Episode 309. Climate Change Crops


This is The ChangeUnderground for the 12th of September 2022.

I’m your host, Jon Moore

Decarbonise the Air, Recarbonise the Soil!

No new varroa detections in the current outbreak in NSW. Corners may have been turned. Vigilance is key.

Indonesia hopes to have its FMD outbreak under control  by year’s end. Woohoo. Good news is welcome.

From the Guardian, 20 August 2022, by Cecilia Nowell a piece entitled: Diet for a hotter climate: five plants that could help feed the world


Here’s a look at five crops, beyond rice, wheat and corn, that farmers across the world are now growing in hopes of feeding the planet as it warms:

Amaranth: the plant that survived colonisation

Fonio: the drought-resistant traditional grain

Cowpeas: the fully edible plant

Taro: adapting the tropical crop for colder climes

Kernza: the crop bred for the climate crisis

End Quote

Amaranth is an interesting plant. I’ve tried it a few times but no success yet. I’ll have another crack this summer in a small test plot. It hasn’t failed completely but the returns were such that I got my seed back. It’s a pseudo cereal like buckwheat. In Africa and Asia the plant leaves and stems are consumed but the seeds are important in the Americas. It’s drought resistant and the current available seed stock is derived from feral plants that grew as weeds following the Spanish banning of the crop.

Some selection work is being done to develop “improved” cultivars. It contains all the 9 necessary proteins for human health. The leaves are usually stir fried and the seeds mix with milk or honey. 

Fonio is a new one to me. From West Africa, it is a type of millet and one of Africa’s longest cultivated plants. It apparently has a low GI and is gluten free as are many of the summer grown, frost susceptible grains. Think, sorghum, maize and so on. Drought resistance is a strong trait. Nothing grows in dust, obviously, and prolonged droughts seem to be increasing, however a general lowering of rainfall expectations in areas more used to growing wheat and maize could make this grain a viable option.

Ah, Cow Peas, better known in the US as black eyed peas or southern peas, this gives a clue to the plant’s origins. West Africa again where the entire plant is consumed. A legume, it assists in soil fertility by providing nitrogen. It was grown in much larger volumes after WW2 in the US for animal fodder but is perfectly safe for human consumption.

Taro is a perennial root vegetable across SE Asia and Polynesia. I remember finding some in a greengrocer’s in the early 1980s and attempting to cook it. It turned into a very starchy glue-like mess. I’m sure there’s better ways than boiling it like I did. A Tongan fella I worked with at the time seemed to think it was the greatest food on earth and it reminded him of home. There are attempts to annualise it for US growers which seems a little odd but the market produces strange results. It may well be a winner.

Kernza I mentioned before. It’s an attempt to perennialise wheat. The advantages are extensive. Longer and deeper roots that can scavenge soil moisture from much deeper than standard wheat. Perennial means no soil disturbance after the planting. The stands last about seven years. That’s a fair bit of diesel not used to prepare and plant annual seeds. The crop is combined like ordinary wheat and the stubble left to regrow. Also suitable for grazing, hit it hard and leave it alone to regrow. Another advantage of the perennial nature of Kernza is the huge reduction in soil loss through erosion. The ground is constantly covered.

These are just five crops. I suspect there’s plenty out there in the wild and in small gardens spread across the world ready for a comeback.

The key I think is the perennial approach. As water availability will both fall for longer periods and be interrupted by massively larger flood events, witness the La Nina years here in Australia, the droughts in Western Europe this northern summer and the Pakistan floods from a super charged monsoonal event, we need perennials that can drive more deeply for moisture and survive flooding. Way back in the 1990s we lived on the Monaro, the high plains of the Snowy Mountains in NSW. A savage, for the time, drought revealed many archaeological items but also showed how the fruit trees were the oases of green in a very brown land. These trees dated back to somewhere between the 1950s and the 1860s. They had, therefore, substantial root systems as they were all standards. The idea of dwarf or even semi-dwarf trees hadn’t reached our corner of the world. The lower trees along the creek flats had been flooded regularly. Mostly flash floods, we were near the headwaters of the creek flowing on one boundary, but not always so. People had been lost to weeks-long floods in the past. The trees were strong, productive and survivors.

The agroforestry approach has much to recommend it. It does though need to be multispecies. Up the road from where we are now in NW Tassie there’s a two acre block of paulownias. A monoculture the landholder uses to run dairy steers under. There’s a worry with these as they are all clones. A disease in one will take out the lot. A mixed species fruit planting, a jumbled orchard of standards would be slower growing than the paulownias but more sustainable in the longer run. With fruit trees comes options. Honey production of course but also higher twinning rates in sheep.

Stay with me. If ewes are covered whilst they are on a rising plain of nutrition they tend to double ovulate and bear more twins. Higher nutritional levels being the signal of fed availability at lambing time. I’d put a teaser ram in with the ewes, that’s one that is still intact but instead of having the testicles below the marking ring as a lamb, they were pushed up against the body of the ram lamb. This has two effects. 1: He still thinks and acts like a ram, including pheromone production and 2: he’s infertile as his sperm is kept at too high a temperature. 

The teaser and the ewes were turned into the orchard a month or so before mating time. The ewes coordinated their heat periods in the presence of a “ram” and he covered them. I had a harness on him with a red marker. Once he’d covered the ewes, he was replaced two days later with an intact ram with a blue marker harness and 14 later he’d have the job done. All the time the ewes are gorging themselves on windfall apples, pears, peaches and plums. The rising plain of nutrition.

The date of the blue markings on the ewes gave me a lambing date, five months later. Regular as clockwork, lambs would be dropped within two days. We were running Shropshires at the time. First years before I tried this management system we achieved 110% lambing rates, so a few twins. The first year using the system we hit 170% and after that never dropped below 185%. The chooks would be in the orchard at the same time and what the ewes left, the chooks cleaned up as well as digging up any codling moth larvae, I’m assuming because after the chooks and ewes were together for about six weeks in the orchard, pest problems ceased in subsequent summers.

Of the five crops discussed earlier, I’d love to get hold of some Kernza before any of the others but I’ll concede they all have their place. I didn’t really know what I was doing back in the 1990s. I was feeling my way forward. To be fair I’m still no expert on anything. I’m still feeling my way forward but with a few successes and a truck load of learning experiences (failures) under the belt.

Annuals have a place in any food system. Potatoes, corn, peas and beans etc will keep us alive. And annual herbs will provide sufficient variation in flavour to stop us going insane with boredom. Mind you, most of humanity for most of the agricultural period, from about 10,000 ybp worked the land and ate monotonous meals. Cereal gruels, soups/stews and bread, in the European context. I’m not sure Asia nor Meso America or Africa were that different. The Pacific either, although there, fish might provide a lot of the variation. Having dropped 14.1 kilos (31lbs) myself in the last two months through basically eating a monotonous diet, I will concede it feels healthier. Herbs can and do provide much needed variations.

So let’s all grow some food.

If you’d like help, the No-Dig garden Course, link in the show notes and in the transcript is currently selling for $17 dollars. Please tell your friends! 

Decarbonise the air, recarbonise the soil!

Thank you all for listening and I’ll be back next week.



No Dig Quick Start Course



email: jon@worldorganicnews.com

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Varroa mite emergency response


Diet for a hotter climate: five plants that could help feed the world


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