetable crop within 10 years.”

In small areas, potato bean offers higher yields than any seed crop. It has great storage characteristics and can be left in the ground over winter and harvested in the spring—or harvested in fall and stored in refrigeration.

“Farmers are always keyed in to markets, prices, weather and opportunities,” Cannon says, “There are a lot of overlooked crops on the horizon, and I’m confident that farmers will find them.”