Minnesota farmers among those growing the promise of Kernza

18 July 2023

MADISON The promises of the intermediate wheatgrass trademarked as Kernza are many.

It can provide farmers with a third crop to rotate with corn and soybeans.

As a perennial, its deep roots reduce erosion and build healthy soils, lessening carbon emissions while providing both a tasty grain for human consumption and a forage for livestock.

Kernza is higher in protein than wheat and other small grains, and can be made into a range of products from breads and beer to pancake mix.

What’s the catch?

“This is the world’s first perennial grain crop,” said Jake Jungers, associate professor of agronomy with the University of Minnesota’s Sustainable Agriculture program. There is no model to follow for its development, agronomy or marketing. “A lot of this work just hasn’t been done before,” he said.

Slowly but surely, it’s getting done at the University of Minnesota’s research fields and, importantly, at farms scattered about Minnesota, Nebraska, Montana, Wisconsin, North and South Dakota, Iowa and Wyoming. They include the A Frame Farm outside of Madison in Lac qui Parle County where Jungers spoke on July 13.

Carmen Fernholz established this farm and now assists its steward, Luke Peterson. Fernholz has been raising Kernza here since Dr. Don Wyse of the U of M’s Forever Green Initiative provided him with enough seed to plant two acres in 2011.

Fernholz and Jungers were among the University researchers, staff with the Minnesota Agricultural Utilization Research Institute and the Department of Agriculture, and farmer-members in the Perennial Promise Growers Cooperative who gathered July 13 to learn about how far this new crop has come.

More than 20 acres of grain-heavy stalks of Kernza rippled in the winds of western Lac qui Parle County as the pioneers in this crop’s development took it all in during the recent field day. This perennial was originally developed and trademarked by the Land Institute, a Kansas-based nonprofit. A film crew with Perennial Films filmed the Madison event for a documentary on the work.

“This is Kitty Hawk here,” said Fernholz. His comments came as Jay Peterson, who raises Kernza near Blooming Prairie, Minnesota, demonstrated a mechanized processor provided by the AURI.

Peterson took advantage of off-the-shelf technology, a simple air transfer fan, to improve the amount of the grain that can be separated from the chaff with the processor.

The light, fluffy nature of this grain makes for a challenge in threshing the grain, but this extra step in the processing saves 30 percent of the grain, Peterson found.

That’s a 30 percent improvement in the return Peterson realizes from the crop he raises, he pointed out.

Some of the biggest improvements are being made by University researchers in improving the genetic traits of Kernza. The early variety of Kernza raised by Fernholz was prone to shatter, resulting in big losses at harvest time.

Crop breeding has produced varieties that greatly reduce the propensity toward shattering while transforming the seed head into a longer grain. That’s reduced its protein content from 22 percent to 19 percent, yet that is still significantly higher than what’s found in wheat, according to Prabin Bajgain, a research assistant professor in the Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics at the University of Minnesota.

“We’re in the infancy of this work, but we’re making progress pretty quickly,” Jungers told participants at the field day. “We think that it is enough where producers can actually grow this properly.”

Two years after Fernhnolz planted his first crop, he called Dr. Wyse to ask just how he was supposed to harvest this new crop.

“You’re a farmer, you’ll figure it out,” Fernholz said Wyse told him. “So we’ve been figuring it out ever since,” he laughed.

In most years, farmers can realize four revenue streams by raising the perennial wheatgrass. They can graze cattle in the spring, summer and fall for forage as well as harvest the grain in mid-summer, Fernholz said.

The most recent variety known as Clearwater represents great strides in terms of yield, and there’s more to come. Bajgain spoke enthusiastically about the traits possessed by a variety to be released in 2025.

Farmers in the Perennial Promise Growers Cooperative anted up $50,000 in their own funds to match a grant of the same amount to fund much of this research.

The grain’s future will ultimately be decided on supermarket shelves, and there is important work yet to do on that front. There are a range of Kernza products now sold in retail stores, including pancake mix, flour for baking, cereal, beer and pasta.

Yet Fernholz described the marketing of the new grain as a “slow, slow developing thing. … It’s not moving nearly as quickly as we’d like,” he said.

He’s convinced that its marketability as well as its value in the marketplace will depend on building consumer awareness of the ability of this crop to improve water quality and soil health, reduce erosion and mitigate climate change.


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