In a back corner of the Ian N. Morrison Research Farm there is a nursery of butt-ugly plants with spindly stems, tiny seeds, and weedy characteristics.
But they might just be the salvation of grain farming if the impact of climate change falls hard on the Canadian Prairies.
The plots contain intermediate wheatgrass, wild sunflowers, and cereal ryegrass, along with a growing collection of assorted native plants. None are anything you would want to plant, but all share a common trait that is of growing interest to researchers: They’re perennial relatives of important food crops.
“Our main concern is perennial ability,” says Doug Cattani, a University of Manitoba plant breeder who specializes in perennial crops. “If they are not going to survive and produce for at least three growing seasons, they are of no use to the program.”
So researchers are at work separating and selecting those plants, some imported from more temperate climates, that can thrive through Canada’s bitterly cold winters and short growing seasons. Only then will they start selecting for yield and other traits, Cattani told the field station’s annual tour.
The researchers are essentially revisiting a decision made by mankind 10,000 years ago when the first farmers began selecting seeds for annual crops.
When you’re only looking at the seed yield, it makes sense to choose plants that put all their energy into seed production at the expense of their own survival, notes Gary Martens, an agronomy instructor with the University of Manitoba.
But if that plant needs to do other things too, such as stabilize and feed the soil, soak up excess moisture, and help fight off weed invasions – all the while thriving in a more volatile climate, perennial traits become more significant. And perhaps just as appealing to those farmers horrified by rising input costs, is that perennial crops don’t require annual purchases of seed, fertilizer and herbicides. The research, which is still in its preliminary stages, is also identifying plant communities that would work together as part of a polyculture.
“A lot of these species will have ecological benefits in the types of insects they attract,” said Catanni. “The more diverse the insect population, the less damage to the crops from insects.”
But while the potential is appealing, the time frame for realizing that potential is long.
It could be decades before this perennial stock can be turned into viable crops. For example, the perennial sunflower, which boasts resistance to sclerotinia, produces multiple heads during a long flowering season, which results in seed loss due to shattering. To make such a crop commercially viable, breeders hope to select plants that produce fewer flowers that mature more evenly.
On the other hand, Manitoba farmers are already growing intermediate wheatgrass as a forage seed crop and getting 14 to 15 bushels per acre.
“If we could double that in 10 to 15 years, we are within reach,” Martens said, noting it gives farmers in areas plagued by excess moisture another cropping option.
While this kind of research seems far from commercially relevant at the moment, Martens predicts that could change as the climate change reality hits home.
“If we cannot depend on the stability of our climate or rainfall, as we are seeing now – we go from excess moisture to not enough moisture in one month – we are going to have to expand the range of these adaptations,” he said. “We will grow some annual summer crops, we will grow some winter wheat, and we will have some forage seeds and maybe we will have grazing livestock.”
Martens said farmers may not be aware of it, but they are already adapting to climate instability by expanding the range of crops they grow on their farms. Just a few decades ago, corn and soybeans were virtually unheard of in Manitoba. Today, some farmers in southern Manitoba practise a corn and soybean rotation similar to southern farmers. Others are dipping a toe into polyculture farming by planting two crops, such as peas and canola, into the same field and mechanically separating them at harvest. And even more are questioning – and changing – long-standing practices.
“There are people now who are grazing nine months of a year and there are (a) very few who are grazing all year round,” said Martens.
He predicts it won’t stop there.
“Farmers should be diversifying even outside of traditional agriculture,” he said.
Martens said farmers in areas of the Interlake plagued by excess moisture for several years may have to find ways to convert that water into a revenue stream, such as growing cattails, which both cleanse water and can be harvested as biomass.
Meanwhile, carp, a shallow-water fish, could be harvested for protein, either as a supplement to livestock feed or processed for human consumption.