KAYTE YOUNG: From WFIU in Bloomington Indiana, I'm Kayte Young and this is Earth Eats.
OLGA KALENZIDOU: When I offered this class for the first time I had people saying, “But really what are we going to be cooking? Tenderloin sandwiches?” And it's so much more than that.
KAYTE YOUNG: This week on the show we talked with geography Professor Olga Kalenzidou about Indiana food ways and how migrant cultures influenced the cuisines of the places they inhabit. And Harvest Public Media shares a story about perennial grain farming. All that and more just ahead, so stay with us.
Earth Eats is produced from the campus of Indiana University in Bloomington Indiana. We wish to acknowledge and honor the indigenous communities native to this region and recognize that Indiana University is built on indigenous homelands and resources. We recognize the Miami, Delaware, Potawatomi, and Shawnee people on whose ancestral homelands and resources, Indiana University Bloomington is built.
Let's start with Renee Reed and the Earth Eats news. Hi Renee.
RENEE REED: Hi Kayte. Feedlots don't just stink up the car, according to one new study they're also a major driver of air pollution across the country. As Harvest Public Media's Christina Stella reports researchers found nearly 18,000 U.S. deaths each year are tied to airborne particles from livestock and farms.
CHRISTINA STELLA: Until now it wasn't clear which kind of farms were hurting human health the most. These health effects include heart attacks cardiovascular problems and cancer. Jason Hill is a professor in the department of bioproducts and biosystems engineering at the University of Minnesota. He says the risks are highest for high population counties that are upwind of farms in the Corn Belt, California, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina.
JASON HILL: 80% of those deaths are from animal-based products. Either the animals themselves, but also from producing the food that they eat.
CHRISTINA STELLA: He said the study encourages emission reducing practices on and off the farm, like eating less meat and no till farming. Researchers predicted changes by growers and consumers could each cut pollution related deaths by at least half. Christina Stella, Harvest Public Media.
RENEE REED: After an all-time high during the pandemic, rates of food insecurity among American families are finally starting to decline. Nearly one in five families experienced hunger at the height of the pandemic now that unemployment is declining and the economy is getting back on track, that number is starting to fall. Diane Schanzenbach directs the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University and has been tracking these rates. She says while the decline is good news, we're not out of the woods yet.
DIANE SCHANZENBACH: Some of the worst I think it's behind us, but they're still going to be elevated need. I would expect, for quite some time, probably years, even though he will clearly be getting better the economy will be healing, etcetera.
RENEE REED: She says Federal stimulus checks and increased funding for SNAP benefits have been especially helpful in decreasing food insecurity. Thanks to Harvest Public Media's Dana Cronin and Christina Stella for those reports. For Earth Eats news, I'm Renee Reed. (Guitar music)
(Sound of people chattering and pans sizzling)
KAYTE YOUNG: That's the sound of students cooking in a Food Lab at Indiana University in the geography department.
OLGA KALENZIDOU: My name is Olga Kalenzidou. I am a lecturer in geography in the department of geography at IU.
KAYTE YOUNG: Professor Olga Kalenzidou is teaching a Geography of Food class this semester with a focus on Indiana foodways. It's a hybrid class with some students meeting in person in the Food Lab in the basement of the student building at Indiana University, and other students are tuning in via Zoom - cooking in their own kitchen.
OLGA KALENZIDOU: What are you ladies making today?
ZOOM STUDENT: We are making a cheddar and broccoli soup.
OLGA KALENZIDOU: Whoo hoo! It is soup weather for some strange reason in April. KAYTE YOUNG: On this day the focus is on Indiana seasonal produce. The students are finding ways to incorporate ingredients such as early spring onions, asparagus, and winter squash into simple dishes that can be prepared in class. Olga encourages improvisation and adapting recipes to what's available.
OLGA KALENZIDOU: Figure out what we can substitute it with. So it's all about being practical, right?
KAYTE YOUNG: Some students work independently, others work in pairs. In the last they made a frittata featuring asparagus and fresh local eggs, a pureed butternut squash soup, and a Moroccan tagine-style vegetable stew. Olga moved around the room offering tips and assistance while checking in regularly with the online students to hear how their dishes were coming along.
At one point Olga pulled out in industrial-sized pickle jar from the fridge layers of light green vegetables packed in a bright red sauce. She explained that they made kimchi during their module on the Asian American Experience in contribution to Indiana cuisine. Kimchi is a Korean pickled condiment made with napa cabbage, Daikon radish, and other vegetables, seasoned with a flavorful red chili paste. The kimchi had been fermenting for a few weeks and it was time for a tasting. I asked one of the students - Jake Dixon, what he thought of the finished product.
JAKE DIXON: Yeah I was on that made it a couple weeks ago, so I figured I was obligated to try it. But it was actually really good. It does look a little intimidating though, I will say.
KAYTE YOUNG [INTERVIEWING]: It's not something you've made before, or even had?
JAKE DIXON: No I never even had it before.
KAYTE YOUNG [INTERVIEWING]: Oh, okay! You didn't even know what you were getting into.
JAKE DIXON: No, I had no idea. But it's kind of fun to make.
KAYTE YOUNG [INTERVIEWING]: Did you sort of cut it in quarters and then fill it was like a paste, fill the Napa cabbage with the pepper paste?
JAKE DIXON: Yup.
KAYTE YOUNG [INTERVIEWING]: Yeah that's nice, it turned out really good.
JAKE DIXON: Yeah, I thought it was really good. I mean, I've never had it. So I don't know what to compare it to, but it was really good.
KAYTE YOUNG: And it will change over time too.
[NARRATING] Kimchi is not the first dish that would come to mind for me when thinking of Indiana cuisine. I sat down with OLGA KALENZIDOU: in our studio to learn more about the complexities of food geographies. Our conversation just ahead after a short break.
I'm Kayte Young, you're listening to Earth Eats. I'm talking with Professor Olga Kalenzidou.
OLGA KALENZIDOU: I am a lecturer in geography in the department of geography at IU. And I come from Greece originally. I came to the U.S. about 30 years ago.
KAYTE YOUNG: I asked Olga about her academic background and how she got into food studies.
OLGA KALENZIDOU: I am a trained archaeologist actually. So my previous research and my dissertation was about potters has used a different market to get to different demographics and different ethnic groups. And I did that research in my neck of the woods which is Northeastern Greece next to Turkey. And I was trying to understand how potters distributed their wares and whether there was a correlation between the ethnicity of the potters in the ethnicity of the customers.
And of course what I found was that people because they had similar historical trajectories and they were using the same markets and using the pots similarly, to cook similar things, that there wasn't a very distinct correlation between ethnicity and what the potters were doing.
And in the process of doing that research I got to know a lot of the older residents of it, cause I did a lot of ethnographic interviews. And I go to know a lot of the residents and how they cooked in the past, and what kind of ingredients it was using. So I got to be more and more interested in food as practice, and food as embodied experience.
So from there I started getting more into how food defines us, defines our identities. So I started looking at how new waves of people that are coming to Greece, either as refugees or repatriated Greeks, used food as a way to ease their way into our society, and how they interpret their position in Greek society through their food traditions.
KAYTE YOUNG [INTERVIEWING]: What do you mean by that? Like what did you find in terms of with their own food traditions or with adopting Greek food traditions?
OLGA KALENZIDOU: I was focusing actually on the people who were coming out of the Republic of Georgia, of the country of Georgia as a result of the war with Russia in the 1990s. Greece repatriated of those who had Greek Heritage and they are a particular ethnic group that have rights of repatriation much like Israel has a similar laws.
So these people were coming in to Greek society, being identified as having Greek conscience, and Greek ethnicity, but of course not many of them were speaking Greek and they have to find a way to make a living. Some of them went in to opening restaurants.
In my area there were several who opened either what we call fast food restaurant like gyro and Kebab places, bringing their own traditions of how they were cooking the meat and the spices in the Georgian way. And then incorporating elements of the dominant Greek cuisine or what the customers wanted. And kind of meeting the customers halfway and they have been very very successful. Several of these businesses have been successful.
And another business that I really look that was a family who created a naan bread and making bread in a in a Tandoori oven. And that is something that a Greeks really did not know. Then talking about the middle to late nineties. They became really important not only for the community of Georgians. And also other Greeks from the neighborhood started coming into the bakery and getting to know this bread making tradition.
KAYTE YOUNG [INTERVIEWING]: And you're staying at the Georgian breadmaking tradition cause when I think of tandoori I think I just thought it was Indian.
OLGA KALENZIDOU: It is Indian, but a lot of people around central Asia are using the same technique. So the flatbread making in the Tandoor oven it is widespread along those areas. And through the interactions that people have had for a long time you can find it from Afghanistan to India, to Kazakhstan, to Georgia, to Armenia. So all these areas are connected.
We used to have a bread that we consumed, and it's a flatbread, and we consume it on the Monday before our Lent starts. And I have the suspicion that that bread also came with a very first wave of immigrants from that place of the world. So as many places, Greece is a crossroad. And we incorporate a lot as we get new groups of people and new ways of doing things, culinarily speaking.
KAYTE YOUNG [INTERVIEWING]: That's really interesting. And it sort of gets to one of the questions I wanted to ask witches could you talk about what is geography of food? That's something that I think a lot of people might not be familiar with if they're not in food studies, and I know it's something that you teach.
OLGA KALENZIDOU: Geography of food is part of a branch of geography that is called human geography. And it's human and cultural geography. So we focus on the production and consumption of food and its myriad ways that is related to territories, to the geographies, to specific places. Food crosses boundaries, food informs decisions that people make from what to buy, to what to cook, and how to trade. So all of that is part of the geography of food.
The way I teach the geography of food is, so I start with this very big picture of how specific ingredients are tied to specific places through the process of domestication, either animals or plants. And then we start understanding in my class how the world has changed through different periods of time and through different historical trajectories that allowed us to this day to have ingredients from all over the world on our plate.
KAYTE YOUNG [INTERVIEWING]: What are some of the specific courses or topics that you teach?
OLGA KALENZIDOU: I have several classes at a page of the food and agriculture concentration in geography. For Foodways I teach Greek cuisine because I wanted to focus a little bit down where I come from and how that particular region is influenced and influences its neighbors, through its geography, through its economy, through its identity. Then I teach Indiana Foodways which is a course that I developed during the bicentennial. Then I also teach the Geography of Food and then courses such as Edible Education, it's an introduction to the food system at large, that has more of a current events kind of feel, because I need to make sure that whatever is happening in the world of food systems work comes into that class. And Urban Agriculture. So I have a big palette.
KAYTE YOUNG: So I would like to hear more about the Indiana foodways.
OLGA KALENZIDOU: This is a course of that developed out of my interest in the place that I call home for the last 30 years. And this is a course that also speaks to my identity as an immigrant in this society. So just like I'm I am studying or researching how immigrants in my country of Greece actually make their way into the Greek society through their food, I also made my way into this society, into Indiana, through getting to know people and feeding them.
I have been always interested in how any region in the U.S. and especially Indiana incorporates locality and incorporates ways of eating mindfully and ethically. So my course has two purposes, first of all to describe to the students how the different groups that came to Indiana left their particular taste on the environment, on the foodways, practices, etcetera. And then to let them think about the local food system and how they can make use of local resources in order to eat more mindfully, ethically, and close to their homes.
KAYTE YOUNG: I think that when I hear Indiana foodways, I'm thinking what are the foods? What are the dishes? What are the recipes? What's the cuisine of Indiana? And frankly it doesn't sound particularly interesting to me. So I want to hear a little bit about how you think about that.
OLGA KALENZIDOU: As soon as I come to my class, that is the first question I asked them. So what is the cuisine of Indiana? And they say meat and potatoes and bland food. And then we start discussing about the different movements of populations in this area. Where did they come from? Why do we have fish fries in the southern part of the state? Why do we eat particular kinds of a desserts? What informed those decisions? And usually the answer to that is the movement of people through this day that brought different traditions with them.
I start with the Native American presence in the state. And we go into a lot of detail about what the resources were, how Native American people actually understood their environment, and what they have imparted or left behind after they were thrown out of the state. And that is a tough reality that we have to deal with. And I think many of my students have not heard that part of the story at all.
Indiana has a load of corn, but it is commodity crop corn, however if you go in the beginning of the nineteenth century when the white settlers are moving in you will see corn grown in different ways and in different conditions. And it was not a commodity crop back then.
The opulence of migration from the mid 1900 on brings people from the Appalachian region to Indiana and they bring their own traditions. And we see a lot of linguistic idioms with that part of the state. The southern state has very different language idioms from the northern part of the state because it has different populations. And then slowly we also talk about the influence of the railway and how it brought very different populations to the state. And then we move through different waves of immigrants starting from the Scotch-Irish and German that have a very distinct geographical presence, and they continue to inform the landscape through their architecture and through their foodways. And then we continue to go up to Indianapolis when it was deemed to the new state capitol and what kinds of immigrants came through or other populations from the U.S. And then I move north with talking the migration patterns that are the result of the building of the railway and the Erie Canal. So it brings other kinds of immigrants from the eastern part of the United States to Northern Indiana cities.
So all these immigrants come and impart very very different flavors to the cuisine. They work their cuisine into their particular understanding of what it means to be a Hoosier, to be an American. So all those discussions are not separate from what is happening to the rest of the U.S. There are also the African Americans who have very distinct communities and they come from the southern part of the U.S. And they bring their understanding of Southern foodways, especially from Alabama cause that's how the railway was connected. And then we incorporate also different immigrant groups such as the Greeks, the Italians, the Polish people, people of Irish descent and of course more recent arrivals such as Latin American communities in the U.S. and Indiana and Middle Eastern.
So lots of things to talk about and in the process it's not only about the recipes of the food it is about the racial politics that connect food to identity. What is left out and what is promoted as Indiana food?
KAYTE YOUNG: Okay well that's helpful because I think that I'm probably one of those people whose lumping it all together and just saying, "Indiana food is Midwestern food, and midwestern food is boring" And not really understanding the complexity of the different regions in the state and the different populations that have come through and stayed and influenced it with their foodways.
I'm reading this about what Isabelle Wilkerson's book The Warmth of Other Suns about the Great Migration. And so when you started talking about that I was like, "Oh right" Because Northern Indiana is close to Chicago and there were a lot of African Americans moving from the south there. And they're bringing their foodways and so that's probably a lot the food there is probably really different than it is down here. And so yeah that's great.
OLGA KALENZIDOU: The other part that comes up quite frequently is how much of Indiana's foodways especially before the 1960s was tied to the land. Because up to the 1960s a lot of Indiana was rural. It started changing of course after World War II with massive industrialization, especially in the north with big farming operations. But up to that point especially when you're looking at the southern part of the state, smaller farms much more family oriented. And I may be having a very rosy picture, it was not a rosy picture. It's very difficult to make a living in the southern part of the state because of our topography that doesn't allow big farming to exist.
So a lot of the foods that people ate were very much part of what they grew. And yes they might have grown the commercial corn, but the corned they ate, and the dishes that they made, really took advantage of the resources that they had, and the gardens that they had. So that's another part that is missing when we talked about locality.
KAYTE YOUNG: Can you talk a little bit about how you approach these topics in the classroom?
OLGA KALENZIDOU: I always incorporate an experiential component because I don't think students will learn effectively if they don't do something, if they don't apply their knowledge. So in a typical class environment I would have the class divided in two parts, one of it would be understanding the readings, and then in the cooking lab portion I pick different recipes and I am trying to engage the students in thinking thoughtfully about those ingredients and ways of preparations, and how we change them to adopt to the dominant narrative.
So Mexican food for example in Indiana is not the Mexican food that the immigrants brought in. But lately we also have discussions that are emanating from the immigrants themselves, and the people around them, in bringing more foodways that are particular to the history of that group.
So those are some of the themes that come through both in the class. And of course as we're cooking they are creating their dishes, they are collaborating with each other, they talk to each other, and I talked to them. So it's a little bit of a chaotic situation in a small lab. But what I feel in the end is that something clicks, and they start thinking about Indiana not only as part of the greater United States but also as part of the world.
KAYTE YOUNG: I mean it sounds chaotic like kitchens often are. And the casual conversations that are going to be having over preparing food sounds like brings a lot of richness to the class, and to the discussion, and to the understanding that they're getting about the foodways. That sounds really interesting. So can you give an example of what kinds of foods you might make in one of these cooking labs?
OLGA KALENZIDOU: So for the Native American for example module, which I am woefully not a person that should be doing that. I just respect the traditions of the ingredients and I respect the ingredients themselves, and the locality of the ingredients. So I would probably I would incorporate corn patties, I would also go and forage some ingredients and also bring in either deer meat. If students have a stash at their houses and you would be amazed how many people in Indiana still have that. And the realization they have that other groups before them actually have the same practices is really interesting. Because really most of them have not thought about this process.
In the module about Italian and Greek food I talked about how the restaurant Turkuaz created dishes that would be more targeted towards that local taste. How Greek Pizza is not really Greek pizza, as I know it. And how the Greek salad has been incorporated into the image of what a Greek salad would be for the U.S. and for Indiana.
KAYTE YOUNG: So what are some of the differences? Like what is a Greek Pizza as you understand it versus how it is maybe served here?
OLGA KALENZIDOU: A Greek pizza is very very thin. And the Greeks took the tradition from the Italians. These two groups were marginalized anyway. And they were marginalized to the extent that they were actually targeted by the Ku Klux Klan in the state. So they had a rough time in the beginning especially the Italian immigrants. So what we know today as Greek Pizza is a movement through space and time. And in the meantime it gets enriched by the dairy products that are in the state. It gets more heavy with a lot more tomatoes, and a lot of meat. It is not the pizza that people were making in New York or in the east coast. So as it moves through the landscape it changes.
KAYTE YOUNG: I just wanted to go back for a second to when you were talking about the Native American module, and you said you would maybe forage something. I was wondering what kinds of things you might forage? And I know it would probably depend on what time of year you're teaching the class and so forth.
OLGA KALENZIDOU: I usually rely on knowledge from archaeological deposits. Cattails would be one for example. We couldn't go and collect cattails because we are not very close to a marsh. Mushrooms would be one that I would incorporate. If there are berries around of would go and get those. So it depends on when we start talking about these things. And I'm blessed because I have a lot of colleagues who are archaeologists and they supply a lot of information to me about what was grown, how it was grown, how it was processed, etcetera.
KAYTE YOUNG: If you're just joining us my guest today is Olga Kalenzidou from the Department of Geography at Indiana University. We'll return to our conversation after a short break.
I'm Kayte Young, thank you for turning into Earth Eats today. My guest is Dr. Olga Kalenzidou. We're talking about geography of food and Indiana foodways. [INTERVIEWING] What do you think students gain from exploring Indiana food traditions? Why do you think it's important?
OLGA KALENZIDOU: I'm going to reiterate something that one of my students last semester said, last spring. That by looking at her own culture through an outsider's eyes, she actually appreciated the rich history of the place. And it allowed this particular student to really understand the different groups that came and subsequently called this place home. And how much of the foodways of previous groups have been informed her own foodways.
So I've had students in the class when we are going from north to south, looking at their dishes and telling me, "Well wait a minute why do we have noodles in the north part of the state and in the South part of the stage we have dumplings?" So we have to talk about that. And where those ways of preparing a very staple dish came from.
I would have been more radical, and I would have loved to get foods that are very much part of hunting. Squirrels stew for example, but I don't think I am there yet with this class.
So what I hope my students get is a more granular understanding of the rich history that make this part unique, the locality of the ingredients and also the different contributions of the many groups that make Indiana at home, and how some of those groups might feel marginalized.
We read a book about a Japanese-American for example, growing up in this sense. And it was the only Japanese family. And how they negotiated their needs, their food needs, vice a vie what was happening in the community. And that has been really eye-opening even for the students who are very globally aware. They do have a very good understanding of different food traditions. But it's the why behind those food traditions that I'm looking at.
KAYTE YOUNG: It's really interesting to think about this and about our own food cultures because I grew up in Southern California, and I consider like food that's really nostalgic for me is quesadillas and Mexican-American food from Southern California in the 1970s. And I always think about that I think, "That's not really my food, that's not my culture."
But it is the culture that my parents adopted coming from the Midwest and living in Southern California. And so it's what I grew up with, so it is my food tradition, it just feels like it's not really mine because it's Central America. And of course it's already changed just from being in Southern California, not being in Mexico. So yeah it's just interesting to think about that complexity and what we think of as our own food, or our food traditions.
OLGA KALENZIDOU: I tend to think of it because I'm an archaeologist and because I teach in the department of geography which are very related fields in a sense that we both understand broad patterns across space and time, patterns of change. It is very interesting to inquire about these issues of cultural authenticity and cultural appropriation but with the caveat that people are always moving and changing and adapting and getting to know somebody else's food traditions, while at the same time maintaining a core.
When I asked my students to do an ethnographic kind of interview with older members, or just members or their families, many things come up there that are very residual. And I think this semester that I inserted this kind of exercise, the students were really surprised at how little they knew about where they came from. And how they combine a lot of different foodways in their family to make sense of their place in Indiana, in the United States. So bottom line there is a Hoosier cuisine that is projected to the world, or to the United States. But within that Hoosier cuisine there are many narratives that we need to explore.
KAYTE YOUNG: As I was learning more about your research I saw a statement, you said that your past work was interested in the ways in which objects actively evoke historical memory and trigger individual remembrances. And I was just really struck by that because I have an interest in that from my own background in architecture but also in my current personal writing practice that I have, and so I was just wondering if we could talk about memory and food a little bit? And how certain aromas and flavors can play that same kind of triggering role as maybe an object would. I think you were talking about pottery or cooking vessels. But that with food it's even more embodied and sensory than even an object might be.
OLGA KALENZIDOU: I'm going to give you an example that I always have in the back of my mind. When I came to the U.S. as a graduate student I stayed in a dorm for the first year. And that experience was both eye-opening and very limiting in terms of senses and food. Because A I didn't have access to my own food. And then when I had access to some food that was closer to what I used to eat it wasn't exactly the same.
So one day I think there were four or five of us who were Greeks, found some cheese, feta cheese which is very much part of our DNA, food DNA. Not the only one, but it is an important one. And some filo and some eggs and we made a very, what we called Dirty pie, meaning very quick and it was not the usual cheese pie that we make but it went along the lines of having a very rudimentary kitchen and very few supplies.
That pie is still in my memory. Because it was not only the aroma that was combined with everybody else's food being cooked at the same time in Eigenmann, but also the sensorial of tasting the cheese and the Philo and the eggs and that's all we had. We couldn't find any dill or anything else that goes into that pie. And the four or five people of whom three are still my dear friends, who partook in that experience.
And that started my own journey in food and cooking. Cause I didn't cook that much when I was in Greece. I started cooking here because I could not find anything that would remind me of where I came from. So my senses are continually being tested in the place that I've been calling home for 30 years. And I will find sometimes myself in the kitchen thinking and really tasting the smell of something that I've had as a child and now that I have my own garden and I've had my own garden for a long time, I can actually reproduce that taste 80%. The 20% comes from Indiana soil, and Indiana's sun, and Indiana's rain, and that locality is very much part of how I combine my existence here with my previous memories of taste and smell in Greece.
KAYTE YOUNG: Well that's lovely. That was a response. Well those were the things that I wanted to talk to you about. Is there anything that you would like to add that we didn't get to?
OLGA KALENZIDOU: I would encourage people in the state to not put it down as much. It is remarkable that when I offered this class for the first time, I had people saying, "But really what are we going to be cooking? Tenderloin sandwiches?" And it's so much more than that. And if you open up the conversation to include the people that make this place home, this is a state that can sustain you through food grown locally and it has both a rich agricultural history and also rich human history. And I think in my classes what I strive to do is bring these two together with the understanding that if we do not ground ourselves in the place, as in a geographic place, we cannot really have those conversations.
KAYTE YOUNG: Well thank you very much it was really wonderful to talk with you Olga.
OLGA KALENZIDOU: Likewise, thank you for having me here.
KAYTE YOUNG: I've been speaking with Olga Kalenzidou. She's a lecturer in the Department of Geography at Indiana University. Find more about her work on our website EarthEats.org.
Farming feeds the world but it's also heating the planet. It's responsible for about 12% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Harvest Public Media's Brian Grimmett looks into how a small group of Kansans are trying to develop crops that could lessen agriculture's carbon footprint.
EBONY MURELL: So this is the warm season green house. This right here is all sorghum. BRIAN GRIMMETT: Inside a greenhouse at the Land Institute near Salina Kansas, researchers that more closely mimic natural prairie works. That means instead of planting new seed every year, you can plant one time and get several years of harvests. Ebony Murell is one of about 50 people working on the project.
EBONY MURELL: What we're seeking to do with perennial agriculture, perennial grains agriculture specifically, is try to utilize the deep root systems that historically we found in prairie systems to actually save soil through reduction and erosion and rebuild it.
BRIAN GRIMMETT: Plants are natural carbon scrubbers. They take carbon dioxide that's in the atmosphere and turn it into leaves and flowers and grain. But it's the roots that really matter. That's because the roots of a plant decompose and eventually becomes soil. In other words carbon stored in the ground. So developing a plan that can provide nearly as much grain as an annual crops like wheat but that also creates the root system of a native prairie grass would lock more carbon into the ground.
TIFFANY DURR: I think it's the best opportunity we have to save the soils and still produce food.
BRIAN GRIMMETT: That's green house manager Tiffany Durr. She's been at the land Institute for 17 years. Some of its projects attempt to domesticate wild perennial plants but it's also working on making an annual crop such as wheat and sorghum perennials, all through selective breeding. And it's a daunting task. The Land Institute has been experimenting with perennial grains since 1976 and as you might have noticed farmers are still just planting regular wheat, corn, and sorghum. Durr says she's well aware of the skeptics.
TIFFANY DURR: Right, we're hippieville out here doing something, they don’t know what. That's how it was when I started. People didn't understand that this was real science going on. Real hope, grounded in real science.
BRIAN GRIMMETT: And some of that science is beginning to pay off. Kernza is a type of wheat grass they've developed that can be used in similar ways to wheat, for making bread or beer. Durr says the grain has finally got mainstream attention and major academic research partners. Even a few commercial farmers are actually growing and using it.
TIFFANY DURR: Having Kernza out there as something that people can actually buy the flour for, and use in their home, it's more tangible. And so it's not just a big idea, high in the sky idea, it's tangible, it's real, and there's a lot more acceptance.
BRIAN GRIMMETT: Kansas State University Professor Chuck Rice is a soil microbiologist. He says perennial crops could represent a big leap for the ability of farmers to improve their soil and sink more atmosphere warming carbon dioxide back into the ground. But there are major challenges. Annual crops put their energy into this year's harvest. Perennials divert some of that tree roots that last from one season to the next, and the next.
CHUCK RICE: So the question is, and the challenge, that Land Institute and others are trying to do, can you have a perennial system that would maintain roots, but yet produce seed? And so can you have your cake and eat it too?
BRIAN GRIMMETT: If successful the crops accomplish what they already know about better farming and conservation practices in one convenient package. Don't till up ground, keep it covered with some plant growth between crops, and increase the diversity of what's planted. The key will be convincing farmers that they might make more money with smaller harvests by saving on planting and other costs that come with putting in a new crop every year. Ebony Murell says no matter how long it takes she's going to keep trying to figure it out.
EBONY MURELL: This is in my mind a workable solution. And that's what motivates me to want to plant hundreds of plants in the greenhouse and try to do these crazy experiments that are so hard.
BRIAN GRIMMETT: For Harvest Public Media, I'm Brian Grimmett.
KAYTE YOUNG: Harvest Public Media covers food and farming in America's Heartland. Find more at HarvestPublicMedia.org. That's it for a show this week, thanks for listening. We'll see you next time.
RENEE REED: The Earth Eats team includes Eobon Binder, Mark Chilla, Toby Foster, Abraham Hill, Payton Knobeloch, Josephine McRobbie, Harvest Public Media and me, Renee Reed.
KAYTE YOUNG: Special thanks this week to Olga Kalenzidou, Jake Dixon, and everyone in the Indiana Foodways class.
RENEE REED: Our theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey. Additional music on the show comes to us from the artist at Universal Productions Music. Earth Eats is produced and edited by Kayte Young and our executive producer is John Bailey.