On The Ray’s 18-mile stretch of roadway, maximizing all assets is a key strategy for creating a cleaner, safer highway. One of our largest assets is the land around the interstate, called the right-of-way. This space, designed to be a refuge of safe harbor for drivers in distress, can multi-task and fully utilize the land without threatening its primary purpose to drivers. One use is growing non-edible plants. Perennial Kernza® plants are a breakthrough from traditional annual wheat grasses and have deep root systems that grow 10 feet or longer and that help to enrich the soil, retain clean water, and sequester carbon. This project is a win-win. Georgia DOT land is better served by this resilient plant that can hold soil against stormwater flooding. The environment benefits from a plant that stores carbon from cars and trucks deep below the topsoil where is it less likely to be disturbed and re-released. Additionally, we can image that one day sustainable fiber could be harvested from the roadsides, providing a raw material source for single-use products like toilet paper, kitchen napkins and baby diapers.
In October of 2017, Georgia DOT, the Kansas-based Land Institute, and The Ray implemented a 1,000 square foot pilot demonstration of perennial wheat in the highway right-of-way. For the next three years, the pilot project, which uses Kernza® perennial grain, will be monitored by UGA’s Bachelor of Landscape Architecture Program Director and Associate Professor, Brad Davis, as well as a Master of Landscape Architecture student Matthew Quirey. The Kernza® pilot on The Ray is the first in the southeast and the first to be located in a highway roadside.
The Kernza® perennial grain pilot is only the starting point for The Ray. The Ray hopes to expand this project into a vegetative laboratory that would support a variety of pilots over the next several years. These pilots would test different seed mixes for pollinators, weed control strategies that don’t involve chemicals, and slope stabilization.