BROWNS VALLEY, Minn. (DTN) -- With 47 years of research and farm field days behind him at the University of Minnesota, Professor Don Wyse said a field day earlier this month with a group of farmers showing off the prospects of Kernza to food companies, seed dealers and state officials was a capstone event in his work.
"It was the most exciting field day I probably have experienced in my damn career," Wyse said.
Wyse leads the University of Minnesota's Forever Green program, focusing on various perennial crops and winter annuals, starting with basic genomics, breeding and agronomics, as well as ecosystem services, food science, commercialization and markets.
"I think for everyone, it was the first day that all of those pieces were laid out in one place, and people were pretty excited about seeing all of those pieces fit together," Wyse said.
More than 150 people came to the field day near Madison, Minnesota, to learn about Kernza, a perennial wheat grass first developed by the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. Wes Jackson, who founded the Land Institute, began a breeding program to create a crop that would provide year-round cover and protection against soil erosion on the Kansas plains. But Wyse and other Minnesota researchers have adapted the crop to the Land of 10,000 Lakes and are developing Kernza as a potential strategy to address challenges such as water quality.
The field day also provided a chance for about a dozen farmers to form a new cooperative, the Perennial Promise Cooperative, to start developing markets for Kernza, as well as pique more interest among additional farmers to grow it.
"We wanted to demonstrate the ecosystem services aspect of the crop," said farmer Carmen Fernholz, who hosted the field day. "Kernza is unique in what it can do in all of the different aspects of the crop."
Anne and Peter Schwagerl dove in last September and planted 40 acres of Kernza on their 780-acre organic farm near Browns Valley, Minnesota.
"It's exciting to be on the ground floor of something that could become really big," Anne Schwagerl said. Still, the Schwagerls want to ensure they are growing a profitable crop as well. "How do we price something like Kernza and what are the real benefits of it," Anne Schwagerl said. "I am planting this and taking on the risk. We're not looking to get rich on the crop, but we want to get the value out of the crop."
Peter Schwagerl added, "It's still a risky proposition. We're trying to figure things out, but from a workload perspective, it's nice to have something I don't have to cultivate."
As a cousin to annual wheat varieties, Kernza can be used essentially in a similar way to wheat, and it is marketed as flour and whole grain. While an initial effort by General Mills to jump into Kernza for cereal had to be dialed back because of the lack of production, General Mills, PepsiCo and other buyers were at the field day to hear more about the prospects.
SMALL ACRES, BIG HOPES
Minnesota researchers took initial germplasm from the Land Institute and developed their own Kernza variety, Minnesota Clearwater.
Kernza is one of about 17 crops Wyse and other Minnesota researchers are working on in the Forever Green initiative, focusing on perennials, winter annuals and berry plants.
Minnesota has one of the largest concentrations of Kernza acres in the world, and it is still only about 1,000 acres, according to the Land Institute. Other states with sizable acres include Kansas with 700 acres and Montana with 400 acres. There are about 4,000 acres of the crop worldwide.
Kernza has a lot of production challenges. Grain yield is measured in pounds per acre rather than bushels. Yields can run from a few hundred pounds an acre to roughly 800 pounds. The kernels are small, difficult to hull and can be prone to shattering. Widespread commercial adoption of Kernza will not happen overnight.
"Kernza, if it is going to be a real commercial product, the yields have to be increased, and the productivity of a stand needs to be longer as well," Wyse said. Currently, grain can be harvested for three years, but Wyse said that production needs to get up to five years, similar to alfalfa. Yield can range from 500 pounds to 800 pounds an acre. A new variety of Kernza coming out will yield about 20% higher than Minnesota Clearwater and have much less shattering of seeds. The seed size is increasing as well.
"So as we roll these out, the yields are going to continue to go up and the length of production is going to continue to increase," Wyse said. "We'll get there, it's just a matter of time."
WATER QUALITY TIE-IN
The potential for wider-spread adoption of Kernza comes from not just its crop, but what its root system has to offer, Wyse said.
"That was really strategic for us to get rural buy-in," he said. "We tie in the crop to something they give a damn about, and what they give a damn about is the water they drink."
Wyse spoke by Zoom to a national water conference last month about the benefits of Kernza to address issues such as high nitrate leaching. The Minnesota Rural Water Association sees Kernza as a potential national model, he said.
"They are fighting this issue all over the United States, right?" he said. "So, figuring out how to get protection for the rural water supply and still have economic production in those zones that are supplying the water for those wells is one of the prospects here."
Some of the biggest champions in Minnesota of Kernza as a crop are county soil and water conservation district managers such as Doug Bos, assistant director of the Rock County Soil and Water Conservation District in Luverne, Minnesota. The crop provides a market opportunity within Minnesota's 50-foot buffer law around lakes, rivers and streams, as well as other strategic locations near community wells to provide a balance in markets for farmers while improving water quality.
"Kernza, with its deep rooting, is a great sink for taking nitrogen out of the soil," Bos said.
Communities in Pipestone County have planted dozens of acres of Kernza around their wellheads and are starting to see some positive results in lowering nitrate levels, Bos said.
"We're trying to figure out how to help farmers pay for their rent and make a living," Bos said. "If we can find a way for them to do it through a new type of crop and improve water quality, it's a win-win."
Dennis Fuchs, administrator for the Stearns County Soil and Water Conservation District, said his county had a couple of communities -- Melrose and Cold Spring -- with elevated nitrates that were trending in the wrong direction. The county got a state grant to work on some demonstration projects to plant and harvest Kernza, alfalfa and native prairie grasses around city well heads, and other boundaries that send water flows into those wells. Part of the grant is also to look at how to develop the value-added component for farmers, including marketing the crop once harvested.
"If we can plant this in strategic locations on the landscape, that's going to provide us the ecosystem services that are going to save us a ton of money," Fuchs said.
In prior work at a University of Minnesota research lab, Fuchs said studies show there were minimal nitrate concentrations coming off tile lines under perennial crops such as alfalfa. So now attention is turning to Kernza. Fuchs noted corn and soybeans will remain the dominant crops, but for communities, Kernza can save a great deal of cost in trying to remove nitrates from the water supplies.
GROW THE MARKET
With acreage what it is, there are not any major buyers of Kernza, yet. That's a challenge when it is being sold in totes instead of semi-loads. Farmers in the Perennial Promise Cooperative want to develop more buyers and consumer demand for Kernza products.
"I don't think any of us ever expect it will replace wheat, but is can be an ingredient in different products," Fernholz said.
For now, at least three brewers in Minnesota and a whiskey distillery are buying Kernza with the brewers experimenting on the malting possibilities. At least one company, Perennial Pantry, is selling Kernza whole grain and flour. Patagonia Provisions also is starting to market some Kernza products.
"What we've noticed is there is a lot of interest around the edges," Anne Schwagerl said. "Convincing those bigger buyers to take a chance on Kernza will be the thing we will be watching."
For farmers, Fernholz said Kernza must be able to compete with organic corn and soybean prices to become viable in the long term. "When you can guarantee $20 to $25 a bushel for organic soybeans, you have to compete with that with your Kernza."
This is where some engagement for bigger companies has started to come in, despite the current small acreage and production. Kernza fits into the aspect of sustainability that companies want to market.
"That's really what a lot of large companies are thinking about -- PepsiCo and General Mills -- wanting to tell that story," Wyse said. "If you purchase this product, you are basically improving the rural water supply across America."
University of Minnesota Forever Green Initiative https://www.forevergreen.umn.edu/…
The Land Institute https://landinstitute.org/…
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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