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Perennial vs. Annual Farming

By Sam Fisher

While last week’s e-news article dealt with the nuts and bolts of grass farming, this week we’ll discuss the difference in the foods produced from perennial agriculture versus annual agriculture. While this is a multi-faceted argument that could be approached from many angles (and would require a book to cover the whole of it), one of the most visited points revolves around total calories per food acres and of course, the ever-present axiom of “feeding the world.” I know I’ve used that term rather derisively in past articles, but the truth is, we all need to eat. I would submit that annual agriculture is not feeding the world, and never has. Plus, modern day annual agriculture is an extremely unsustainable system that will eventually succumb as the natural resources it continues to insult progressively fail under the abuse.


However, this article is about the differences between annual food and perennial food. To define, let’s visit both camps. Annual foods are derived from relatively short lived single-season plants that focus their energy into producing seeds to insure the survival of the species through the next generation the following growing season. Perennial foods, on the other hand, derive from long lived multi-year plants that focus energy in their roots for self-survival in a dormant season (winter, drought, etc.). While perennial plants also put forth seeds, they do so as smaller quantities of more delicate seeds, which of course stand less chance of germinating and procreating. The unfortunate truth is that annual grain crops such as wheat, rice, corn, beans, lentils, peas, millet, and chickpeas are humanity’s staples in today’s world, and most modern supermarket foods contain one or more of these ingredients, and unless we consume only foods from sources we know and trust, we’re usually eating annual crops, and yes, even in foods derived from animals, most of which are raised on grain in today’s concentrated animal facilities.

While modern day science is still finding biological deviations not known until recently, the two major differences in annual versus perennial derived foods are nutrition and how they relate with the ecological system in which they’re grown. Let’s discuss these two separately.


One of the most least known qualities in annual foods is the lack of nutrition. Due to their drive to create plentiful seed to insure sufficient offspring, annual crops focus less on developing a root system and more on setting seed. Therefore they are shallow rooted and lack the quantities of vitamin and mineral content found in deeper rooted perennial plants. They may pack an oversized portion of calories, but calories by themselves do not equal nourishment. Plus, annual plants concentrate sugars, or energy, in the seed (again, for the sake of procreation), which is stored as carbohydrates and , as we now know, reverts back to sugars when digested. This is true whether they are digested in the human gut, in the rumen of cattle, or artificially “digested” via man-made processing, which explains why high fructose corn syrup is the most valuable food product refined from corn, accounting for 530 million bushels of corn every year. I have yet to figure out why the American food pyramid has carbohydrates as it’s base (other than the ever-present fraternity between government and industry).

The other defining line separating annuals from perennials is it’s effect on the natural resource base. To cultivate annual crops requires that existing perennial plants be eradicated, either by soil tillage or with chemical herbicides. This exposes soil to the consequences of wind and water, and bare soil does blow away and wash away, period. The carbon dioxide release from bare and/or tilled soil to the tune practices in American agriculture undoubtedly contributes to the changes in our climates. Even with oversight from agencies like the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation District (NRCS), topsoil loss still happens and is probably the foremost and least recognized threat facing agriculture, at least in the non-arid climates of the northern and eastern United States. However, our arid (low rainfall) environs face their own challenge, that of water shortages. In areas that do not receive enough precipitation to sustain agriculture, water for crop irrigation is becoming increasingly expensive, scarce, and legally uncertain. This has contributed to heated “wars” between states, as well as indecision whether to favor the water needs of urban areas or agriculture. Another oft-neglected facet to this discussion is how annual agriculture has shaped animal agriculture. Annual agriculture is hostile to animals, and takes existing, functional, animal-supporting ecologies and destroys them in order to grow a limited number of supposed human-supporting crops, or perhaps of more importance, crops to feed to domestic livestock that they are not biologically created to metabolize. When annuals displaced perennials, they also displaced animals, relegating domestic livestock to the atrocities of confinement facilities, which continues to outrage those who glimpse it. Ironically, the cruelties of large-scale confinement animal agriculture has turned many an eater toward vegetarianism, which then supports annual agriculture.

Allow me to close with an excerpt from Mark Shepard’s excellent work, Restoration Agriculture (by the way, his book is a great read for food producers and consumers alike). Here’s Mark: How a human obtains his or her food has a direct and very real impact on the biological health of the planet. What you eat creates the market forces that cause farmers to grow crops to satisfy your demand. What a farmer grows and how those crops are grown directly affect the ecological health of the soil, plant and animal life of a place, the atmosphere, the hydrology and even the patterns of human settlement. What you eat is indirectly responsible for nearly every single crisis that humanity faces and with an economy that is global in scale today, the food choices of one individual (you or me) are compounded by the billions and change the world like no other socioeconomic juggernaut ever known. We are eating our planet away to the bare bedrock bones and changing the conditions of our home planet into something that would be unrecognizable to our great-grandparents.

Well stated. Thank you, Mark! And that’s the View From the Country.

Quote worth Re-quoting…

“It is our choices… that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”   ~ J. K. Rowling