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New Self-Sustaining “Wheat” Could Change the Farming Industry

It’s called Salish Blue, and it’s more than a science experiment

This is wheat. And if Salish Blue has anything to do with it, it may one day become obsolete. (iStock/gilaxia)
smithsonian.com

In the world of farming, the calendar reigns supreme. When spring arrives, most farmers must plant a brand new batch of plants in their fields—a downside of annual crops. But for wheat farmers, that longstanding practice could be about to change. As NPR’s Eilís O’Neill reports, a new perennial hybrid plant could change the way America grows grain.

It’s called Salish Blue, and it's a cross between wheat (an annual) and wheat grass (a perennial, wild grass). The new species was developed by scientists at Washington State University intent on making wheat that grows over and over again without the need to replant. What they've created is a blue-hued grain that acts just like wheat.

Salish Blue is more than a science experiment: It could reduce both the hassles and the environmental repercussions of farming. The vast majority of American crops are annuals, which means that every year they must be torn out and new seeds sown in the ground. Some exceptions include fruits and nuts that grow on trees, berries, and grasses like clover and some alfalfa.

Reseeding the nearly 75 percent of American crops that aren’t perennials costs a large amount of money, constitutes an annual hassle and contributes to erosion. As MIT’s Mission 2015 notes, annual farming usually means that fields lie fallow and inactive until next year’s crop is planted. This can make them susceptible to erosion. In turn, water, air and soil quality suffer.

Crops that regenerate themselves do just the opposite. Not only do they have deeper roots and promote healthier soil, but they don’t need as much fertilizer or energy to grow. “Perennial grains add value in other ways than just being wheat,” Colin Curwen-McAdams, a graduate student and research assistant who helped develop the wheat, says in a press release. “What we need right now are crops that hold the soil, add organic matter and use moisture and nutrients more efficiently. That’s the goal of this breeding program.”

Curwen-McAdams and his colleagues recently published a paper on the grain in the journal Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution. They note that the grain’s scientific name, Tritipyrum aaseae, honors Hannah Aase, a late botanist who also has an onion named after her. No matter what it’s called, making crops more perennial will benefit the world—even if right now, Salish Blue only benefits the animals who get to munch on it.

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