To farmers across greater Minnesota familiar with annual rotations of corn and soybean crops, the words “perennial” and “grain” might seem like an odd pairing at first.
That was true for Alan Kraus, conservation program manager for the Cannon River Watershed Partnership in southeast Minnesota, until he read about the development of Kernza in his local newspaper a few years ago. Kernza is the trademarked name owned by The Land Institute of grain harvested from improved varieties of a perennial grass called intermediate wheatgrass.
“It sounded fascinating to me — I had to learn as much as I could about this new crop,” Kraus said. “Once I did my research and connected with folks at the University of Minnesota who were working on this crop, it became clear we have a lot of wins with a grain like Kernza.”
University connections, including the University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships (RSDP) and The Forever Green Initiative, helped Kraus learn what he could about the new crop. Connie Carlson, co-director of RSDP’s statewide Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems program and market development lead with The Forever Green Initiative, and her colleague Colin Cureton, supply chain specialist with The Forever Green Initiative, serve as a key contacts for local growers, communities and other partners interested in perennial grain crops and cropping systems.
“What’s unique about Kernza development in Minnesota is that it is driven by these clusters of growers and local leaders who want to invest their time and energy into championing these new crops — leaders like the Cannon River Watershed Partnership and growers who are connecting with each other in Southeast Minnesota and beyond,” Carlson said.
Benefits of growing perennial grain
As interest in perennial grain cropping systems has grown, breeders from the University of Minnesota Forever Green Initiative have released MN-Clearwater, the first improved intermediate wheatgrass variety released for commercial production. This crop provides numerous benefits to both soil and water quality and new market opportunities for growers across the state, as the supply chain of this new crop expands.
“The plant brings a lot to the landscape with its deep roots. Year-round cover holds the soil in place, reducing the leaching of nitrate into groundwater,” Kraus explained. “We can then harvest its grain and use it in all sorts of products — from beer to bread.”
Intermediate wheatgrass can be grown for food, with its harvested grain used as a whole grain or milled into flour. Local chefs and food businesses are already experimenting with recipes for beer, bread, crackers, pasta, whiskey and cookies made from Kernza. For example, Lakewinds Co-op stores in the Twin Cities have started stocking Kernza grain and flour, processed and packaged by a new, local company called Perennial Pantry.
Recognizing the market potential of Kernza, Kraus contacted Kaleb Anderson, a farmer in Goodhue County and member of the Land Stewardship Project Southeast Soil Health Steering Committee, about the potential of growing the crop on his farm. Anderson’s farm includes both cropland and a cattle enterprise that his family manages with regenerative practices.
“Hearing from Al Kraus — by then it was the third time or so I had heard about Kernza — I figured, ‘Maybe now I should start doing something with this,’” Anderson said. “I really got interested in the crop because of its soil health benefits. There is more to it than a traditional cash crop, looking holistically from a farm-value perspective.”
Anderson started experimenting by planting 6 acres of MN-Clearwater on his farm, coordinating with University of Minnesota researchers to study the crop and how grazing impacts its yield. This year will be the third growing season Anderson has grown the grain and participated in the study.
Other research led by CRWP and supported by Extension’s Southeast RSDP identified areas across the region where planting intermediate wheatgrass would maximize water quality benefits. Southeast RSDP connected research assistant Robbie Seltzer to the project. Seltzer, a graduate student at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, helped CRWP create a new mapping tool that highlights priority parcels of environmentally sensitive land to target for outreach and planting.
In addition to on-farm and water quality benefits, the implementation of Kernza is helping forge stronger partnerships across the state and in local communities.
“With these new connections and maps, outreach and awareness-raising will now be front-and-center. We’re hopeful to reignite collaborations with growers, land owners, local partners, bakers, brewers and more this growing season,” Kraus said about how CRWP plans to continue supporting Kernza implementation and community engagement in the region. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, CRWP organized several popular events to raise awareness about Kernza among community members, local businesses and farmers.
In addition, a newly forming Kernza growers cooperative is bringing growers across Greater Minnesota together to market their grain, share what they are learning and support each other as they grow this new crop. Anderson, Kraus and Carlson have all been involved in this effort.
Presentation on Kernza
Presentation during an in-person showcase of perennial grain Kernza, July 2019. Photo credit: Constance Carlson.
“We’re collaborating with all different aspects of Kernza, whether planting or harvesting to some of the issues or challenges that might come up along the way, to ensure we’re growing a quality seed at the end of the day,” Anderson said.
“It’s very grassroots and fun to be a part of something so early on. That’s enjoyable. You can see the benefits first hand,” he added.
The implementation of Kernza across the state would not be possible without the growing network of farmers, watershed organizations, local businesses, supply chain partners and University partners investing and collaborating in this work.
“All of these folks are working in partnership to make good decisions about how and where to grow this perennial grain to maximize the environmental, economic and social benefits of this new crop. It’s really exciting to be a part of this collaborative work,” Carlson said.