Growing Perennial Wheat on Highway Shoulders

The development of perennial wheat cultivars may open up highway shoulders and other marginal land for use as farmland and further carbon sequestration.

  • highway
    Unused acreage along highway shoulders may at last be put to use with perennial crops.
    Photo by Flickr/Matt Lavin

  • highway

A pilot program from the Georgia Department of Transportation is striving to change the notion that farming and freeways don’t have much in common. Working in partnership with The Land Institute and The Ray, the department has developed a perennial wheat farm along a highway’s right-of-way.

The project is taking place along the Ray C. Anderson Memorial Highway, an 18-mile stretch of land locally known as “The Ray” that’s already on the cutting edge of sustainable transportation. Along its route are solar-powered electric vehicle charging stations, a pollinator garden, and rainwater-capturing bioswales. However, the perennial wheat project takes this highway sustainability program to a new level. Perennial grains are increasingly viewed as a viable avenue for improving the environmental impacts of modern agriculture, and positive results from the pilot program could potentially change management practices for millions of acres of highway-bordering land in the future.

A key component of the program is the use of Kernza seed, as this is the first time it’s been planted in the American Southeast or along a highway. Unlike traditional wheat, Kernza plants develop a 10-foot-deep root system that helps them enrich the soil, withstand drought, and even sequester carbon. This wheat cultivar also has potential as raw material for sustainably manufactured disposable paper products, and producing it on otherwise-unused land along highways may also help preserve trees.

Depending on this program’s success, The Ray hopes to expand the concept to other highway systems. The organization is committed to working toward environmental sustainability one roadside at a time. Read about Kernza and other perennial food crops at The Land Institute.

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