Crops & Systems
Preservation of our natural resources is important to the quality of life and health of all Minnesotans. Among these resources, clean water is one of the most important to the citizens of the “Land of 10,000 Lakes”. Currently, the health of Minnesota’s lakes, rivers, and ground water is threated by non-point sediment and nutrient pollutants originating from agricultural systems. The human health risks, ecosystem impacts and economic losses related to de-graded water resources were highlighted by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and 10 other agencies in the “Minnesota Nutrient Reduction Strategy” report. These threats result from land-use practices in both urban and rural areas. In rural areas, however, agriculture can provide the solutions that preserve and conserve two of Minnesota’s most precious resources, soil and water. The reported strategies suggest that it will not be possible for Minnesota to meet proposed water quality goals without incorporating winter annual and perennial crops into Minnesota’s agriculture landscapes. The Forever Green Initiative at the University of Minnesota is positioned to develop these new winter annual and perennial crops, as well as the associated efficient farming systems that improve water quality and manage water quantity while bolstering the rural and agricultural economy with high-value, commercially marketable products.
The Forever Green Initiative is composed of teams of researchers, farmers, food product developers, and entrepreneurs from all aspects of the agricultural supply chain whose goal is to develop and promote the use of new crops that enhance water and soil quality. Each of the new agricultural enterprises outlined in the portfolio below require a unique strategy for implementation. The Forever Green team is focused on ensuring that these enterprises strengthen Minnesota’s economy while protecting water and other natural resources. Our basic strategy is to create and couple innovations—in crop breeding, agricultural production methods, and utilization technologies—that add to the productivity and profitability of our current Minnesota agriculture and enable major increases in water quality and management of water quantity. Forever Green innovations are based on perennial and winter-tolerant crops that create new economic opportunities and environmental benefits for Minnesota.
Minnesota’s current agriculture is dominated by annual crops like corn and soybean that grow during the summer, leaving land bare and brown for much of the year. Without active plant root systems to hold soil in place and absorb water, fields are much more vulnerable to wind and water erosion, and nutrient leaching; both major contributors to non-point source pollution. By adding perennial and winter-tolerant annual cover crops, we can improve water quality because these crops are active during most of the year, including the fall, winter and spring when summer annual crops are absent. For this reason, perennial and winter-annual crops—working in tandem with summer annuals—can capture solar energy, water and nutrients with very high efficiency. Perennial and winter annual crops can enhance habitat for wildlife such as pheasants, deer, fish, and pollinators. New efficient Forever Green cropping systems will improve water quality by providing continuous living cover resulting in protection of soil, by reducing water runoff, wind and water erosion, and loss of soil and nutrients that can occur when farmland is not covered by living plants.
The Forever Green Initiative has been underway, as a formal initiative, for almost 7 years. It has received funding from non-state sources, including competitive grants from federal, University of Minnesota, foundation and commercial sectors. It currently engages over 60 faculty, graduate students and research staff at the University of Minnesota, in a wide range of academic departments. Work is underway to develop a broad portfolio of winter-tolerant cover crops and perennial crops. New breeding technologies are being applied to make rapid improvements in these species, along with new methods for designing sustainable production systems, utilizing the crops as feedstocks for new products, and “de-risking” potential investments in these crops and technologies for entrepreneurs and potential investors. The Forever Green Initiative is attracting high-quality scientific talent to the University of Minnesota to meet the future workforce needs in agriculture, food, energy and natural resource industries throughout Minnesota.
Kernza/intermediate wheatgrass produces a grain with properties and uses similar to those of wheat. It is a perennial grass crop that can produce high-value grain and forage products and provide economic opportunities that in turn support the environmental benefits of perennial species. These include improving water quality on agricultural landscapes. Kernza produces high yields of grain that are a high-quality substitute for wheat, high forage and biomass yields while its dense root system builds soil carbon, stores nutrients, and prevents soil erosion. Kernza is highly tolerant of weather extremes, including droughts and intense storms and can provide economic resiliency for producers. We propose to develop intermediate wheatgrass varieties with high grain and forage yield potential along with associated production systems to maximize yield on diverse Minnesota Landscapes.
Field Pennycress produces an oilseed suitable for conversion to biodiesel fuel. It is being developed into a new winter-annual crop for corn/soybean farmers. It is planted after harvest of corn or soybean and resumes growth in early spring after winter dormancy. It provides crucial protection for soil during fall, winter and spring, and produces high-value oil and protein meal from unused fertilizer and water that would otherwise be wasted. As well, pennycress suppresses weed growth, reducing herbicide costs, and supports honeybees and other endangered pollinators. Overall, this crop is projected to produce additional profit for corn/soybean farmers.
Camelina produces an oilseed with heart healthy edible oil. It is being developed into a new winter-annual crop for Minnesota growers. It is planted after harvest of traditional summer-growing crops, germinates immediately and grows rapidly in the autumn, and it then resumes growth in early spring after winter dormancy. It provides crucial protection for soil during autumn, winter and spring; sequesters over 100 lbs/acre of nitrogen during this time; and produces high-value edible oil and protein-rich seed meal. As well, camelina suppresses weed growth, thereby reducing herbicide costs, and its numerous yellow flowers support honeybees and other endangered pollinators with abundant nectar and pollen. Crops such as corn and soybean can be interseeded into camelina in spring, resulting in two harvested cash crops each year for Minnesota growers. Overall, this crop is projected to produce additional profit for row-crop farmers.
Developing native plants for industry feedstocks: The goal of this project is to identify new sources of commercially useful chemicals in Minnesota native or naturalized perennial plant species. These species are ready-made to provide economic incentive for the future maintenance of riparian buffer zones, and to potentially help offset farm revenue associated with conversion of cropland to perennial plantings. The use of plants, in the form of functional foods, medicines, personal care products, and greener ingredients in household and corporate settings are currently some of the most rapidly growing markets in the U.S. and worldwide. The organic personal care product market alone, was estimated to be a 7.6 billion dollar industry in 2011, and by 2018 is expected to almost double.
Perennial Sunflower is being developed as perennial crop that can produce food oils that are highly valued because they are free of trans fats, while also providing all of the benefits of perennial crops, including use of residual nutrients, soil protection, reduced costs, and better tolerance of droughts and floods that are predicted to become more common in coming years.
Native American hazelnuts, and their hybrids with European hazelnuts, are long-lived shrubs that produce potentially large yields of edible nuts. The kernels can be eaten as-is, added to other foods, or pressed into a heart-healthy oil that can be used for cooking and skin care products. As a high value crop they offer farmers significant revenue from land taken out of row crops; as a shrub they are especially valuable for windbreaks, shelterbelts and living snow fences. Research needs for hazelnuts include breeding of varieties that combine all the traits required for an economically viable crop; development of micropropagation methods capable of producing the numbers of plants needed for their large scale deployment; development of best management practices for plant spacing, weed control, fertilization and shrub size management; development of mechanized harvesting and post-harvest handling technology; and product development and marketing.
Fruit-bearing shrubs such as elderberry are an emerging perennial crop that could provide opportunity to diversify Minnesota’s agricultural landscape. As a native plant, elderberry can provide niche food and other uses such as medicinals while providing ecosystem services including improved water quality. Farmers can employ elderberry in the landscape using different planting designs and arrangements in an integrated manner such as riparian buffers, alley cropping and windbreak systems. Using these different planting designs, elderberry can reduce soil erosion, and trap sediments through its root systems, thereby improving water quality. Research is being conducted at the University of Minnesota to improve cultivar, production, use and application of elderberry and other berries using integrated systems to diversify Minnesota’s landscape.
Silphium is a native perennial prairie plant that has potential to be domesticated as an oil seed crop for Minnesota. Research conducted at The Land Institute, in Salina Kanas, shows that Silphium has many characteristics that give it excellent potential for a new crop to be domesticated. These include large seed size (for a native prairie plant), excellent drought tolerance, vigorous root system, upright stature, and favorable food oil composition. We are currently developing genetic mapping resources that will accelerate the domestication and breeding of Silphium. We will also be evaluating diverse material for its performance in the field and investigating the effect of various management practices and cropping systems to optimize its use for biomass and food oil.
Fast-growing willow is a viable source of perennial biomass that provides new options for increasing the value of Minnesota landscapes. Shrub willow is cultivated in a short-rotation coppice system comprising high-density plantings in twin row configuration. Harvest is typically on a 3-year interval with as many as seven harvest cycles, making the system viable for over 20 years. Shrub willow can generate new revenue streams to farms through provision of a sustainable source of feedstock for new bioproducts, including construction materials and bioenergy. As a perennial, shrub willows also provide critical ecosystems services that stabilize soil, improve water quality, and improve habitat. Research is being conducted at the University of Minnesota to improve the production efficiency and profitability of shrub willow biomass systems. We are also exploring new values and opportunities for this important biomass crop as part of a comprehensive and integrated strategy that improves the value of Minnesota landscapes
Herbaceous Biomass Crops
Herbaceous Biomass Crops: Herbaceous perennial plants can serve as feedstock for bioenergy. Herbaceous crops such as switchgrass, prairie cordgrass, big bluestem, and others can be planted on marginal lands and along waterways where food crops do not produce profitable yields. When planted in these strategic locations, herbaceous biomass crops also provide a number of environmental benefits including carbon sequestration, soil conservation, and water quality and quantity regulation. Research is needed to compare the various herbaceous biomass crop options and to quantify bioenergy yields and environmental benefits. Results from this project will help Minnesota reach its short- and long-term renewable energy and water-quality goals.
New winter cover crops are needed to enhance the sustainablity of annual agroecosystems. Currently, the species options are very limited. Hairy vetch is a winter annual crop that can reduce soil erosion, increase soil quality, sequester soil nutrients, and contribute biologically fixed nitrogen for use by following crops resulting in greatly reduced N losses to waterways. Many U.S. farms already take advantage of these hairy vetch cover crop benefits, however, Minnesota is challenged, as no existing varieties fit into our current corn-soybean production system. These systems typically require October planting of cover crops and early May soil incorporation prior to row crop planting, which is often to late for legumes such as hairy vetch to establish and survive the winter. We propose to develop new hairy vetch varieties adapted for use as a winter cover in Minnesota to overcome these limitations of currently available cultivars, as well as investigate soil health benefits resulting from hairy vetch use.
Perennial forage plants such as grasses, clovers, and alfalfa provide economic return from livestock grazing or hay and also provide significant ecosystem benefits. We propose to develop perennial ryegrass and meadow fescue as new forage grasses and improve white clover and Kura clover for Minnesota livestock systems. These forages have great potential for use in haymaking and grazing systems, especially for the rapidly expanding grass-fed beef and organic dairy enterprises. Development of new winter hardy varieties of the grasses will increase their yield and persistence under Minnesota’s winters. The use of the grasses in mixture with new varieties of white clover, Kura clover and alfalfa will provide a high quality livestock feed that will increase farmer profitability while providing ecosystem services of soil conservation, soil carbon sequestration, wildlife habitat, and a pollinator food source.
Winter Malting/Food Barley has potential to serve as a cover crop and a high value crop that could be double cropped with soybeans in Minnesota. Current winter barley varieties do not consistently survive winters in Minnesota. Preliminary efforts to screen germplasm collections have shown that accessions with greater winter hardiness exist. We have begun using modern breeding methods to quickly improve winter hardiness. We are working with Rahr Malting and Minnesota brewers to evaluate these new breeding lines so that when they are released as new varieties they will be quickly adopted by the local industry. Current research needs are to expand breeding efforts and determine best management practices to consistently produce high quality winter malting barley.
Perennial flaxseed is a good example of the potential of natural products from Minnesota native perennials. It is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, whose value as a dietary supplement is widely recognized, while offering the soil protection, habitat, and resource-use benefits of perennial crops. An emerging natural products industry, partially lead by Aveda Corporation, a Minnesota personal care products company, is highly interested in sourcing key ingredients for many products from native and sustainably-grown crops.
Alders are woody trees and shrubs with the capacity to be grown on sites that cannot support traditional row-crop agriculture. Due to the symbiotic relationship alder’s form with the nitrogen fixing bacterium, Frankiia alni, the trees can be gown on low nutrient soils without the need for additional nitrogen inputs. The species naturally occur on wet margins and saturated soils, areas that are not typically farmed. As such, alders represent a potential bioenergy crop that will not compete with food crops for growing space on the landscape. Preliminary trials revealed three species with high survivorship in five diverse environments across Minnesota. These species will be the focus of future studies.
Kura Clover has a unique application in soil conservation and as a living mulch crop. We propose to promote use of Kura clover as a living but suppressed perennial sod into which corn or other grain crops are planted into strips killed with an herbicide. When the crop is harvested, Kura clover, which has spreading underground rhizomes, can regrow into the space where the corn was grown. The Kura clover can then be grazed in the late fall and following year.
Potential for High-Efficiency Agriculture
As these examples show, the state of Minnesota and its land-grant university have the academic resources and capacities needed to become a national leader in the development of the high-efficiency agriculture. Our state has world-class resources of soil, land, water, climate and people. It is time to put these fully to work to help secure a better future for farmers, rural communities, and the state of Minnesota.