News Treehugger Voices Staple Crops for Self-Sufficiency Perennial crops don't require resowing or intensive management to provide valuable self-sustaining yields. By Elizabeth Waddington Elizabeth Waddington Facebook LinkedIn Writer, Permaculture Designer, Sustainability Consultant University of St Andrews (MA) Elizabeth has worked since 2010 as a freelance writer and consultant covering gardening, permaculture, and sustainable living. She has also written a number of books and e-books on gardens and gardening. Learn about our editorial process Published November 11, 2022 03:00PM EST Fact checked by Haley Mast Fact checked by Haley Mast LinkedIn Harvard University Extension School Haley Mast is a freelance writer, fact-checker, and small organic farmer in the Columbia River Gorge. She enjoys gardening, reporting on environmental topics, and spending her time outside snowboarding or foraging. Topics of expertise and interest include agriculture, conservation, ecology, and climate science. Learn about our fact checking process Share Twitter Pinterest Email A flowering hazel tree. Jacky Parker Photography / Getty Images News Environment Business & Policy Science Animals Home & Design Current Events Treehugger Voices News Archive Considering staple crops to grow is crucial for the future of food production and can be a key element to consider for those aiming for greater self-sufficiency. Many of today's staple crops are grown as annual crops. But perennial staple crops are often highly desirable, since they do not require resowing or intensive management each year. And perennial food production can bring a range of benefits when it comes to the environment. Finding perennial staple crops to provide the carbohydrates, proteins, and high-energy calories we need is a crucial concern for sustainability moving forwards to feed our planet's population. And it is also an interesting thing for individuals aiming for self-sufficiency to consider. In warmer tropical, sub-tropical, and arid climate zones, perennial staple crops are typically fairly easy to find, and there are many promising candidates around the world. In cooler temperate climates, however, finding perennial staple crops is more challenging, though there are several interesting options to consider. What Are Perennial Staple Crops? Perennial staple crops are plants that can provide sources of carbohydrates, proteins, and oils, providing for our energy needs without having to be harvested destructively. They provide their yields while remaining in the ground to deliver their other ecosystem services and fulfill their functions within the environment over multiple years. While there are many perennial edibles that can be grown, staple crops are those that can provide more than just a few calories, and which have the potential to make up a major part of our diet in the coming years and replace—at least in part—staple arable annual crops like wheat, corn, and rice. Perennial Staple Crops for Cool Temperate Climates In cooler temperate climates, nuts are among the best candidates as perennial staple crops. These nut trees can be useful in larger gardens, on hobby farms, and in homesteads. And there is potential to include them in agroforestry systems to replace damaging annual agriculture with tree-based agricultural systems. In addition, there are a few perennial legumes to consider and, though some way off, there is potential for perennial grains in the future. Hazel Corylus ssp. are one of the key nut trees, and Corylus avellana is one of the few protein-rich staple crops that can be grown here in Scotland where I live. They can be an important protein crop for many cool and Mediterranean climate zones, providing good yields of edible nuts as long as you can get to these before the wildlife. Compared to other nuts, they are relatively quick to come into bearing, so you won't need to wait quite so long to obtain a yield. Monkey Puzzle Trees Monkey puzzle tree in Brazil. Priscila Zambotto / Getty Images Interestingly, the South American monkey puzzle tree, Araucaria araucana grows and can bear well here in Scotland. Research has suggested that it is potentially higher-yielding than native nut crops. The seeds are rich in fat and have a mild nutty flavor. Unfortunately, however, planting these is a move for future generations, as the trees will typically take 40 years before producing seed. You also need to plant one male for every 5-6 females to get them, and you cannot tell the males and females apart until they flower. So, larger areas of land would be required to obtain an eventual yield. Chestnuts Chestnuts are another interesting and useful nut tree to grow as a staple crop. Here where I live, unfortunately, the climate does not always allow for the production of high quality nuts. But in many cooler temperate climates, these do certainly have great potential as a staple crop. There are a number of Castanea ssp. to consider. The seed is rich in carbohydrates and can be ground to make a flour. Pines There are a number of pines (Pinus ssp.) that produce nuts, though yields are not always consistent, nor particularly high. Though it takes a long while for yields to be produced, pines have been staple foods for people for thousands of years, and can often grow even where most other yielding trees will not. Pecans and Hickories Young trees grow in a pecan orchard. pelicankate / Getty Images In North America, Carya ssp. trees are another important nut tree category. Long-lived and large, trees in this family are particularly beneficial for carbon sequestration, and these are said to be among the best cold-climate oilseeds to consider. Walnuts Walnuts (Juglans ssp.) are relatively high in fat and protein and also have the potential to become very important staple crops in cooler climate zones, as well as in some warmer climates. Though trees do take a while to come into bearing, yields, especially with newer cultivars, can be high. Oaks Acorns have been used as human food for a long, long time. But the bitter tannins in the acorns, and patchy yields year to year, limit their potential as a staple crop. Oak breeding, however, is improving the potential of Quercus ilex for human food, so this could be an interesting area to keep an eye on in future. Perennial Legumes Nut trees, of course, take a long time to provide enough food to count as a staple. One perennial legume that can yield edible seeds is Caragana arborescens (Siberian pea). Though I have yet to obtain seed from this nitrogen-fixer in my forest garden, it does have potential in many cooler climate zones. Other Caraganas may also be useful as staple crops in a similar way. In the meantime, before nut trees can provide for us as staple crops, annual legumes used as pulses can help fill the gap. Vicia faba, or broad bean, is one of the most useful where I live, along with Phaseolus vulgaris (common bean) varietals. Other perennial legumes that might be of interest in some cooler climate areas include alfalfa (Medicago sativa) and Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis). Broad bean plants. Crispin la valiente / Getty Images Perennial Grains Perennial grains are one of the key areas of research when it comes to perennial staple crops for cool temperate climates. At present, there are a few avenues of research. One that might be promising is Secale montana, a perennial rye. Work to create perennial strains of corn has also yielded some promising results. Though there are many other perennial plants whose grain can be used, the seeds are often small, as are yields. Wheat and other common cereal crops do have the potential to perennate, and development of perennial grains is ongoing. We may have higher yielding perennial grains in future—though this is still likely at least a decade away. This is a fascinating area of research. But more work is needed to find staple crops for self-sufficiency not only in warmer climes, but in cooler temperate climates, too.