Kernza is in the “valley of death,” presenters at a University of Minnesota conference about the new crop said Monday.
The perennial grain is appearing to have environmental benefits and yields are increasing, university researchers and commercial partners explained at the meeting in Dundas. Host Colin Cureton and other presenters said that the now the experimental crop is at a turning point.
The crop has been successfully developed and launched. But it needs to be successfully commercialized to make it out of the “valley of death,” according to Cureton.
Kernza is a cousin of wheat being developed by the University of Minnesota and others. Southern Minnesota has become one of the most prevalent homes for the budding crop.
“It has a long way to go in the commercialization process, but it’s not just a new crop,” said Cureton, director of adoption and scaling for the University of Minnesota Forever Green Initiative.
Farmers and others interested in Kernza were invited to the informational meeting held in-person in Dundas as well as virtually. Attendees learned about the history of the crop and its future prospects.
The University of Minnesota released its first Kernza variety in 2019.
Nearly 4,000 acres of Kernza were grown throughout the country last year, according to Sophia Skelly, a researcher with the Land Institute, which also is developing crop.
University professor and researcher Jake Jungers acknowledged that being among the early growers of Kernza is an “inherently risky endeavor.” But he said the university is “committed to providing the resources to you all.”
The presenters said early research is suggesting Kernza has a number of environmental benefits. Its deep roots protect soil from erosion and might improve soil quality. It requires less fertilizer and pesticide than many traditional crops and results in less runoff of chemicals into bodies of water.
The grain also has several prospective uses, the presenters said. There is not yet consensus on which markets to concentrate on first, according to Cureton.
“We might have different visions but we’re all on the same team,” he said.
Potential business paths include a mass market food ingredient, a premium niche ingredient, or joining the United States Department of Agriculture Climate-Smart Commodities program.
Kernza yields have been increasing 5-10% per year, Jungers said, adding that that rate will not be sustainable. The university has new varieties in development, he added, and will release the next one in 2023 or 2024.