WILLISTON, N.D. - Kernza - a perennial grain crop that is under development in the Upper Great Plains - will be featured players in a field day, from 9 a.m. to noon, Sept. 26, at the Williston Research Extension Center.
Clair Keene, an Extension specialist with the WREC is offering the North Dakota's first research field day on the crop. Keene started the first research site during fall 2018.
Kernza is a brand of forage grass called intermediate wheatgrass. It is is in the embryonic stages of development, with an intent toward commercialization, with uses including making bread, pasta and beer.
Kernza, a trademark name for a crop developed at Salina, Kan., by the Land Institute, a group founded in 1976 to develop perennial grains, pulses and oilseeds. The history goes back to the 1980s with the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania. Kernza research and production has been tried from Kansas to Minnesota in the past several years.
Organic farmer Carmen Fernholz of Madison, Minn., has been growing Kernza in small research plots since 2011. In 2015 the University of Minnesota went forward with its own program to develop "elite" Kernza varieties. In 2019, the university released a variety called MN-Clearwater, described as the first "named" variety in the world.
Minnesota researchers are looking at the crop for its potential benefits of cutting erosion and improving water quality. In 2018, the U of M had enough seed for 100 acres, and aimed it to use in wellhead protection areas in southwest Minnesota's sandy soils, making them productive but environmentally friendly.
At Williston, Keene is using nine varieties, including five from Minnesota, two from Kansas and two old forage-types of intermediate wheatgrass. The crop is planted in the fall or spring but needs to vernalize, or go through a winter before it sets seed. Fernholz says it produces grain but can be grazed, either in the spring or in late August and September.
Keene says it's difficult to talk about yields because part of the raw weight is the hull. Fernholz says older varieties produce 200 to 500 pounds of seed per acre. That translates roughly up to 30 bushels per acre, Fernholz says.
Kernza typically produces its best yields in its first three years of production and then production declines "significantly," Fernholz says.Older varieties are more vulnerable to shattering. Kernels are one-eighth to one-quarter the size of a spring wheat kernel.
Last August, Fernholz planted 15 acres of Clearwater on his farm. Fernholz says the state is trying to get enough seed this year, for more 20-acre plots next year. Seed produced this year may be too late for the fall planting window in late August and September.
Richard Magnusson of Roseau, Minn., is in his fifth year of growing the crop but his fourth harvest. He had to tear up and replant the crop after three years because it shifts to vegetative growth. He's swathing half of his acres in late August and straight-cutting the rest.
Magnusson is part of RL Growers Cooperative, a company initially set up for the production and marketing of perennial ryegrass seed. Three of the co-op's growers together plant a total of 100 acres of Kernza. The three sell Kernza to Patagonia Provisions, an outdoor gear company based in Sausalito, Calif.,that started marketing Kernza-based beers in 2017.
"The viability of this isn't certain yet," Magnusson says. The agronomics are "kind of iffy" and the value of the crop isn't certain. Farmers wanting information on seed can contact Constance Carlson, new crop market integration specialist with the University of Minnesota, 612-709-6790.