Gene Logsdon and Friends

Pancakes From Perennial Wheatgrass Grain

In Gene Logsdon Blog on July 7, 2010 at 6:46 am

From GENE LOGSDON

I hope I don’t sound too self-important when I announce an historic moment in our kitchen. Carol just made pancakes with flour from a new and startling source. Wes Jackson, the celebrated plant geneticist, author, farmer (and years ago a fairly good football player), has been experimenting for decades now with the bold idea that perennial grains can be developed to take the place of annual grains, thus revolutionizing agriculture by making it unnecessary for so many millions of acres to be cultivated annually. I raise my forkful of wheatgrass pancake and I salute you, Mr. Jackson.

This flour has the trademarked name, Kernza ™ and comes from selected strains of wild intermediate wheatgrass grain, which Jackson and his staff at the Land Institute near Salina, Kansas are crossing with annual wheat varieties to breed a commercially practical perennial grain. The flour makes a light dough and the pancakes taste just a tad sweeter than ordinary wheat flour. It is Jackson’s hope that within ten years, he and his staff can develop Kernza ™ for use in commercially manufactured foods. It is exceptionally high in some nutrients known to be important to human health and deficient in many modern diets: Omega 3 fatty acids, calcium, lutein, and betaine. It is particularly high in folate, important for preventing stroke, cancer, heart disease and infertility. Folate is also believed to be important for maintaining good mental health in old age. My mind generally glazes over when reading about nutrient values of various foods so that folate might come in handy. To me the important thing is that for once something that is good for me tastes good too. Kernza ™ does not have enough gluten in it to use alone for leavened breads, but as more and more crosses are made with it and regular wheat, all things are possible.

The work of developing perennial grains at the Land Institute is enormously fascinating, involving growing, harvesting, recording, classifying and then crossing thousands of individual plants. Annual plants obviously had to have developed from their wild perennial ancestors. Now it is a matter of reversing that process in a way that results in a perennial that yields as much as today’s annuals.

Perennial wheat is not the only grain being developed. Much progress has been made breeding up wild perennial sunflowers toward eventual perennial commercial varieties. The vision of an agriculture where we don’t have to tear up millions of acres of soil every year, saving all that money and fuel energy, is most alluring. You need to be around Wes hardly five minutes to get as excited as he is about the prospects. Other institutions are catching the fever. Michigan State University has started a program in developing perennial wheat. Chinese scientists are intensely interested in perennial rice. I can’t think of any development so significant to a truly sustainable agriculture.

If you want to find out more about Kernza ™, the Land Institute, 2440 E. Water Well Rd., Salina, KS 67401 puts out a lively quarterly report on its activities. I find The Land Report is especially interesting because not only is the genetic research going on there extremely significant to the future of agriculture, but Wes always includes articles and pictures about how art reverberates through the science of farming. I don’t know any other scientific journal that does that and it heartens me greatly. I think that farming is more art than it is science. The taste of wheatgrass pancakes is one more proof.
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  1. Fantastic stuff!! I think we all wish we could just plant a garden and maintain it from year to year. Our asparagus has been growing for over 20 years in the same spot and it is a joy every spring to harvest, then every summer to weed and fertilize it for the next year’s crop. The Land Institute should be something we all support with the great potential of their work. Those pancakes you had are like a jump way into the future – I would look at them as something holy. You and Carol are very lucky to have had them.
    You are right about farming being more art than science. A great garden is drawn from the spirit and vision of the gardener.

  2. This is really great news! I wonder if growing perennial grains would also contribute to the conservation of water. It would be really great if they did. I would also think that in addition to saving on fuel, their cultivation would also contribute to the conservation of soil, since it would no longer need to be torn up and possibly subjected to blowing winds which would carry it elsewhere.

    And last, but not least, I hope that its development and use puts evil outfits like Monsanto out of business. Say what you will about the progress for increased yields, their real intent is to take over all the seed in the world and make everybody come to them and pay their price. And if you don’t play their game, they’ll sue you for using their seed without paying for it even if you come by it by crop drifting and wind.

    I hope Wes patents the hell out of his seed.

  3. Gene, how serendipitous you would post a piece about Wes Jackson. I had just ordered Wendell’s two most recent books online a day or so ago, and wondered if Wes had been up to anything lately, speaking or writing that is, so did some googling…found the video of his 2008 Chautauqua talk on FORA.tv, and also an interview with him on biohabitats.com’s newsletter, Leaf Litter.

    His vision and determination to develop perennial grains and other food plants, despite the long-term nature of that endeavor, never ceases to amaze me. Not an easy task, it will certainly span several generations. So good to hear his Land Institute is doing well and the fever is catching. And I did not know they were finalizing strains for consumption! That’s huge. A historic moment, indeed.

    Art and farming and science – what an irresistable combination. You guys just keep throwing lantern light on the path where it’s needed most for the rest of us. We’re most grateful.

  4. This really is great news, Gene. I’ve heard Wes talk about the research, and I did find his enthusiasm infectious. Paula, I believe water conservation IS a plus in perennial grains, as well as decreased soil erosion, if I remember what Wes said.

    The lower gluten level in this perennial wheat might actually be a bonus, given the rising numbers of people diagnosed with gluten intolerance and celiac disease. Maybe that’s part of the point of getting back to the “original” kinds of grains — getting rid of some of the problems with the grains we have now!

    I for one would be thrilled to get hold of some of this grain in future and do some baking experiments myself!

  5. This is a great advancement! I do have some questions that a cursory glance at http://www.landinstitute.org didn’t answer… What is the life expectancy for this plant? How long is the plant productive? Is this an invasive plant? i.e. will it displace non-crop plants? How will this plant do in the flood plains that are often used for crops these days? What are the fertilizer requirements? Does it need to be the only crop growing in an area or can it be interspersed with nitrogen fixing crops? How well will it do in between rows of trees? I like chestnuts (which can also be used to make flour and logs) myself… Like other prairie grasses – does it need to be burned periodically?

  6. God, yes, keep it away from the Monsantofreaks! But better not to patent it, maybe, as then it will be readily available to all of us for a reasonable price. Are they doing something with corn, too, Gene?

  7. Interesting times – I do not read widely (not from lack of interest) on such matters which is why I enjoy your blog so much. It keeps me informed about the big picture while reveling in the details that make the picture so intriguing. It is hard for me to imagine a perennial small grain that could compete on a long term basis with other succession species in the humid corn belt. But I guess the holy grail can’t be found unless you look for it. (By the way, quite the contrary title on your new book I saw listed on Amazon – that should make for some interesting reviews) It seems to me that your observations in your “Crazy Ideas” post might bear more fruit for the midwest. Low growing manageable perennial covers that lend themselves to the creative interseeding of annuals seems to be a worthy avenue to explore for the artists and scientists of agriculture.

  8. Good questions Eric. I’m sure Wes and his people have answers and are working on more answers. Beth, I don’t know of anyone working on perennial corn as such. I understand that corn (maize) has been so completely domeseticated that it can no longer survive on its own in the wild. I think that is a sobering thought. Gene

  9. Oh, wow. That is amazing. I agree with Jerry, those pancakes approach the level of sacred or holy.

  10. I read once about a Tibetan theory of spiritual evolution instead of a Darwinian theory of evolution . In this story initially beings are just spirit,air,light,they need no food or warmth or shelter.Then through desire they start to get more solid and dense, they become envious of others or possessive and become more dense.They start having bodies and need to eat but food just grows abundantly and they just need to harvest what they need for any meal ( perennial wheat ). It abundantly reproduces with no effort. Then people get lazy and greedy and think they should harvest and store it so they don’t always have to daily pick what they want.The food stops regrowing and they have to cultivate and seed their food and start to work to feed themselves, growing into dense bodies away from the spiritual body.Maybe we are moving closer to spirit with this wheat.
    Katie

  11. It’s simple, it’s Wonderful and it’s a great way to start 2012, thank you!

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