A multi-state coalition of researchers, farmers, educators, industry leaders, policy experts, and climate scientists was recently awarded a competitive 5-year, $10 million grant through USDA NIFA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative’s Sustainable Agricultural Systems program to scale the research, production, awareness and commercialization of Kernza, the first commercial perennial grain in the United States.
Kernza is the trademark name for the perennial grain harvested from new varieties of intermediate wheatgrass (Thinopyrum intermedium), a forage grass that has been used by farmers across the United States for decades. As a perennial, Kernza is planted once and provides several years of harvestable grain. Kernza has a deep root system that provides multiple environmental benefits, including improving water and soil quality and reducing soil erosion. Additionally, research has shown that this new perennial grain can increase farm income due to decreased inputs and costs from reduced tilling, pesticide requirements and nutrient runoff.
The project, formally titled Developing and Deploying a Perennial Grain Crop Enterprise to Improve Environmental Quality and Rural Prosperity, seeks to advance agriculture production by developing the blueprint for US agricultural systems to shift from annual row crop production that requires tilling and planting every year to perennial production. By building the support system necessary to successfully increase Kernza acres, this project aims to improve the environmental sustainability of food production and demonstrate the viability of new perennial crops as real economic opportunities for farmers and rural communities.
“The Land Institute [Kansas] launched the research and development of Kernza nearly two decades ago with the vision of transforming agriculture to a just, diverse and perennial system,” explains Rachel Stroer, Acting President of The Land Institute, a partner in the project. “This grant is built on years of active collaboration among the stakeholders and is an exciting step toward our vision for Kernza and other future perennial grains being developed at The Land Institute and partner institutions globally.”
This project, informally called the KernzaCapproject, brings together partners from multiple states to form teams that will lead research and activities focused on breeding, agronomics, environmental quality, supply chains, and education. Each team is composed of academic and non-academic experts, including researchers, industry leaders, farmers, educators, and policy makers representing 10 universities and 24 non-profit and farm and food organizations. A sixth team focused on integration will be charged with ensuring that the project’s many partners are communicating and cross-collaborating effectively and efficiently.
Jacob Jungers, PhD, Assistant Professor in the Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics at the University of Minnesota’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences and leading coordinator of the project, explains, “A critical part of the KernzaCap is integration. The project will align research, education, commercialization and implementation efforts to operate in concert on a local to national scale. This project will simultaneously advance the genetics of Kernza, guide farmers on how to grow it, and partner with companies on how to use and market it. We envision this collaborative approach will ensure that Kernza is agronomically sound, economically viable and environmentally sustainable.”
Results from the KernzaCap will include new cultivars that yield more grain and enhance critical ecosystem services, a better understanding of those ecosystem services, as well as multiple operating regional supply chains and increased national market demand for Kernza.
Additional goals of the project include developing a wide range of educational materials for teaching perennial agriculture concepts in K-12, higher education, and adult learning contexts; documenting best management practices for Kernza production; and piloting opportunities and approaches for state and federal policies that support increased Kernza production.