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A Kernza field. Photo courtesy of Richard Magnusson

Obscure wheatgrass grown in Minnesota could lead to benefits

ROSEAU, Minn. — Richard Magnusson is all too familiar with difficult planting conditions. So the Roseau, Minn., farmer is intrigued by Kernza, an obscure-for-now wheatgrass that could cut input costs, help the environment and make planting a little easier.

“We’ve historically had our problems getting in the crop in wet springs,” Magnusson says. “This reduces the risk of that,” He was one of three Roseau County farmers who grew Kernza in 2015. The crop, a trade name for intermediate wheatgrass, is a perennial. Unlike regular wheat — an annual plant that must be planted every year — Kernza is planted just once, and comes back year after year.

Nobody, not even its biggest supporters, expect Kernza to rival major crops such as corn, soybeans or annual wheat anytime soon, if ever.

“This is not being positioned as a replacement for wheat. It’s being positioned as a new grain crop with end uses being identified around it,” says Donald Wyse, an agronomist and plant breeder at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul. “It’s being rolled out slowly, to match production with end use.”

Kernza is being developed by Wyse and other University of Minnesota researchers in collaboration with The Land Institute, based in Salina, Kan. The Land Institute’s breeding program focuses on perennializing wheat and domesticating perennial intermediate wheatgrass named, and trademarked as, Kernza.

Intermediate wheatgrass originated in Europe and Asia, but was introduced into the U.S. long ago to provide forage for livestock.

More recently, intermediate wheatgrass was identified as a good candidate to become a perennial grain crop. It features relatively large seed size and a deep root system that helps it tolerate drought, Wyse says.

Economic sense

Kernza provides what Wyse refers to as “ecosystem services,” or environmental benefits. Perennial crops are in the soil year-round, reducing water erosion, improving water quality and providing wildlife habitat.

But farmers will grow Kernza only if the crop makes economic sense for them, he says.

Kernza yields only about half as much spring wheat planted annually, Wyse says, which potentially limits Kernza’s appeal.

But “value,” not yields, is the best way to measure the crop’s economic appeal, he says.

The thinking is, Kernza’s lower input costs — reduced expenses for things such as fuel — will help to offset the crop’s poorer yields. The crop also could fetch a premium to annual wheat, further offsetting lesser yields.

Magnusson and the other two northern Minnesota farmers, who planted a combined 75 acres of Kernza using seed from The Land Institute, are thought to be the only U.S. producers to raise it commercially.  

The Minnesota farmers are growing Kernza for Patagonia Provisions, a Sausalito, Calif.-based company that sells what it calls “delicious, responsibly sourced food,” and several other companies that are experimenting with the grain.

For the foreseeable future, Kernza can be grown only under a license with The Land Institute, and sold only under contract, Magnusson says.

“It’s not like General Mills will want carloads of this to make cereal,” he says.

Much to learn

There’s still much to learn about Kernza, says Magnusson, who grows a number of speciality crops, including seed grass.

“We have to prove how much we can grow and how reliably we can grow it,” he says. “We also need to establish a market.”

Another challenge is that Kernza seed continues to improve, which is both bad and good. Improved seed encourages farmers to plant it for the first time — but also increases incentive to replant existing fields with improved seed, which would seem to partially defeat the purpose of planting a perennial crop.

Magnusson says the seed he planted in the fall of 2014 already is nearly outdated by genetic improvements since then. Even so, he welcomes the improvements in Kernza seed because they strengthen the crop’s long-term prospects.

His 2015 Kernza crop reached its target yield, which is encouraging, he says.

He’s optimistic, but cautious, about the crop’s future.

“We’re really hopeful this crop will expand,” he says. “But there’s a long way to go.”

Jonathan Knutson is a staff writer for Agweek. To subscribe to the weekly agriculture magazine, call (800) 811-2580 or email subscriptions@agweek.com.

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