Initiative explores use of perennial crops

Long before the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that threatens the fragile ecosystem at the mouth of the Mississippi River, environmentalists, scientists and other groups have led efforts to reduce pollution upriver.

One of those initiatives, Green Lands, Blue Waters , has been at work for 10 years, researching and advocating for sustainable farming practices in the Mississippi River Basin stretching from Minnesota to Louisiana. Those involved in Green Lands, Blue Waters, include experts from land-grant universities, farmers, conservation groups and governmental agencies.

"Basically, we’re trying to clean up water quality through agriculture and so that includes getting more perennial crops out on the landscape," said Dr. Helene Murray, interim executive director of the St. Paul-based Green Lands, Blue Waters.

Murray is also executive director of the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture and has an adjunct appointment at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics.

The mission of Green Lands, Blue Waters is to transform the agricultural system of the region by developing perennial and continuous living cover crops for farmers to plant and profit from.


"People are willing to try new things," Murray said. "And if they can see that it’s profitable, and they have some environmental benefits out of it, they’re totally for it."

The Mississippi extends more than 2,300 miles, and 33 states are in the river basin. Nearly 60 percent of the area is annual cropland. Corn, soybeans and similar crops have taken an environmental toll with sedimentation and the runoff of fertilizer and pesticides affecting the river.

"We’re not saying, ‘Never grow corn and soybeans again,’" Murray said. "That’s not realistic and it’s not as profitable for farmers to do that. … We’re just trying to figure out how we can make these systems function better."

Planting more acres of perennial crops can help prevent soil erosion, reduce the loss of nutrients that occurs with runoff and improve water quality of the Mississippi.

"We want to keep working lands," Murray said, rather than having set-aside programs in which farm land may be idled for the purpose of conservation. "Those are effective in their own right, but we really want to look at how to make this profitable for farmers as well as providing the ecosystem services."

Perennial sunflowers are an example of an alternative crop already being planted in the Upper Mississippi River Basin, but plant breeders are still in the very early stages of developing other crops such as perennial flax and perennial legumes, Murray said.

The research also examines ways in which a crop like perennial legumes could be used in consumer products.

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