Kernza is a grain crop currently being bred and developed that is gaining the interest of small-grain farmers, cereal makers and climate scientists.
What is Kernza?
In 1983, plant breeders for the Rodale Institute selected a Eurasian forage grass called intermediate wheatgrass (Thinopyrum intermedium). Kernza is a grass species related to wheat for domestication. The Rodale Institute, along with the USDA, began selecting the seed for traits such as improved seed size and fertility. In 2003, under the guidance of Dr. Lee DeHaan, the Land Institute (link) in Salina, Kansas, began the Kernza Domestication Program along with the University of Minnesota, to further the progression of the grass traits to include disease resistance. In 2019, the university released its first “named” variety called MN-Clearwater.
Unlike other grain crops, which are annuals, Kernza is a perennial. In a study by Steve Culman of The Ohio State University, “Kernza provides environmental benefits relative to annual grain crops, including reduced soil and water erosion, reduced soil nitrate leaching, increased carbon sequestration, and reduced input of seed, tillage, energy and pesticides.”
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A study conducted by Michigan State University over eight years looked at 70 million acres of farmland in 10 Midwestern states and found that a quarter of the cornfields are inconsistent yielders, or “unstable yielders.” This is a result of the fields, either being too wet or unsuitable for cropping. As a result, any nitrogen applied to the fields is wasted because there is less plant material to absorb the nutrients and roughly 40% in the water and into the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas.
The University of Minnesota’s Forever Green Initiative has been working with Kernza to help improve water quality by preventing soil erosion and prevent excess nitrogen runoff. Kernza can assist in turning land that is inconsistent yielding into acreage that could be used to produce a crop and provide good forage for cattle. In the studies, Kernza appears to do well with grazing in the fall and producing grain the following summer. By using rotational grazing, the cows help contribute nitrogen that helps to build soil biology and helps farmers use fewer inputs.
The grain has a sweet, nutty flavor making it a good for cereals, snacks, and brewing. The kernel has more bran and fiber, but fewer carbohydrates than wheat. Kernza can replace up to ten percent of wheat flour without changing its flavor profile, according to Chris Wiegert of HFI in Valley City, ND. Wiegert also states that a few large food companies are interested in the flavor profile and its sustainability.
Due to the unique flavor profile, Kernza has been used by a few companies to make beer with the grain. Fair State Brewing Cooperative in northeast Minneapolis created a golden ale called Keep the North Cold, that replaces white wheat and can be enjoyed on a summer day. The brew was developed in partnership with the clothing company, Askov Finlayson to source the grain locally to create an all-Minnesota product.
In 2016, California-based Patagonia Provisions partnered with the Land Institute to create the first brew from Kernza called Long Root Pale Ale. The name comes from the long root system of the plant which can grow ten feet or more. This year the company launched its second beer with Hopworks Urban Brewery in Portland OR. made with organic ingredients and Kernza called Long Root Wit.
General Mills is also interested in the grain and has partnered with the University of Minnesota and the Land Institute to market the grains under the Cascadian Farm label. The company donated $500,000 to the University’s Forever Green Initiative to advance research and development including the processing of the grain. Its efforts to market the cereal, called Honey Toasted Kernza Cereal, were derailed by a crop failure this year.
General Mills was able to use the grain from its’ 2018 crop to market 6,000 boxes of the cereal which are available through http://www.DeeplyRootedForGood.com with the funds going to the Land Institute for further research of the grain. Maria Carolina Comings, marketing director for Cascadian Farm, hopes to have more grain next year making it available to more consumers and “continuing to build awareness for the potential of climate-beneficial foods.” It also has committed to making the crop a commercial reality by 2040.
Further development is being made with Kernza to determine the best growing practices, long-term impacts of the crop on the environment and to improve grain yields. Studies are also being conducted to determine the grazing capability of the crop. While it may be a while until Kernza is available on a wide-spread basis, it is something to keep an eye out for and learn about in the future.