Investing in Dryland Genetics

Posted on July 6, 2022 at 9:59 AM by Duane Harris

Today’s supply chain obstacles have put pressure on nearly every industry in every corner of the world, and with changing climate and weather patterns, it’s essential for our food system to depend on sustainable and resilient food supplies.

Some crops have been adapted to grow on marginalized lands, but there are many that have not and may depend on irrigation water and more for healthy yields. Drought areas with lack of rainfall result in yield shortfalls, and in areas where wheat dries up year after year, our food supply dwindles.

Researchers across the world are looking for new varieties of wheat and grains to bolster supplies in the long term. Here, in the Midwest, one company has focused on a specific grain that can impact the future of crop supply globally.

Father and son team Pat and James Schnable are both university professors who want to change the future of crops. They founded Dryland Genetics to research and commercialize proso millet, a grain that can endure scorching summer heat and drought. This ancient grain can produce twice as much grain per gallon of water as dryland corn, and many farmers who plant proso millet after years of mostly corn and wheat are finding growing markets in which to sell the unique grain.

In the past, proso millet has often been dismissed as “birdseed” – being overlooked by seed producers for investments in research. But with Dryland Genetics’ yield increases of 10-40 percent over standard varieties, and with the ability to plant and harvest proso millet with the same equipment used for wheat, proso millet can be a game changer for farmers.

Dryland Genetics varieties of proso millet may not replace corn (especially in high-yielding states like Iowa), but it can compete closely with dryland corn, particularly in areas where rainfall is limited and less irrigation water is available. As one of the most water-efficient crops in the world, high-yielding proso millet varieties can be used for cattle feed, pig feed, and can continue to grow even after irrigation water is gone.

"In the heartland of America, we see all sorts of agricultural startups focused on improving food supply or quality of harvest. It's companies like Dryland Genetics that look for unique ways to revolutionize our ag sector by promoting more sustainable production processes," said Duane Harris, Partner at Next Level Ventures. "If we don't look for ways to conserve water, both rural and urban communities will dry up."

Dryland Genetics research started as an accident, when James left some proso millet in a greenhouse, forgetting to throw it away. Later, even after no one had cared for or watered the crop, it still completed its entire lifecycle, which spurred a lifetime of research and discovery.

While the research may have been a result of an accident, continued research is intentional, and just getting started. Proso millet is also gluten-free, and as gluten-free diets grow in popularity, there is an opportunity to increase market share in human consumption as well. If the market continues to expand, Dryland Genetics’ founders predict the growth rate could be comparable to crops like canola, which have seen increases in market share thanks to increased research.

Today, people are willing to pay more for food that is resilient and sustainable. Dryland Genetics is at the forefront of this game, and opportunities for continued growth and findings are still forthcoming.