Annuals vs Perennials

Part of my recent work has involved writing about the (over-)enthusiasm for perennial crops in the permaculture and alternative farming movements. I’ve published an article called ‘The strong perennial vision: a critical review‘ in the journal Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, which outlines my thinking on this topic. The perennial grain breeders from the Land Institute have published a critical response to my paper.

I’ve written/am writing a number of articles and blog posts about this debate with the Land Institute, and about various aspects of perennial/annual cropping and sustainability more generally. They’re gathered together and annotated on this page for ease of reference along with some comments on the debate by other people.

At present, an introduction to the topic is available in my blog post ‘The strong perennial vision: Small Farm Future versus the Land Institute‘, and I provide a brief summary of my arguments and those in the Land Institute’s response in another blog post, ‘The strong perennial vision: critical review and critical response‘.

Probably the main point of contention between my position and the Land Institute’s is around the ecological factors affecting seed allocation in plants of different life history patterns – an issue I examine in this post. Ecologist Professor Ford Denison has written a blog post about this aspect of the debate – an interesting contribution from a neutral perspective.

There are wider issues about growing cereals for export on the world’s fragile steppe or prairie biomes in order to feed growing urban populations who, at least to some extent, have been cleared off rural land that could have been farmed more sustainably. I look at these in my blog post ‘Of perennials, cereals and civilisations’, and also in an article I’ve written for The Land Magazine called ‘The dearth of grass’ (The Land, Issue 18, Summer 2015, pp.34-7) which is available from my publications page. There’s a danger that an uncritical adoption of the Land Institute’s vision for a productive but more sustainable prairie grain agriculture will have the paradoxical effect of supporting a less sustainable, import-dependent global food system.

In my post Of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde I address the Land Institute’s criticisms concerning research priorities for sustainable agriculture, and draw a few overall conclusions about the debate.

Professor Phil Grime, whose CSR framework I draw upon in my analysis, has briefly commented on the debate in an email to me, available here. Doug Cattani, a perennial grain breeder based at the University of Manitoba, has also written an interesting commentary on the paper, which is available here. And Brian Cady intriguingly discusses the possibility of ‘splitting the difference with somewhat perennial grains’ here.

I’ve written an article ‘Perennial cropping’ in Permaculture Magazine (No,85, 2015, pp.57-61) which examines the practical implications of my analysis for farmers in temperate climates.

On a related theme, I’ve written a couple of posts that look at Mark Shepard’s interesting book Restoration Agriculture: Real World Permaculture For Farmers – they’re available here and here.

A few further thoughts, and comments positive and negative, can be found in my post ‘Plants are not accountants, and heaven can wait’ available here and here.

As other resources become available, I’ll add them to this page.

12 thoughts on “Annuals vs Perennials

  1. Chris, I have read your commentary and the “debate” on Angelo’s article on the pri website from a while back, and I very much appreciate your perspective. I haven’t read all your other articles and links yet but I wanted to let you know that I appreciate your way of thinking about things. I, too, find Grimes’ C – S -R theory quite a useful construct for understanding plant evolution and dynamics that should be applied to the design of agricultural systems. Keep on keeping on! I look forward to reading more of your work and the responses you’ve gotten from folks.

    • Thanks for commenting, Dave. I’m glad you’ve found this work of interest. I’d be interested to hear your further thoughts…

  2. Luane Todd over at Resilience just made these remarks, Chris, and I thought you’d be interested. About the Land Institute.

    “You do point out one of the ongoing points of discussion I have with Wes every time I go out there…the fact that for the most part a perennial will not produce as big a seed as an annual since it is trying to also provide the necessary reserves to grow again next year. (Even perennials die back in the cold months).

    The other point I keep reminding Wes of is that all grains are first of all grasses and as such developed in the presence of large herds of herbivores regularly harvesting them. In fact, some of the people I know who use annual grains planted in the fall for a possible spring grain crop will tell you that those grain plants will tiller better (as in more stalks for the seeds…the grains…to grow on) when they are grazed in late winter and early spring. The last time I checked with Wes he still was not using livestock grazing as part of his development program. I think he should. This would be one way to increase tonnage with smaller seeds on perennials…and you don’t have to do a lot of genetic manipulation to get that increase. Just change the management.

    My guess would be that the Land Institute may wind up with some other strains of perennial grains than the ones we brought over from Eurasia many years ago and they will be smaller grains like the early imports were if they are to be perennial. That is one way to admit that you can’t do both so pick one.

    The new perennials you suggest would be ones that have self-selected to suit this continent, in my mind, but a lot of that adaptation has already taken place. I think Wes, for all of his admirable intentions, may be missing a solution that is already there…it is a management solution patterned on the ways the early herbivores did things. That would also be the ‘new’ mixed farming based on the old one which was very mixed before we smart bulbs thought we could outdo the original forms.”

  3. I appreciate your clear style of writing as well as the content of your posts. I’ll continue to read through the layers.

    I am working in Califiornia, USA, on a back to the future project that is developing a system for dry almond orchards (with some water retention ponds for supplmentary surface water where possible).

    More to follow.

  4. Hi Chris,

    I came across your site, read your articles on perennial vs annual and found them very interesting and insightful. I read Mark Shepard’s Restoration Agriculture before. Currently in my spare time I learn agroecology and perennial polyculture by volunteering in a forest garden. I’ve also seen the perennial wheat-like grass the Land Institute has bred, and tasted the beer brewed from such perennial grain by Patagonia Provisions. (Patagonia’s new documentary Unbroken Ground on sustainable food featured the work of The Land Institute.

    I strongly agree with your view on the emphasis to be placed on social basis of agriculture. I think agriculture systems should be diverse and always suit to the local conditions – it’s not that one is always better than another. All forms of agriculture practices should be encouraged, as long as they work with nature, rather than work against nature. But still I think transitioning towards a more perennial diversified farming system is worthwhile for humanity to get into a more harmonious relationship with nature. Note that even though the productivity from annuals is higher, with higher productivity comes ever increasing population, then even higher productivity is needed. This is a treadmill. What matters the most is sustainably producing our foods, and even regeneratively, considering our current environmental crises.

    My three additional points:
    1) You didn’t mention the nature farming principles (Taoist principles applied in farming) by Masanobu Fukuoka that should be used to reduce the labor costs, both in annual and perennial, which I believe it would cost less if applied in perennial.
    2) The fungal-bacteria ratio in a forest system is much much higher than in an annual system, and trees talk to each other through the large fungal network to not only their own species but also their kins. ( Similarly, a food forest is much more biodiverse, considering the countless ecosystem services and nutrient recycles within such system.

    I feel that diversified farming system involving more perennials would be a ultimate state for sustainable development, which perhaps somewhat look like Utopian hunter-gather societies where humans are a part of the nature, and live in harmony with nature. Using forest systems to produce food not only can provide adequate food (energy) to us humans, but perhaps also can teach us the symbiotic relationship about nature. We consume food for its energy, but food, as a life, contains different levels of energy, and forest foods contain higher levels of energy (there’s of course no scientific proof about this, merely from a philosophical perspective). By consuming more forest foods would probably enhance the spiritual level of human beings as well.

  5. Cheng, thanks for your comments – there’s much in them I agree with. I think you’re right that there’s a lot to be said for moving towards more perennial based agricultures. But I think that such agricultures will usually involve more human labour for less return. I don’t see that as necessarily a bad thing. However, I’m not persuaded by the likes of the Land Institute, Mark Shepard or indeed Fukuoka that a perennial agriculture is possible which can match the yield/labour ratios of annual agriculture (though in fact I’m not sure this is something that Fukuoka himself argued).

  6. Hi, this is my first post on this board.

    I like the reflection I see from the thoughts express here. I don’t know what is going to be the future-sustainable-agricultural-model but I often think about it. I like permaculture and the emphasis on perennial. That way you don’t have to start and plant fragile seedlings year after year. Also perennial plants might have longer roots and have access to deeper resources. I packed my parents yard with bush and fruits trees few years ago. Still didn’t get much from them yet. Exception are raspberries who produce well. Plants are growing but I have just over stocked the place which is already not so sunny. Anyway my goal was also to use the space as a propagation nursery for futures projects.

    Up to recently, I thought that the best way to build soil was to follow natural vegetative succession. Ultimately it is told that you end with a forest or tall grasses prairie ecosystem. But it seems that you can also build soil with annual crops. I don’t know if there is already some posts here who are discussing what Gabe Brown is doing in North Dakota (and He is not alone doing it)? He does no-till, mixed cover crops, cattle grazing on thousands of acres with fewer input than most. Some might says it is not perfect because he still use fossil fuel, some herbicide and import most of his seeds. However it is very interesting to ear about his démarche over years. It is still a work in progress and Who knows how it could look like in ten years? I suspect some of his approach can be adapted to smaller annual plots. There are many videos of him giving conferences.

    There is a recent one that I like.

    Any thought about that ?


    p.s. Sorry for my English, it is a second language.

    • Thanks for commenting, Jonathan. Yes, various people have mentioned Gabe Brown on here – I need to read up on what he’s doing. Indeed, there’s much to be said for perennial cropping – it’s just that I think some over-exaggerated claims are made for it on the input/output front.

  7. One of the interesting results Gabe Brown found is something he calls the ‘biological overdrive’ effect. He was looking at the soil building / biomass productivity of cover crop mixes, and he found that when the mix of species exceeded around 12 then the biomass per acre made a sharp increase. Its interesting to relate this to the work that Dr. Elaine Ingham is doing (and now Gabe too) with using low growing perennial cover mixes for improved annual cultivation. This seems like a nice harmony of productive annuals with the benefits of diverse perennials. Elaine is working with perennial low growing cover mixes of around 25 species where you strip till or transplant annuals into.

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