When it comes to finding solutions for climate change in American agriculture, Brandon Schlautman believes the future is pink.
Brandon leads the perennial legume research program at The Land Institute. The nonprofit research organization works to make farming more sustainable through the development of perennial food crops that sequester carbon and improve soil and water health.
These days, Brandon’s spending much of his time investigating the potential of sainfoin, a forage crop distinguished by the bright pink flowers it produces when in bloom.
I spoke with Brandon about sainfoin’s potential as a high-protein human food and how it could help combat climate change.
What is sainfoin?
Sainfoin is a legume first domesticated as a forage crop to feed animals in Turkey, Georgia, Armenia and the Caucasus Mountains. It has a deep tap root that allows it to thrive in low-fertility soils and semi-arid climates. As a legume species, it has an important role to play in agriculture. We use a lot of nitrogen fertilizer in agriculture. Most nitrogen fertilizer is made using fossil fuel energy. But legumes like sainfoin can take nitrogen from the atmosphere and turn it into nitrogen in the soil that it can use to grow. Basically, it creates its own fertilizer. It bypasses the need for synthetic fertilizer created from fossil fuel energy.
Where is sainfoin currently grown in the United States?
It's mostly grown in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho – northwestern parts of the country with long winters and short, cool growing seasons. It also grows well in places with less precipitation. It’s a little bit more drought-tolerant and resilient than other forage legumes such as alfalfa.
Can you describe what a field of sainfoin looks like?
If you have an idea of what an alfalfa field looks like, it's very, very similar. Except sainfoin’s flowers are this really beautiful pink color. And the flowers are much bigger. Sainfoin’s flowers bloom right on top of the plant. So when you look from above, you see a field of pure pink. It reminds me of tulip fields from the Netherlands.
What is it currently used for?
Sainfoin is a forage crop. The leaves and stems are used to feed cows, sheep, horses and other kinds of livestock.
Why is The Land Institute interested in sainfoin?
The Land Institute works to create perennial grain crops. Grain crops include corn, wheat and soybean, but also peas, lentils and chickpeas. We see perennial crops as one of the keys to climate-resilient agriculture in the future. Perennial plants have deep roots that pull more carbon out of the atmosphere and put it into the ground. They play a key role in holding soil in place and rebuilding soil health. Perennial grain crops can create habitats that aren't destroyed every year through tillage. They reduce disturbances in the land. We want to move from annual grain production to perennial grain production. We think sainfoin has the potential to help us make that move.
Can you tell me about the research you’re doing into breeding new varieties of sainfoin?
Since about 2018, The Land Institute has been working on domesticating sainfoin as a versatile, drought-tolerant and highly nutritious food crop. We’ve been working with growers trying to understand the different opportunities and challenges and researching the quality of its grain as a nutritious food for humans. Sainfoin produces large grain we’re calling perennial Baki bean. "Baki" means “eternal” in Turkish. The name is meant to symbolize the transition from short-term to long-lasting agricultural practices. Through breeding, we hope to increase crop yields and adapt growing sainfoin for Baki bean production to more regions of the country, including the Colorado and Mississippi River Basins.
What is sainfoin’s potential as a food for human consumption?
Right now, humans consume a lot of legumes – like peas, chickpeas and lentils – as a protein source. Baki bean has the potential to quickly become a viable, nutritious food crop. Sainfoin grain is very high in protein – about 40% protein – which is more than most of the peas and lentils we eat right now. It can be used in pastas, on salads and milled into flour. We make hummus out of it. We think the easiest way for someone to consume it would be as an alternative to something like lentils, where you're just using whole beans and boiling them. We’re also researching whether the Baki bean could be used as a novel protein source for the plant-based protein industry for use in plant milks, meats and other products.
What is sainfoin’s potential as a water-friendly crop and as a possible solution to climate challenges?
Perennial legumes like sainfoin can prevent soil erosion and nutrient loss. They can help us improve water quality and sequester soil carbon. When you think about a future where we’re adapting to climate change, sainfoin may play an important role in arid climates like Arizona. Right now, farmers there are growing alfalfa that they can cut nine or 10 times or more in a year with irrigation. This requires a lot of water. When we think about the future, there's probably going to be less water available. Eventually it’s going to become very difficult and maybe impossible to use that much water for crops like alfalfa. Sainfoin produces most of its yield in cool conditions early in a growing season. We want to learn whether it can be a viable crop in a future where there is less water for irrigation, while still producing food and forage.
What are the next steps in adapting sainfoin for different uses that could benefit farmers and the planet?
We envision that sainfoin will need to undergo significant genetic changes – as have almost all food crops in domestication. With a lot of wild plants that aren't grown as food, the seeds fall to the ground before we harvest them. So we need to ensure the seeds stay on the plants long enough to be harvested. We also want higher yields of seeds. We need to adapt the crop to new environments. And we want it to be resistant to pests and diseases.
Sainfoin is already an excellent forage crop in drier, higher-altitude climates. But if we can start harvesting the grain as a value-added product associated with the crop, we build in diversity that makes it more economically attractive to farmers. Then they have two different income streams available from sainfoin – as a forage crop and a grain crop that can be used as food for people.
The Walton Family Foundation funds The Land Institute’s research into sainfoin as part of its support for innovation that tests diverse cropping systems to make U.S. agriculture more sustainable.