Covering fresh ground

A University initiative to help state agriculture is underway with $1 million from the Legislature.

Parker Lemke

In his office, Jim Anderson lifted up a dried pennycress stem, pulled off a pod and sprinkled its small black seeds onto his desk.

“We’ve been working on trying to kill this thing for over 100 years, probably,” said Anderson, an agronomy and plant genetics professor at the University of
Minnesota.

The common weed could soon become an actual crop in Minnesota thanks to a University effort to keep more of the state’s 27 million acres of farmland covered during the winter using perennial plants and other crops.

The initiative, called “Forever Green,” seeks to diversify agricultural output, help offset soil erosion and water pollution, and develop economically viable and ecosystem-friendly crops, said agronomy and plant genetics professor Don Wyse.

A $1 million grant from the Legislature to the Forever Green program last spring was parceled out earlier this semester among seven of the initiative’s projects.

A decade of work by researchers led up to the state allocation, which will be spent over the next three years, said Wyse, who is a co-director of the Center for Integrated Natural Resources and Agricultural Management.

All of Forever Green’s projects are designed to have tangible results, he said.

Anderson heads a wheatgrass breeding project funded by the state grant that involves using genetic markers to select and breed desirable traits in the plant, like improved grain yield and disease resistance.

Agricultural researchers at the University have been developing wheat varieties since at least 1895. Since then, the harvesting schedules of the state’s dominant annual crops like corn and soybeans have often left fields barren during the winter, Anderson said.

Without plant roots protecting the soil year-round, wind and water erosion can degrade the fields, he said.

“Agriculture depends on maintaining our soil,” said Mary Hanks, director of marketing and development at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. “One of the ways to do that … is to keep the soil covered for longer periods of time each year.”

Water that has absorbed nutrients, including nitrogen nitrate, out of agricultural fields can pollute waterways flowing into the Mississippi River and down to the Gulf of Mexico, Wyse said.

Forever Green aims to address the issue with perennial plants and cover crops that protect the soil during the winter.

“If you have roots out there, plants out there — all the time — that nitrate nitrogen is picked up by the roots and doesn’t flow through that system,” Wyse said.

Technological advances have lowered the cost of DNA sequencing and fast-tracked the plant breeding process, Anderson said.

“Things you could only do with corn or soybeans — species that had a lot of genomic resources, a lot of investment — now you can do with virtually any species,” he said.

His current focus is creating seeds that are 50 percent larger — which he expects to improve seed yields and make wheatgrass easier to mill.

Three out of seven state-funded Forever Green projects feature wheatgrass, Anderson said, whose eco-friendly qualities have already garnered interest from food industry groups.

Developing the wheatgrass is a collaborative effort, he said, adding that fellow agronomy and plant genetics researchers are developing better planting methods for it.

Xiaofei Zhang, a research associate working with Anderson, said he came to Minnesota from the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences to work on breeding wheatgrass and analyzing its genes.

“I believe it is a promising perennial grain crop,” Zhang said “I want to donate my time and energy to [it].”

Funding diverse and resilient crops

Wyse said an economic pull will convince farmers to adopt the crops developed through Forever Green, though he noted that it will take an additional educational effort to introduce them to new planting methods.

“People need to see how it works. They need to experiment with it themselves,” said Hanks, adding that expanding crop variety can help farmers better adapt to shifting climate patterns. ”The more you can diversify what you have out there on the land … your system is becoming more resilient.”

Along with the state appropriations from earlier this year, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture has also supported Forever Green, Hanks said.

The three years’ worth of investment from the state came at the right time, Wyse said, though he hopes the project can eventually gain permanent
funding.

“It isn’t … that you need a lot of money at one time,” Wyse said. “You need a certain amount of money over a long period of time to go through cycles of selection.”

He said each project could apply for up to $150,000, a sum that would allow them to bring more graduate students onto Forever Green’s teams.

“We need early support from the public sector to bring these [projects] along until they can be picked up by the private sector,” Wyse said.