Growing a New Future for Farming

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How did the Forever Green Initiative come about?

Well, if you really think about it, that happened in 1974. The philosophy has been there for a long time. One day, I was making a presentation, and I basically laid out a title for new resilient, agriculture systems: evergreen crops. Forever Green caught on.

What’s the relationship between the university and the initiative?

We have 16 [crop-development teams]. Each of those are coordinated from developing the basic science — genomics, breeding agronomics — through commercialization and building the supply chain. That’s what makes us unique in the world. We basically have 16 mini companies. What I do is make sure these teams are coordinated and funded across that entire platform.

Every agronomic crop that’s produced in the state of Minnesota, other than sugar beets, came from the University of Minnesota’s department of agronomy and plant genetics. Hybrid corn was developed there, along with soybeans, wheat and perennial ryegrass.

How did you settle on these 16 specific crops?

If you’re living in Minnesota, what do you think the biggest challenge would be if you wanted to plan for continuous living cover?

Winter hardiness?

Damn straight. You look across a wide range of potential crops that we know are extremely winter hardy. Then, you say, OK, this kind of pennycress or camelina can produce protein and oil. What’s the value of that in the marketplace? Perhaps biofuel.

The state of Minnesota has 20 million acres of agricultural land. What percentage of that land has a cover crop on it? Two percent. In some parts of the Midwest, it’s four. The reason that Minnesota is low is because of the short length of our growing season. You’re not going to get any ecosystem services if you kill a cover crop in Minnesota in the first or second week in April. You’re just wasting your time, and every farmer knows it.

So the value of these cover crops for corn-soybean farmers is that this new crop could benefit their land, benefit the environment and become a second source of income?

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