- Associated Press - Monday, September 28, 2015

SALINA, Kan. (AP) - For several years, David Van Tassel has dreaded the presentations Land Institute scientists give during the annual Prairie Festival; plant breeding is a slow, incremental process that takes years.

Except this year, Van Tassel had all kinds of new news regarding his work with silphium, a cousin to sunflowers, The Salina Journal (https://bit.ly/1iWhvzf).

A year ago, he was the only researcher in the world working on turning silphium into a viable crop; now there are more than a dozen, working on issues as varied as gene mapping, finding an ideal field density, discovering the plant’s pollinators and pests, fungus resistance and more.

His first fall planting of the crop in 2014 weathered the winter well.

In 2014, he was tracking 5,000 individual plants by hand. Today, he has a self-driving robot with a digital camera that can do much of that work.

And, he has a machine that can harvest the seed.

For years before that, Van Tassel had worked primarily with the Maximillian sunflower; he grew some silphium as a “side project.”

But during the dry spell in 2011 and ‘12, he noticed the small patch of silphium was doing just fine; other researchers had noted the plant’s drought tolerance as far back as the 1930s.

After several years of selective breeding, the number of seeds on a head has been increased from an average of about 15 to 50.

There’s also been progress with the Land Institute’s trademarked Kernza perennial intermediate wheat grass, said Lee DeHaan.

“We have farmers who want to grow it, people who want to eat it, bakers and chefs who want to use it,” DeHaan said.

DeHaan’s next goal is to breed plants with a more consistent yield, “so I feel comfortable recommending it to a farmer.”

In the next few weeks, 25,000 new Kernza plants will be put into test plots - the largest planting, so far, DeHaan said.

Shuwen Wang and Kathryn Turner described their work with perennial wheat, which is now generating yields around 50 percent to 70 percent of annual wheat crops, but that performance varies widely from one year to the next.

One issue they’ve been working on is that the perennial varieties tend to regrow after harvest, putting lots of energy into new seed that doesn’t mature before winter sets in, when it could save that energy for spring growth.

Shuwen said they’ve isolated a single gene that determines that regrowth habit, which is a big step to controlling it.

“The genetics are much clearer than ever before,” Shuwen said.

The Land Institute’s goal is to develop a “perennial polyculture,” in which perennial crops grow together in a field, mimicking the natural prairie; such a system would hold soil in place, tolerate drought, disease and pests, and not require artificial fertilizers.

In response to a question, director of research Tim Crews said experiments with mixed crops have been underway for several years, such as fields of Kernza and clover, or perennial sorghum and silphium.

Such perennial bi-cultures appear to be working, Crews said; a third-year field of Kernza and clover, he said, is showing that the Kernza is benefiting from the nitrogen the clover fixes into the soil.

Other investigations include alfalfa - another nitrogen-fixing plant - pulls water from a different depth in the soil than Kernza, so they wouldn’t compete with each other for the same water.

“There are not many perennial crops to choose from,” Crews said. “We need more perennial varieties. It’s been thousands of years since humans have domesticated a crop.”

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Information from: The Salina (Kan.) Journal, https://www.salina.com


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