Interview with a Plant Scientist – Lee DeHaan
Lee DeHaan grew up on a conventional corn and soybean farm in Minnesota. His father and older brothers heard Wes Jackson speak in the early 80s about perennial grains, and their benefits to agriculture became a topic of family conversation that led to both Lee and his oldest brother pursuing further research into perennials.
What brought you to The Land Institute?
My oldest brother went to graduate school at the University of Minnesota (UMN) wanting to work on developing perennial grain crops and it became my dream to work on the first perennial grain crop, if I could, but I never really thought that would happen. I ended up looking for a place where I could work on them for a master’s degree, but I couldn’t find anything; it didn’t really exist. My brother had many collections of Illinois bundleflower, which was a plant that The Land Institute was exploring as a kind of model perennial grain species, but his committee decided that it was too risky of a project, so he didn’t use it. He was graduating the same week I was starting the program at UMN, and he handed me this box of seeds and said, “Maybe you can do something with this.” So, I reframed it as more of a dual forage/grain project. Times had changed by then, and people were more open to exploring the possibilities of perennial grains, so there was an opening to do this work.
Then, The Land Institute had its graduate fellowship program and I applied to that as well and ended up coming down here annually for several years when I was doing my PhD and met Wes. He said, “Hey, if you’re ever looking for a job, let us know.” And I just kind of blew it off, but then I ran into David (Van Tassel) in the Twin Cities and told him I was interviewing for jobs. He told Wes and Wes called me the next day and asked, “Why don’t you come down?” And so, I did. Even though there was no position advertised, it became obvious to me that it was the only place in the world that I could work on perennial grain crop development, so I didn’t have much of a choice. I had to come here.
What got you into studying intermediate wheatgrass and how did you end up with Kernza®?
When I came here, they said they were looking for someone to work on perennial wheat. I didn’t know anything about wheat. I didn’t know anything about wide-hybridization, really, so I relied heavily on Stan (Cox) who had been a USDA geneticist. He was one of the leaders in that field, so he advised me on the wide-crossing as we began to develop perennial wheat. I was still working on Illinois bundleflower and then picked up many different crops. I think in the first five years I worked on nine different species. Most of them were very small experiments – plant it out and see if it works. I would work on a species for a year or two and then decide it had some difficult barriers that I wasn’t prepared to address.
The intermediate wheatgrass had already been worked on by the Rodale Institute and USDA, so we had some slightly improved material there. When I first was here, Stan, David, and I were equally working on it, but none of us saw it as our main thing. I started to see that intermediate wheatgrass was like the wheat that I was working on, and so after a couple of years, I took over all those experiments. We got some funding from the USDA to do some on-farm plantings, and I saw that intermediate wheatgrass can be grown on a farm pretty easily. Farmers already grow it as a grass crop.
So, we are just developing a new use for an existing crop. Although the distance you must travel to get a successful crop seems farther because the yield of the seed is very low now, in another sense, you don’t have to go very far because it’s already a crop. All you need to do is make the seed yield a little bit better. It was a functional system and so I saw the potential for it to become a commercial crop faster than anything else we were working on at the time.
About 2010, I wrote a proposal to the administration and said, “If I work on this full-time for the next 10 years, I think we could have something that farmers are growing by 2020.” They agreed, created a position for perennial wheat, and ended up hiring Shuwen (Wang) for that. Then I went full-time with this project. Things got way ahead of schedule and we ended up having plantings on a farm in three years instead of ten. Whether that was a good idea or not remains to be seen, but that’s where we are.
In terms of Kernza itself, what is the ideal way to grow it, or is there an ideal at this point?
We typically plant it in the late summer – depending where you are. The farther north you go, the earlier you need to plant. If you’re in northern Minnesota, it better be mid-August. Kansas could be late September. The first year, if things go well, you can get a grain harvest in the summer – which also depends where you are. Here, it’s July. In northern Minnesota, it’s late August. After that, you can use the residue for forage – kind of medium to low quality hay because its what’s left over after the seed has matured. Then, the research seems to indicate that depending on rainfall and many different things, we can harvest or graze forage again in the fall and/or spring or winter. And then the next summer, the next grain harvest and forage harvest is possible. The spring grazing is very high quality but low yield, and the summer forage harvest with the grain is very high yield, but low quality. We hope that it can last for many years. Exactly how many years and how it must be managed to obtain that, we don’t have solid answers yet. I think we’d be pleased if we can get 3-5 years of grain yield from it.
Every year if the grain yield for some reason is not turning out, there is always the option to harvest for forage instead in the summer. That would be a little bit earlier harvest to make it have a higher forage quality. The next year if it turns out that conditions are better (higher rainfall or whatever), you can go back to harvesting grain. So, there is that flexibility. At this point it’s much better to see it as a forage crop that you also take grain from in certain situations. That is a challenge for everyone, including the supply chain and buyers, to not have as certain of a grain harvest for every acre that you plant. People like to think you can plant 100 acres to get this many bushels and rely on it very dependably. It’s not that way, at least not yet.
What would you say are some of the biggest challenges?
Compared to other crops being worked on at TLI like David’s silphium, we have fewer pest and disease problems and probably fewer than annual wheat, too. So, it’s easier on that front. The whole system can work: you can plan it, you can grow it, you can harvest it, you can eat it and it tastes good, and you can make stuff out of it. Everything works, it’s just the yield’s too low. Our primary near-term way to improve the yields is through management: figuring out the best way to grow it – spacing, timing, when to harvest or when to graze or mow it. We need to get more grain off the field, and that will make it cheaper and more widely usable.
If we’re looking at the supply chain, we’ve had too little of it grown all over the place, which has made it horribly expensive to get from the field to the plate. We’re literally sending seed by Fed-Ex. If you want to have any kind of efficiency in the system, you’ve got to have at a least semi-loads, preferably train cars, to get it from one place to another, not cardboard boxes shipped in the mail. That’s the level of production we’re at now. If we want to take it scale, we need to have more acres aggregated and ways that we can get shipping and processing done in an efficient manner. If the farmer’s getting a dollar per pound right now, there’s two dollars per pound in processing and transport, and that’s not even turning it into a product. That’s still a raw ingredient ready to go into a product. So, if we could get our processing and transport down to $.40 a pound instead of $2.00 a pound, then it becomes a lot more feasible to use it in products.
I saw from the collaborators list that you have a growing network of people who are working on it and growing it in other places.
Kansas is as far south as you can grow it reliably. People are growing it in Vermont, New York, Ohio, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, among others. We also have experiments in North Dakota, Montana, Utah, and Nebraska. Some of this has to do with where I happen to know people. For example, the USDA grass geneticist who works on intermediate wheatgrass is based in Utah. If there’s a place that’s the most like where it’s native, it’s probably high-elevation regions like Utah or Colorado where it gets hot and dry in the summer, but also stays fairly cool at night and has cold winters. Where it comes from, you can get good crops with relatively low amounts of rainfall, but once you come to Kansas, where it’s hot during the day and at night as well, that creates just incredible stress. Cool-season grasses don’t like high night time temperatures.
One of the unknowns is where the most economic place is to grow it. We know it can grow successfully all the way from the East to the West coast and from Kansas way up into Canada. The question is where the is best place, and we don’t know the answer to that. It’s so dependent on market forces, processing and transport logistics – there are so many factors that will come into answering that question. We’re just going to have to proceed anyway and eventually learn over time.
Besides having more regions to test, are there any specific important breakthroughs that have come from collaborations?
It would be hard for me to point out something we’ve accomplished that hasn’t come through teamwork with others. As an example of what happens when I do my breeding work: we harvest leaf tissue from the greenhouse in Salina, ship it to Kansas State University in Manhattan where DNA gets extracted and processed, that gets shipped to Alabama for sequencing, the data gets sent back to Kansas, and then gets downloaded and processed by a post-doc who lives in Ohio who helps make decisions, and it is all stored back in Kansas. It’s not like we’re sitting here in Salina doing this by ourselves; there is almost nothing that I do only on my own. Nearly all my projects are in collaboration with scientists at a university somewhere else.
Is there a specific amount of Kernza you need to guarantee before it can be distributed more widely?
If a company is going to make a new product run, they can’t really run their line unless they have a certain minimum amount of grain to make that product and get it into stores. Maybe they need 100,000 pounds minimum or they need a million pounds minimum. You must hit some threshold of production to be able to provide those levels.
What do you anticipate for 2019?
We anticipate expanded plantings in targeted regions. We may have to make some tough calls and say we are not expanding commercialization in some areas, but in other regions, we are. I want experiments many places, but those experiments need to be done in collaboration with a local researcher. I can’t be the only researcher trying to do on-farm research with someone who lives 700 miles away and answer their questions based on pictures they are sending me from their cell phone. It just doesn’t work. If a farmer is going to get involved, much of it needs to be research-based. We must help people understand that.
Many of the “new” crops out there are old crops that just don’t have a strong market. Buckwheat might be seen as a new crop, but it’s not actually new at all, people have grown it for thousands of years. It’s just that not many people grow buckwheat right now. It is a crop, so you can look up information on how to grow it. But intermediate wheatgrass Kernza is not a new crop like that, it’s REALLY a new crop. It’s almost a proto-crop, so you can’t just expect you’re going to get some seed, plant it, and make money next year. If you’re a grower, you’re signing up to participate in the ongoing discovery of how we’re going to grow this crop.
Could you say something briefly about the rationale behind intercropping experiments focusing on growing Kernza and alfalfa as a biculture?
None of the other crops that we work with at TLI are to the level where we can get a reliable harvest from them, so that’s the reason we work on this one in an ecological sense. If we try to grow perennial sorghum here in Kansas, a lot of it still dies. You won’t get good experiments until Stan gets lines that are consistently high-survival plus decent yield. Perennial wheat mostly dies too so, we don’t have it to experiment with in the field either. With Kernza, we can grow it for many years in the field, and harvest grain.
The domestication of silphium is somewhat the same issue. We don’t have any types of silphium that we can put out in experiments and combine harvest because the seeds are so fluffy that it doesn’t work. The exception for perennial crops is perennial rice, which is actually working right now. But rice doesn’t grow here in Kansas, so we’re not doing intercropping work here.
That’s why Kernza is being used. Why alfalfa is used with it instead of anything else is that again, alfalfa is something that we know how to grow, and you can obtain seed from a catalog. You can order alfalfa seed, you have machines that plant it, and we have volumes of information on how to plant, grow, and manage alfalfa. It might not ultimately be the best thing, but it’s something that works because we know so much about it. At least if we start with that, we have different varieties that we can order. We know the properties of those varieties in terms of maturity and where they’re adapted to.
Have you made any recent important discoveries for advancing your work within the last year or so?
For me, the most exciting progress for breeding has been the genomic selection – how we take DNA and make our selections based on that. The most important thing to get this crop to succeed is to increase the harvested yield so we can get the cost down. Over the longer term, that’s going to happen mostly through breeding, but breeding is an inherently slow thing, so we must find ways to speed progress. We know we can get a perennial grain crop. I feel quite confident in concluding that we can get perennial plants that will yield abundant seed, it’s just a matter of how many generations it will take to develop them. If you can only increase the yield by so much per year and you have to increase the yield by five times, that takes decades. There’s just no way around it. So, we’re always looking for ways to substitute money, effort, land, and technologies for time.
What input can we put into the system that will decrease our time to higher yields? Until last year, the primary way to do it was to have larger and larger fields with more plants – so we were growing fields of 23,000 plants, trying to measure all of those, which is overwhelming, difficult, and expensive. And it doesn’t get you that big of an improvement. What benefits you more is if you can get more generations more quickly. What genomic selection does is get us twice as many generations in the same amount of time. I had been spending two years on a breeding cycle of selection and now I’ve reduced it to one year. Although we need more evidence, and it looks like it is working, maybe even better than what we had been doing. If we can have the same accuracy of selection in half the time, then we can double our progress. Then it’s just a matter of figuring out refinements to that system. How do we do it even better, even faster, at a lower cost?
How do you work on this year after year and make it a lifetime project?
I think other people get more bored with it than we do; that’s one of our fears. People say, “What’s new this year?” Often, the answer is “same thing as last year.” And after 10 years of still doing the same thing, you worry that donors and supporters are going to lose interest. It’s hard to keep people’s attention if there’s not something new to report every year. We know the path to perennial grains, but we’ve got to keep doing largely the same thing every year for the next 50 years; hang in there with us!
So, its good when you can have some refinements to the system and improve it using the very latest technologies, and we’re trying to do the fastest, cheapest, best sequencing approaches using supercomputers to analyze the data. That’s one thing.
The other thing is I’m trying to create a shortcut. We think of perennial wheat as being a shortcut (which is basically what Shuwen means when he talks about growing wheat and adding in some perenniality from wheatgrass.) My approach now is to do it backwards: I’ve got intermediate wheatgrass and it’s a good perennial, but the seeds are too small, for instance. Could we pull a few genes out of wheat and fix that seed size or shape problem? I’m taking Shuwen’s hybrids and crossing them into wheatgrass, and Kathryn Turner is using the latest sequencing technologies to track the movement of the chromosomes to see if we can bring a little bit of wheat into wheatgrass.
What is the difference between this work and creating a GMO plant?
The difference is that our work is accomplished by moving pollen from one plant to another, relying on the process of sexual reproduction. GMOs are produced through non-sexual transfer of genes from one organism to another. We are moving genes across species barriers, but always through sexual reproduction.
Briefly, what are your 5-10-year goals? You said you’re hoping by 2020 to release Kernza more widely?
There are so many different levels of this. There’s agronomic research and breeding, but for the species, the overall project, it’s really to continue to increase yields that farmers can obtain by whatever research approaches are available to us. I want to increase that yield and profitability to farmers so they can expand production. We’re looking for steady, sustained, progress.
Would you hope within the next 10 years that it’s a more viable commercial product?
Yes. As Rachel (Stroer) has put it, it’s more like the next 10 years is sort of our beta test phase for commercialization. So far, we’ve been in more like pre-commercialization. Now we’re going to get serious and build up, so that in 10 years we think Kernza could become a crop with a market. Everyone must participate in the effort and say that we want to help make this become a successful crop and what does it take to do that? We’ll commit to buying some, we’ll commit to growing some, we’ll do research, and everyone’s kind of participating in this.
Hopefully, in 10 years a farmer will be able to buy seed from a normal seed outlet. Or maybe that won’t be the model. Maybe it will be a contract and farmers are given the seed and then grow it. Nevertheless, the idea is that the system will work as a market with the availability of grain and the price being set based on what the supply is that year. But everyone must collaborate and understand that we don’t yet really have a fully viable crop, we don’t really have a market – that’s where we’re heading to. Join us on the journey!