U of M professor Don Wyse is trying to develop crops to aid wildlife and farms.

What if the answer to Minnesota’s dwindling pheasant and duck populations — and the degradation of its soil and water — was growing in plain sight, in the heart of the Twin Cities?

And no one knew it.

Or very few did.

That might be the case, if professor Don Wyse and other U researchers succeed in developing new, profitable, wildlife-friendly crops that also address farmland environmental problems.

Think about it: Less corn and soybean fertilizer runoff into lakes and rivers. Fewer contaminated wells. Richer soils. And perhaps hundreds of thousands of additional wildlife habitat acres.

All while putting more money in farmers’ pockets.

Is it a dream?

No, Wyse said the other day, pointing to row after row of test crops on the U’s St. Paul campus.

It’s science — all part of the U’s Forever Green initiative, which Wyse believes is the nation’s most comprehensive new crop development program.

“This all accelerated about 15 years ago when we tried to develop perennial plants that could produce large quantities of biomass to be converted into biofuels,” Wyse said. “Unfortunately, the profitability wasn’t there, and still isn’t.”

So researchers sought, instead, new crops that could deliver multiple benefits, including hardiness to weather variations.

The intent was to benefit farmers. But more diverse plant life on the landscape, in some cases year-round, would also benefit soils, water and wildlife.

“Historically, what has been good for soil and water also has been good for wildlife,” agreed Dave Nomsen, a Pheasants Forever biologist.

Minnesota has a long history of innovative plant research. More than 40 years ago, farmers from Roseau asked the U to develop a profitable crop that could stay on their land year-round.

The result was perennial ryegrass, which today is planted on up to 100,000 acres in the state’s far north, and is marketed globally.

“Its profitability can compete with the corn and soybeans that have moved into the area in the years since,” Wyse said.

The value of adding more perennial crops to Minnesota’s landscape can’t be overstated, said Steve Morse, executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, who also has managed his family’s southeast Minnesota apple orchard.

“Researchers have demonstrated how with perennial strips landowners can reduce sediment movement off their fields by 95 percent, total phosphorus loss by 90 percent, and total nitrogen loss by nearly 85 percent,” Morse said.

Promising plants

Completion in 2003 of the Human Genome Project, and research conducted since, has accelerated the U’s efforts to develop new crops.

Here’s a sample of plants researchers are growing in St. Paul:

Intermediate wheatgrass: “We now have lines that will be going into commercial production,” Wyse said, noting that Patagonia, the outdoor outfitter, will grow the plant to develop a new food product. Intermediate wheatgrass’s deep roots make it resilient to a wide range of climate variations, and after being harvested, it remains fairly tall and thick, and a benefit to wildlife.

Pennycress: A winter annual oil seed crop planted in fall that holds ground together in winter, while utilizing unused fertilizer and retaining soil moisture. Soybeans can be planted into it, and the pennycress harvested later. Or soybean planting can follow the pennycress harvest. Extracted oil would serve the biodiesel market. A wide variety of wildlife would benefit, including bees.

American hazelnut: Oil produced is equivalent to olive oil, and hazelnuts thrive in marginal soils. “Hazelnuts have great potential, and a ready market exists, but we have challenges,” Wyse said, noting this crop is not as close to large-scale commercialization as wheatgrass and pennycress.

Perennial sunflowers: The U’s sunflower can stay on the land about five years. Oil and seeds produced compare favorably to annual sunflowers, while reducing tillage, providing early spring soil cover and fall stubble for wildlife habitat.

Natural products: In this initiative, natural products are pulled “out of the biomass stream” of plants destined for the fuel market. Aveda Corp. and Estee Lauder are among companies interested. “Again, these plants use water efficiently, while recycling nutrients, supporting bees and other wildlife, and producing products that have great economic benefit to farmers,” Wyse said.

Sticking around

At 68 years old, Wyse is interested in, but not ready to retire.

“I want to stay at the U until we have stabilized funding for Forever Green,” he said. “It’s important.”

The Legislature last session gave the initiative $1 million in a one-time appropriation — small potatoes in the mix of things.

That amount annually over seven to 10 years is what’s needed. The money would be used to hire researchers and, as importantly, attract promising graduate students.

“This should be a no-brainer,” Morse said. “The goal is to develop and improve agricultural crops and design Minnesota specific cropping systems to protect and restore the state’s soils, water and habitat while increasing efficiency, profitability, and productivity of farmers by incorporating perennial and winter annual crops into existing agricultural practices.

“Who is not for that?”