One downside of our current production of grain crops such as corn, soybeans, wheat, oat, and barley is that these crops are annual crops, meaning that they need to be planted each year. This also means that many of the fields where annual grain crops are grown will spend at least some time during the year with no living plants covering the soil surface with vegetation and holding the soil in place with roots, protecting it from water and wind erosion.

According to researchers, a new perennial grain crop, with the trade named Kernza, could solve those problems and provide grain for food use and forage for livestock while also keeping the soil covered year round.

In September 2018, two local farmers planted Kernza on their farms. Kernza is the registered trade name for intermediate wheatgrass (scientific name Thinopyrum intermedium), that was developed by The Land Institute located in Salina, Kansas.

Despite the common name, it is not a species of wheat but rather a grass species related to wheat. The grain has a sweet, nutty flavor making it a good fit for cereals, snacks and brewing. The kernel is smaller than wheat and has more bran and fiber, but fewer carbohydrates. Kernza also produces vegetative forage (biomass) for livestock, and because it’s a perennial it grows year after year without having to plant new seeds. It also provides year-round soil coverage, reducing erosion.

Through a Minnesota Department of Agriculture Sustainable Agriculture Demonstration Grant, the Cannon River Watershed Partnership and the University of Minnesota are partnering with Dan Honken in Rice County and Kaleb Anderson in Goodhue County to grow Kernza and study how grazing the biomass of Kernza in the fall will affect the next year’s grain production of this perennial crop.

Information from this three-year study will help farmers learn about the financial benefits available to them from the grain and forage production of Kernza.

In addition to local farmers growing Kernza, local brewers have begun working on creating new beers with Kernza. With help from a grant from the clothing brand Patagonia, CRWP is partnering with Imminent Brewing and the Milltown Mashers homebrewing club in Northfield to create a Kernza beer.

On Saturday Nov. 2 homebrewers spent the afternoon on Imminent Brewing’s patio experimenting with brewing batches of Kernza in varying percentages of the total grain mix in the mash. The resulting beers from this effort will be taste tested at Imminent Brewing’s monthly Conversations On the Wonders of Science (C.O.W.S. — a community lectures organized by Carleton College) at 6 p.m. Dec. 10.

This event is open to the public and will certainly be fun and informative. Imminent Brewing will brew a large batch of the winning recipe and make it available to the public sometime in February 2020.

Kernza at harvest Kaleb Anderson Farm Goodhue County. August 2019: Photo CRWP.

Cattle grazing Kernza biomass Kaleb Anderson Farm Goodhue County. October 2019. Photo: Kaleb Anderson

Kernza grain harvested at Kaleb Anderson Farm Goodhue County. August 2019. Photo: CRWP

Alan Kraus is the Cannon River Watershed Partnership’s conservation program manager.

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