A Living Root 24/7:365

Where has the summer gone?! I can’t believe my internship at Organic Valley is coming to a close. It has been a wonderful experience that I surely will never forget. As I finish up my last few weeks, I can’t help but share with you all about the cherry-on-top moment to my work here at Organic Valley. So follow me, if you will, on a road trip through the Midwest to a research station in Salina, Kansas.

The Land Institute is a “science-based organization that promotes an alternative to current destructive agricultural practices. [Their] work is dedicated to advancing perennial grain crops and polyculture (i.e., growing a variety of crops) farming solutions.”

As a self-acclaimed soil nerd, I admire the core values the Land Institute was built upon in 1976. Perennial crops have huge benefits including decreasing soil erosion, building organic matter, reducing cultivation of the soil, and demanding less farming inputs (chemicals, fuels, etc.) to grow. These goals are closely aligned to those of organic agriculture. And for three years now, Organic Valley has been growing perennial sunflower varieties for the Land Institute at Organic Valley’s demonstration-research fields in Wisconsin.

Perennial sunflower and kernza

Perennial sunflower and kernza growing at the Land Institute

Perennial sunflowers are of interest for their ability to produce oil. This oil can be consumed by humans as an alternative to canola or olive oils, or it can be converted into a renewable fuel known as biodiesel. The leftover biomass (stems and leaves) are being looked at for their potential to produce another fuel, cellulosic ethanol.

Another crop of interest to the Land Institute is Kernza. This is a relative of wheat but with perennial growing habits and a massive root system that not only holds the soil in place but also allows the plant to adapt quickly to environmental changes such as drought. As a perennial, Kernza also pulls carbon out of the atmosphere and stores it in its roots and in the soil. Researchers hope it will one day become a sustainable alternative to annual wheat, and chefs are eagerly awaiting sample batches of Kernza flour to experiment with in their baking. Research in grains is of the utmost importance because up to 70% of the calories we consume are from small seeds or cereal grains, which means replacing our millions of acres of annual wheat with perennial wheat would make a huge positive impact on climate change.

Brittany Iverson and root diagram

Me next to a comparison of the roots of domesticated annual wheat (left) and of perennial Kernza (right).

Imagine a native prairie. It’s teeming with life. A diverse variety of plants and animals call this place home.

The Land Institute’s ongoing research is in hopes of producing crop varieties that mimic natural prairie ecosystems. It is an idea that nature perfected long ago but which we must re-learn. Thankfully, the knowledge is rooted deep in the soil.

If you have more interest in the Land Institute or would like to visit, check out their annual Prairie Festival, held in late-September.