Perennial flax: a new crop for sustainable agriculture in the Northern Plains.
North Dakota and the surrounding North Central region are frequently plagued by excessive soil moisture, often causing inability to sow or harvest key crops during both spring and fall. These challenging conditions are often interspersed with seasonal drought. Growing perennial crops can help overcome these problems by improving in-season soil water infiltration/storage (thereby increasing crop-useable soil-water content), reducing offseason runoff (preventing soil erosion and associated nutrient loss), diversifying harvesting windows, and using a larger portion of the growing season. Perennial crops also foster increased soil carbon storage, healthy soil microbe communities, efficient nutrient cycles, and increased habitat for pollinators. For all these reasons, growing perennial flax will contribute to environmental sustainability. Additionally, many farmers lack profitable crop options for increasing rotation diversity and spreading risk. Perennial grain crops, such as Kernza®, have been successfully developed, but a high value perennial oilseed crop could also be beneficial for this region because of the availability of market centers for oilseed crops and growing consumer demand for such products. Moreover, perennial flax species (i.e., Linum lewisii) have the oil quality of annual flax (high in heart-healthy omega-3 oils) and are true perennials that regrow from winterhardy crowns and can be harvested up to two times a year in North Dakota. Consequently, perennial flaxseed is a high-value oilseed crop with the environmental benefits of perennials that could help foster both economic sustainability for farmers via increased profitability and social sustainability via contributions to producer work-time management and public health. We propose a series of agronomy and plant breeding experiments aimed at developing the informational and germplasm basis for perennial flax as a new oilseed crop for the North Central region. Our proposed outputs are outreach to producers on basic agronomic recommendations (including tactics for weed suppression) for this potential new perennial crop, and to provide information on existing public flax accessions and improved lines derived from public pre-variety resources, leading to a better crop for both organic and conventional producers. This project will also link potential first-adopter perennial flax producers with interested food industry partners to begin supply chain development (see attached letters of support from industry partners).
Project objectives from proposal:
Three learning outcomes are (1) changes in awareness and knowledge among regional farmers about how perennial oilseed production can functionally diversify their operations, (2) graduate student education in sustainable agriculture, particularly agronomy, participatory plant breeding, and associated outreach, and (3) changes in undergraduate student awareness and knowledge of agricultural and food systems through a student internship exchange program. An action outcome includes linking our breeding program with producer and end-market support. The longer-term, system-wide goal is to assemble a supply chain that starts with producers and plant varieties and ends with food industry demand and consumer availability.