Although wheat production is lower in sub-Saharan Africa compared to the Northern Hemisphere, extensive research on breeding perennial varieties for wheat-growing areas make it one of the more widely researched perennial grain crops. As such, perennial wheat provides an excellent case study of how perennial crops might be developed, physiological barriers in developing perennial grain crops, and producer opinions on how perennial grain crops might be used in their systems.
Wheat (Triticum spp.) is the third most widely produced cereal grain in the world and has a long history of cultivation and domestication. Wheat is genetically compatible with a handful of other genera in the Poaceae family, including Agropyron and Thinopyrum, that have perennial characteristics. Plant breeders in the Soviet Union attempted to breed perennial varieties of wheat beginning in the 1930s by hybridizing Triticum spp. with Agropyron and Thinopyrum spp. These efforts produced a number of strongly perennial varieties, but difficulty with sterility of offspring and poor production characteristics meant that seed was never widely distributed to producers. More recent efforts by the Land Institute (Salina, KS) and Washington State University (Pullman, WA) are attempting to breed perennial wheat varieties through both hybridization and direct domestication of Thinopyrum spp.
Producer opinions on perennial wheat
Researchers on this project analyzed 11 semi-structured interviews with annual wheat farmers in Michigan and Ohio to determine what characteristics a perennial wheat would have to have in order for farmers to be interested in growing it. Most farmers who volunteered their time to be interviewed were growing wheat in a non-conventional manner; either organically, or as part of a diverse farming operation with fruit crops and/or livestock in addition to grain. The interviewees tended to have a high concern for environmental conservation, particularly long-term soil health. Important findings include:
(1) Farmers did not necessarily want a perennial wheat to compete with annual wheat on the basis of yield, but were interested in perenniality as a solution to particular problems they wanted to solve on-farm; for example, one farmer wished to use a¬†perennial wheat as a buffer crop between his organic and conventional fields.
(2) Farmers who were interested in potentially growing perennial wheat came up with a wide range of potential uses for the crop. This suggests that breeders developing perennial varieties would gain substantial insight from interacting with experimental farmers throughout the breeding process, rather than assuming that farmers would only adopt a perennial grain if its yields are comparable to those of annual grains.