Agriculture is sometimes thought to be antiquated, stuck in its ways. But from the mule-drawn plow of the past to the tractors, balers and forage harvesters of today, it’s really one of the fastest changing and most innovative industries around.
And one of its newest and most exciting products, Kernza, has now impacted Nicollet County.
This August, Dan Coffman’s farm, just west of St. Peter, harvested the first known crop of the wheat grain Kernza. Coffman is working with St. Peter resident and Le Sueur/Scott County farmer Ben Penner, who does significant agricultural advocacy and research in the area with the University of Minnesota Extension program.
Kernza, first developed experimentally in 1983 and later trademarked by The Land Institute in Kansas, is a perennial grain and it’s root can extend 10 feet or more beneath the soil surface, more than twice the depth of and in greater density than annual wheat roots. But perennial grains don’t need plowing, which allows soil to keep trapping carbon in the ground, rather than releasing it to the atmosphere. Perennials’ large root systems also boost soil and water health by keeping nutrients in the dirt.
For Penner, who helped Coffman plant 11 acres of the crop and plans to start 34 acres of his own this fall, Kernza has a number of benefits. He mentioned the climate impact chief among them, but he also noted that it doesn’t need to be replanted annually, it works well in organic farming systems, and it offers livestock forage opportunities after harvest. Plus, it’s a new product to bring to the market.
“American farmers, Minnesotan farmers are really good at innovating and meeting the needs of customers, so I think the ability to do that with a new crop is a net benefit to farmers,” Penner said. “I think this crop really represents a huge step forward in cropping systems. I frequently say, ‘How often do you get the chance to work on a brand new crop?’”
Plant breeders at Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania were the first to work with a Eurasian forage grass called intermediate wheatgrass as a perennial grain candidate. They paired with the USDA in 1988 to work fertility and seed size. In 2003, The Land Institute took over selection and inter-mating to work on yield, seed size and disease resistance. It now has a number of partners, growing and testing the crop, but The Land Institute has bigger goals.
“Although Kernza grain has made its way into the commercial supply chain in small niche markets, our goal is to develop varieties of Kernza that are economical for farmers to produce at large scale,” the program page says.
Around 2010, the grain was brought to the University of Minnesota, and the university’s Forever Green program, which Penner works with, has since developed its own variety called Minnesota Clearwater. As researchers develop the grain for maximum output and efficiency, they’re looking to rural farmers for help.
“It’s now in that phase between where it’s in the university’s hands and trying to bring it into the realm of farmer, so Dan decided to put this in his field,” Penner said.
For Coffman, who just started farming his 450 acres a few years ago, Kernza fits in with his vision for agriculture. His dad was a conservation officer, and he believes in practices that will preserve the land for future generations, including his own four children.
“I really like experimenting with new things, especially new crops, something different than corn or soybeans, to help build the soil and add another crop to the rotation,” he said. “The perennial crops, we’re not tilling and disturbing the soil every year. And that soil is covered 365 days per year, so from a soil health standpoint, that’s excellent.”
He said that his experience growing the crop in year one was positive.
“From what I can tell thus far, it’s easier,” Coffman said. “You just plant it and harvest it. It does require a little more management with the harvest, and then with the grain post-harvest. But some of that will get easier, because this is the first time we’ve dealt with Kernza.”
The 11-acre field, according to Penner produced somewhere between 800 and 1,000 pounds of product per acre in its first harvest, which is significantly less than traditional wheat yields, but as breeders continue to work on the seed, those yields have been increasing.
The Nicollet County field is the first Kernza crop in the immediate area. Other growing locations around the state include Rice County, southeast Minnesota and northwest Minnesota. Penner said that there are about 100 acres of the crop statewide in 2020, but by 2021 harvest season, there will likely be closer to 1,000 acres.
Finding a market
The big challenge for Kernza is commercialization. While it’s benefits to the environment and to sustainable agriculture are obvious, it’s marketability needs to be proven.
Asked who the consumer for the product is, Penner joked “everyone reading this article.” But while he’s aware it will take some education, he believes Kernza has a viable use in many settings.
“It’s similar to a wheat flour, so it can be an ingredient for the home baker. Right now, there is a line of crackers available. It has a nice, nutty flavor to it. It has a different nutritional profile and gluten content (than other wheats),” Penner said. “Some of my work in the next six to eight months will be the fine point on these questions, so I’m going to be asking a lot of buyers to determine their exact needs for this product. And then essentially building the system.”
One area the product has already been tested and used is in craft brewing. Northfield’s Imminent Brewing debuted its first Kernza beer in February 2020. The first batch sold out and proved popular among the crowd.
“I’m not a beer drinker and I really liked it,” said Just Food Co-op Marketing and Community Relations Manager Stephanie Aman. “It was sweet and had a really nice soft finish.”
A number of breweries in the metro also found success using the product in their beers, and the demand in that industry is growing.
But what the product could use, Penner said, is some institutional buyers. In 2019, General Mills made a cereal with Kernza, and more large-scale purchases like that could help grown demand for the crop.
“I’m on the leadership board of a Kernza Co-op group, so that we can collectively sell to institutional buyers,” Penner said. “It’s at the stage where we’re finding out who those core customers are. There are a number of organizations interested. And there is also room for startup businesses right now in processing.”
While there is a lot to do, Penner and Coffman both believe Kernza is here to stay.
“It’s been a fun and enjoyable experience, getting to experiment with a new crop,” Coffman said. “It’s actually bringing back some excitement into farming, instead of just a corn and soybean rotation.”
Penner added, “The fact that it has the institutional support of the USDA, the University of Minnesota and Forever Green, it’s one of the most exciting things I’ve seen in my lifetime, and Kernza will certainly, I think, eventually, maybe not this year or next, but eventually will be a big part of the mix and be part of the transformation of agriculture.”
Kids are back to school this September under unique circumstances, but unchanged will be the need for supplies.
Whether its pencils, crayons, notebooks or the backpacks that carry it all, many families in the St. Peter area may not have the resources needed to properly equip their students for school. And the COVID-19 pandemic has only added to the pressure for many families.
“The pandemic has financially impacted so many due to furloughs or the complete loss of a job,” said South Elementary Principal Doreen Oelke. “Going back to school can put a big strain on family budgets, so any efforts to help alleviate this stress is welcome.”
The St. Peter Friends of Learning Back to School Backpack Project is intended to fill that gap. And with distribution scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 27, the St. Peter American Legion is stepping in to help with a last ditch collection effort.
“We were deciding on how we can reach out to the community, especially with the pandemic and all the uncertainty, and so we asked the schools and said ‘Is there a need?’, and the Backpack group said they could use more supplies,” American Legion events organizer Nancy Vogel said. “So when we reached out, they said ‘What a fantastic idea.’”
She added, “We’re trying to get people to come on down and see teachers and donate school supplies, and we’re going to give out a free sloppy joe meal.”
A drive-up school supply collection drive is scheduled for 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 22 at the legion in St. Peter. Individuals and families can drive up to the legion curb, drop off school supplies, and if they choose, a donation to the legion, and get a sloppy joe meal in return. Anyone who can not afford to donate school supplies or to the legion is still welcome to drive up for a meal. And, of course, anyone who wants to donate without getting a meal, is also welcome.
Areas of need include backpacks, crayons, pencils, paper, notebooks, glue, pencil sharpeners, rulers, water bottles (as kids can’t use water fountains this year), and more.
Oelke, along with some other teachers and staff in the district, will be present at the drive-thru to say ‘Hello’ to students and help collect the supplies. Everyone is excited to see students again next month.
“We are so excited to be welcoming our students back into our buildings,” Oelke said. “Everyone who works in a school does so because of their love of children and young adults, so the past five months have been extremely challenging. Although it may look a little different than it has in the past, we are all committed to making it a wonderful school year, regardless of the model we are teaching in.”
One key to that “wonderful school year” is students being properly equipped. Michelle Zehnder Fischer, the Nicollet County attorney and co-leader of the Back to School Backpack Project, said that the group managed to give out 550 backpacks to students in St. Peter and rural Nicollet County in 2019. The numbers are not expected to be as high in 2020, as the pandemic has somewhat slowed physical supply donations (with many opting for cash donations instead), and with less families signed up.
“I think the community has been very supportive,” Zehnder Fischer said. “Where we’re seeing a difference is more heavily on the cash donation side, rather than the actual supplies themselves. I think our contributions are down overall a bit, to be expected, but we’re still pleased with the response we’ve received.”
The signup period for families to get a backpack of supplies is now over. However, if families still want to sign up, they should do so, and the group will get them as much supplies as they can. The legion collection drive will help the backpack group have a stockpile to give to those families still in need.
Zehnder Fischer believes there will be actually be a greater need in 2020.
“There will be a desire to not see those supplies going back and forth, perhaps,” she said. “So there will be an extra burden for schools to have student-centered supplies, as opposed to classroom-centered supplies.”
For the legion, meanwhile, monthly events and drives, like this one, are helping the organization stay in touch with the community and stay afloat financially. Vogel thinks this might be their favorite fundraiser yet.
“The positive outreach and the comments we’ve received, hopefully this will be the best event we’ll do,” she said.
Hoping to win over Minnesota in the fall election, President Donald Trump on Monday pounded political opponents as a threat to the nation and portrayed himself as a law and order candidate during an hourlong campaign speech at the Mankato airport before heading to Wisconsin and vowing, “I’ll be back.”
“We’re going to have an election that is all about the survival of this nation,” Trump told supporters.
In remarks similar to those he made in October in Minneapolis, Trump attacked opponents in Minnesota and around the country, from Minneapolis DFL U.S. Rep Ilhan Omar to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
He described former Vice President Joe Biden, who’s expected to formally receive the Democratic nomination this week, as “a “puppet of left-wing extremists trying to erase our borders, eliminate our police, indoctrinate our children, vilify our heroes, take away our energy.”
Trump called on Minnesota voters to “not let this happen. You will deliver a historic victory for our values, our citizens and our treasured way of life.”
Trump’s aggressive push comes as his path to reelection has narrowed since the coronavirus hit, and he’s been forced to play defense in the states that carried him to reelection four years ago. Minnesota, viewed as a GOP pickup opportunity a year ago, now appears to be slipping out of reach, Republicans say.
Trump’s team has spent more than a year building a volunteer network, registering voters and pounding the pavement. They had a head start as Democrats sorted through the process of choosing a nominee.
On the ground Monday at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport Monday before heading to Mankato, Trump invited business owners hit by rioting damage to tell their stories. Some said they were trying to rebuild but needed help. Others told the president that consequences for wrongdoing were needed.
About 150 people heard him speak in Mankato, including Greg Giese, who drove from St. James, Minn., to show his support for the president.
“It’s nice being around other Trump supporters, just talking with other people, had a great time,” he said. “No matter what happened it was a fun day.”
At the same time, some 200 people protested the president on Veterans Memorial Bridge downtown.
“I just want to make a presence to be able to amplify voices of people of color and other marginalized groups to let them know that Donald Trump and his politics aren’t welcome here, that we respect all people and that we have room for all people in Mankato,” said Jessica Lanes, one of those protesting.
Trump during his remarks credited his tariff and trade policies with aiding Minnesota farmers, manufacturers and miners on the state’s Iron Range.
Others disputed that.
John Steigauf, a leader with the International Association of Machinists, said manufacturing jobs have been cut since Trump’s inauguration. Plant closures near Mankato, St. Cloud and other regional hubs are devastating to rural communities.
Steigauf said if Trump wants to take credit for jobs added back as the pandemic restrictions have eased, he needs to be held accountable for what happened before then, too.
“I’m still waiting to see where those jobs are. All we’ve seen is plant closures and pink slips,” Steigauf said on a call organized by the state DFL Party prior to the president’s speech.
Trump’s campaign is working to widen margins in greater Minnesota counties to offset a likely Democratic vote advantage in and around the Twin Cities.
Blue Earth County, home to Mankato, went for Trump in 2016 by about 1,100 votes. He fell short of winning Minnesota by 44,000 votes or 1.5 percentage points.
Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Hagedorn, whose district includes Mankato and much of the south central region, said Trump’s support is strong in southern Minnesota.
“This time the polls show him right there in striking distance, and I got to tell you on the ground out here folks like the president’s message of law and order,” Hagedorn said before Trump’s remarks, adding that visits like this will only strengthen that backing. “Any time we can hear the president’s message of economic opportunity, keeping Americans safe and, of course, protecting our constitutional rights we’re really happy about it.”
Crop conditions are good across much of Minnesota, with a better-than-average harvest expected. The U.S. Agriculture Department says Minnesota could have a record corn crop this fall. But prices are still below the break-even point for corn and soybeans, so farmers remain concerned about low prices and the impact of trade disputes on future prices.
While Trump made his remarks in the state’s farm country Monday, he remains popular in northeastern Minnesota with his moves to impose tariffs on imported steel.
“I put tariffs on foreign steel and the Iron Range came roaring back to life,” he told supporters in Mankato.
He accused Biden of not doing enough to build up the steel industry. But Biden was part of an Obama administration that led a crackdown on illegal supply dumping by other countries. That effort combined with the Trump’s tariffs contributed to the northern Minnesota rebound.
Trump also took credit for reviving a proposed copper-nickel mine outside Ely, Minn.
In the waning days of the Obama administration, the government canceled federal mineral leases that Twin Metals needs to mine, and proposed a 20-year moratorium on new mining proposals near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Since taking office, Trump has systematically reversed those moves, reissuing and extending the mineral leases then cutting short an environmental study of the proposed mining.
Twin Metals has since submitted mining plans to both state and federal regulators, the first step in a yearslong review and permitting process.
‘Ignite the pain’
DFL Party Chair Ken Martin on Monday criticized Trump’s Minnesota stop as “nothing more than a desperate publicity stunt and a distraction” from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Donald Trump’s presidency has been a complete disaster for Minnesota families — from his attacks on Social Security, his harmful trade policies and his attempts to roll back the ACA [the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act] and key protections for our air and water,” Martin said in a statement prior to the speech.
Democratic Gov. Tim Walz, who got his political start in the Mankato area, told Minnesota delegates to the party’s national convention that he discouraged the White House from building in a Minneapolis stop where Trump would visit the George Floyd memorial.
Walz said Monday that he told Trump’s aides that using the site as a backdrop would “ignite the pain and the anguish that we’re feeling in Minnesota.”
The president’s published schedule does not include such a stop, but presidents sometimes have unannounced additions during visits to states.
Minnesota hasn’t backed a Republican for president since 1972. And Democrats are intent on making sure Trump doesn’t break through.
Trump last visited Minnesota in October, when he spoke to a large crowd at Target Center in Minneapolis.