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#62: The Shift to Perennialization in Agriculture & the Broader Culture—with Fred Iutzi & Tim Crews of The Land Institute

February 26, 2019


To maintain annual agriculture, we wipe out perennial vegetation and effectively destroy everything on the landscape in order to plant crops every year. The negative consequences of this ecological disaster include soil erosion, loss of organic matter, and loss of nutrients. So, what if we shifted to a perennial crop system that regrows from year to year without having to be reseeded? Could such a transition facilitate a broader cultural shift toward sustainability and justice? And what impact would perennialization have on reversing climate change?

Fred Iutzi and Tim Crews serve as President and Director of Research, respectively, at The Land Institute, a nonprofit based in Salina, Kansas. The organization is focused on developing perennial grains, pulses and oilseed bearing plants grown in diverse crop mixtures known as perennial polycultures. The team of 40 plant breeders and ecologists on six continents are collaborating to create an agricultural system that mimics natural systems, producing ample food and reducing the negative impacts of industrial agriculture.

Today, Fred and Tim join Ross and Christophe to discuss the literal and figurative meanings of perennialization and share The Land Institute’s mission to create first a commercially viable method of perennial grain production and then a functional agro-ecosystem. We explore why people made the transition to annual crop production and the challenges around scaling up small, 20x20 proof-of-concept plots. Listen in to understand how perennial crops reverse climate change and learn how the new agriculture of perennialization can revitalize rural America.


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Nature as Measure: The Selected Essays of Wes Jackson by Wes Jackson

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Key Takeaways 

[1:26] Fred’s path to reversing climate change

  • Emphasis on homecoming inspired return to family farm in IL
  • Position at Land Institute in 2016 to promote stable agricultural future

[4:07] Tim’s path to reversing climate change

[5:26] The literal and figurative definitions of perennialization

  • Perennial crops regrow from year to year without reseeding
  • Promote culture of respect + regeneration for planet and each other

[7:53] Why people made the transition to annual crop production

  • Young perennials take longer to establish
  • Collecting + re-sowing will select for non-shattering traits

[12:26] The theory of change for The Land Institute

  • Challenge dominant paradigm, promote perennial agriculture
  • Proof of concept (two perennial crops in commercial production)

[16:59] The Land Institute’s mission to create a commercially viable method of grain production

  • Scale up from two to 12 crops with substantial yield, ability to be intercropped
  • First step in creating functional agro-ecosystem

[21:21] The challenges around scaling up small proof-of-concept plots

  • Need to scale up R&D first, then production
  • Kernza less predictable in larger fields (50% crop failure)

[27:21] Monocrop vs. diverse landscapes

  • Monocrops easier to harvest, manage with mechanization
  • Harvest equipment challenge easier to solve than biological

[30:26] How perennial crops fit into reversing climate change

  • 40% to 60% of carbon in soil with perennials, 15% to 20% with annuals
  • Perennials improve carbon inputs, decrease respiration losses in soil organic matter

[35:10] The difference between soil organic matter and soil organic carbon

  • Carbon comprises 58% of soil organic matter
  • Matter includes phosphorous + nitrogen (necessary for stability)

[36:36] The relationship between annuals and the decline of rural America

  • Perennial crops self-perpetuating, self-sustaining over time
  • New ag to end soil exploitation parallels new culture to end boom-bust cycle

[40:36] How to get involved and learn more about The Land Institute

  • Spread word to promote societal commitment to perennials
  • Become leverager of resources and action
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