Can Modern Agriculture be Sustainable?
Article by Beth Baker
Can Modern Agriculture be Sustainable?
Can Modern Agriculture be Sustainable?
Article by Beth Baker
Dana Christel and Vicki Morrone
As the perennial grain Kernza® continues to be featured in agricultural news articles and press releases, the level of interest in this new crop for both buyers and farmers continues to grow. This is especially true given the recent announcement of General Mills’ plans to incorporate Kernza® grain into cereals and snack bars under their brand, Cascadian Farm Organic. Kernza® is the trademarked name given to seed or grain harvested from a perennial forage grass called intermediate wheatgrass. Efforts to domesticate intermediate wheatgrass into a grain crop were initiated in the 1980s by the Rodale Institute and taken over by The Land Institute in 2003. What exactly does it take to grow this hip, new grain with long roots and a wild past? Of course there are differences in the management of this crop compared to an annual. This article offers some answers to agronomic questions from the viewpoints of three farmers in the Midwest, each with varying levels of growing experiences with this new crop. We interviewed each of them on their approaches to planting, managing and harvesting intermediate wheatgrass for grain.
University researchers and farmers have shown that intermediate wheatgrass can be planted using a standard grain drill. Carmen Fernholz, an organic farmer in Madison, Minnesota, first planted two acres of this crop in 2011. When asked about the planting process he said, “Planting really wasn’t a challenge. I used my regular grain drill. I had a pretty good, firm seed bed and planted the seed very, very shallow- not even a half inch deep, almost like planting prairie grass. It stayed fairly dry that fall, but eventually we did get germination and emergence. Then the next spring, the stand really took off and it gets thicker and thicker every year.” Randy Hampshire farms in Kingston, Michigan and just planted intermediate wheatgrass this past fall using his Oliver grain drill. He explained, “I planted it on two acres on top of a hill along with buckwheat. I wanted a nurse crop to come up with it and that seemed to work beautifully. I seeded with a conventional grain drill. I just had to figure out which setting to put it on. I started using the setting for grass seed but it ended up being a little too big for that one so I went the next size down and that one worked better”. Using nurse crops on an organic farm helps reduce weed challenges as the crop becomes established. Buckwheat dies with a killing frost so there is relatively little management needed for termination and the dead plants act as a mulch around the young intermediate wheatgrass plants, reducing weeds in the field.
Farmer Jack Erisman, located in Pana, Illinois planted intermediate wheatgrass in 2011 as Fernholz did. He planted ninehis past fall he planted 18 more acres of the latest generation of intermediate wheatgrass seed using an air seeder that he often uses for other small seeded crops. University researchers have been recommending that farmers plant intermediate wheatgrass in rows, though the ideal row spacing is still to be determined. Erisman chose an alternative approach for spacing; “Everybody has been talking about rows and cultivation and it just seemed incongruous to me to take something as a perennial and then go and cultivate it. So, we’ve always just solid seeded it.” Planting date varied among each of these farmers, but each of them planted in the fall around September. Dr. Jacob Jungers of the University of Minnesota states they’ve found this timing is the best time to plant, and that establishment is better in the fall than in the spring due to less weed competition.
Fertilizer inputs also varied among farmers. In the 5+ years intermediate wheatgrass has been growing on Fernholz’s farm he has applied hog manure once during the second year at a rate of 65 lb N/acre. Erisman followed a similar approach and applied composted cattle bedding at a rate of 1-1.5 t/acre. Hampshire stated he had to adjust for some low fertility in the field where his Kernza was planted this fall and applied 2 tons of dairy compost per acre before planting.
From talking with different researchers and these farmers, I’ve gotten the impression that weeds in intermediate wheatgrass stands have not been a big issue for the most part if they manage to plant early enough in the fall to allow good crop establishment. Dr. Jungers noted that in most of his conversations with organic farmers, they are not all that concerned with weeds. Sandra Wayman, a researcher from Cornell University studying intermediate wheatgrass has not observed many issues with weeds in their experimental plots either. When asked about weeds, Erisman said, “In the first year when we didn’t have a great stand, there was some red clover and other weeds popping up, but by the second year, the wheatgrass rhizomes had spread, and it seems like they can choke out almost anything.”
Harvesting intermediate wheatgrass grain, or Kernza® is one of the aspects of the crop that remains a challenge. Though seed size continues to increase, it is still a very small seed. As of now, the University of Minnesota (UMN) suggests two approaches to the grain harvest: Direct combining or swathing followed by combining. Fernholz explained the challenge in more detail. He said, “What I was made aware of is that the intermediate wheatgrass seed head ripens from the tip down, and so you have to wait quite a while before those bottom kernels are ripe. But then you start getting some shattering and the grain starts dropping out. So, with the University of Minnesota, we’re trying to determine the optimal time to harvest.” Fernholz windrowed the intermediate wheatgrass stand on his plot and then combined it. “If you can cut it a little bit on the green side, put it in windrows and then let it dry down in windrows, then we can harvest more seed. Having to wait until the bottom kernels are ripe exposes you to weather conditions that coud cause more shattering,” he said. He’s also been working with UMN to figure out the proper settings of the combine; “How to adjust the threshing mechanism in the combine can be a challenge because the seed is so light and it does have a hull on it, so how to adjust wind and sieves and everything can be a challenge. We were just trying to determine those kinds of adjustments as well.”
Erisman said he used a standard combine using the standard setting for grass seed, and his thoughts echoed Fernholz regarding the way intermediate wheatgrass ripens and addressed it by cleaning it right away. “One thing we did do is have it cleaned fairly soon. In my short experience, you can harvest it at different stages. It doesn’t necessarily ripen as evenly as you thought it might. So when you harvest you might have some green in the grain, so you want to clean it pretty quickly,” said Erisman.
Grain yields still seem to vary quite a bit. The average grain yield is around 500 lb/acre, but, as with any crop, Kernza® yields are dependent on weather. Erisman noted that his first grain year, 2012, there was almost no yield to speak of due to drought. In 2013 and 2014 he said they got more rain and had a better grain crop, but yields were only around 300 lb/acre. However, Dr. Jungers has said there is potential for Kernza® yields of 1500 lb/acre, and points out that yields are increasing with every plant breeding cycle and as we learn more about the agronomics.
Jungers said they’ve observed grain yields fall off after the third year of growth as corroborated by both Fernholz and Erisman. University of Minnesota has some different experiments considering ways to revitalize grain production in older intermediate wheatgrass stands. In 2016, Fernholz’s fields had low yields and decided it was not worth harvesting. So he tried something. “The intermediate wheatgrass has really gotten itself sodded in. So grain production this past year was virtually nothing. So, what I did this fall was I went through the plot with a chisel plow and stripped it to see if it would help to thin out some of the tillers to stimulate regrowth and rejuvenate grain production.” Erisman tried another approach to revitalize his 2011 stand. “We interseeded red clover into the old stand, because I’ve noticed with the old stand that the seed production isn’t as good and it has become very rootbound. I didn’t want to disturb the soil too much, so we went out with a no-till drill and set the coulters as deep as we could, just to cut the roots while seeding the clover at 10-11 lb/acre on the surface. The red clover is doing very well and it doesn’t seem to have hurt the wheatgrass at all. But we’ll see if we get any grain stimulation from that.” The expectation is that the clover will fix some nitrogen and its roots will loosen the soil.
Words of Advice
Fernholz, Hampshire, and Erisman are cautiously optimistic that this crop may become a viable contributor to their crop portfolio and improve soil health on their farms. They continue to participate in research on their farm and share their results and experiences with researchers and other farmers. Being two of the more experienced Kernza growers, I asked Fernholz and Erisman what they’d tell a farmer who is either new to growing Kernza or interested in trying to grow it. Here are their words of advice:
“Well my first piece of advice would be, I wouldn’t bet the farm on it yet.”
“Know that you have a market if you’re planning on generating some revenue.”
“Really be aware of the agronomic characteristics of the crop itself. Know that its three years and you’re going to have to do something with it other than harvesting a cash crop.”
“Don’t overcomplicate it.”
Agronomic research to improve production of intermediate wheatgrass is ongoing, and several new efforts have been initiated in the last year. The University of Minnesota and Michigan State University recently began a two-year research project funded by a Ceres Trust grant that will study the effects of grazing on the intermediate wheat grass and assessing Kernza® yield and quality. The research aims to test if the crop can offer dual use: grain for flour or brewing and pasture for dairy cows. Trials were set up in the fall of 2016 on University and farmer’s land. Here in Michigan, intermediate wheatgrass was planted at Kellogg Biological Station and at Hampshire Farms in Kingston, MI and is slowly waking up from its winter dormancy. We will be putting dairy cows on it this year on some plots and other plots we will allow to set seed for harvest. Watch for information regarding upcoming field days at one or both locations this summer. These events will offer a place to learn more about our findings and possible ways to grow intermediate wheatgrass for grain and forage!
We recently presented the following poster during Agriculture and Natural Resources week at Michigan State University. Click here to read it up close!
Earlier this month General Mills announced they’re working with The Land Institute to incorporate perennial food grain Kernza into cereals and snacks under its Cascadian Farm organic brand. Read the article from the Washington Post.
In the article, Kernza is described to be “sweet and nutty-tasting”. Last week a Michigan farmer baked us some scones using whole Kernza flour, and we second that statement- sweet and nutty with a beautiful, toasted brown color. Its fun to wonder what other food products we might find Kernza apart of in the coming months and years!
By Dana Christel
Wheat may be one of the first crops that comes to mind when the state of Washington is mentioned. I can picture rolling hills covered in swaying waves of golden wheat seed heads. I think dry, I think wide open spaces, I think of a large combine making its way across the plains. Of course, the state as a whole represents a myriad of agricultural systems due to diverse geography and varied microclimates, so the image described probably best represents the eastern part of the state. However, even on the western parts of Washington there have been efforts to breed wheat that thrives in a different environment and meets the needs of farmers in that region. Dr. Stephen Jones, wheat breeder and director of The Bread Lab at the Mount Vernon Research Center, has been working to develop regionally relevant varieties of grains such as oats, barley and wheat since 2008. Also among those projects is developing a perennial grain and forage crop from wheat, a breeding effort that began back in the 1990s at the Pullman campus of Washington State University on the east side. When Jones made the move to the other side of the mountains in 2008, the perennial project was put on the back-burner. That is until Colin Curwen-McAdams joined Jones’s team as a Ph.D. student to revitalize perennial grain breeding efforts and focus them on the coastal Northwest, between the Cascade Mountains and the Pacific Ocean.
A Regional Perennial Grain and Forage Crop
Early efforts in perennial grain breeding at Pullman included planting out different germplasm from collections all over the country and making crosses between wheat and related species. Curwen-McAdams planted a little bit of everything Dr. Jones’ program had developed over the last 20 years and started making new crosses of wheat and wheatgrass species adapted to the western part of the state. Thus began the journey of breeding a perennial grain and forage crop for this coastal region. There are different pest and disease problems for grains here. Nestled against the Puget Sound, crops in this region experience moderate winters and summers with abundant moisture, an environment very different from eastern Washington and most places inland.
To my surprise, despite these moderate winters, one of the biggest challenges Curwen-McAdams has experienced is in getting the plants to survive through the winter. “The interesting part is the same lines that I had die on me here have done alright in Pullman where it can get much colder and they get snow regularly. So it’s not just related to temperature.” Curwen-McAdams explains that this region gets abundant moisture through the fall so the plant keeps growing and wants to flower. But then the cold comes along and the very tender flowers die from the cold. In contrast to the other side of the mountains, “In Pullman there’s not a lot of moisture, so the plant kind of sits there and gets covered in snow, and by the time everything wakes up in the spring, it ends up being okay. So it’s really about how the plant prepares itself for what’s next.” Colin’s theory is that since a lot of the materials have been selected for over 20 years in eastern Washington, they’ve become synchronized to that environment. “So that’s where the regional aspect of plant breeding comes in,” Curwen-McAdams points out, “changes in latitude, changes in temperature, changes in agricultural system, all of that will change what that crop needs to do for the system and what the plant needs to do to survive. “
A Balancing Act
Other benefits of regionally based plant breeding are that researchers can base their efforts on the needs of farmers of that region. Curwen-McAdams says that in their valley approximately 80 different crop types are grown in rotation, and the primary reasons farmers grow grain there is to break up pest and disease cycles while returning organic matter to the soil. “They’re not really growing grain as their primary crop. They’re definitely not growing grain to make a profit…So how can we make that grain crop more beneficial to the overall rotation?” Curwen-McAdams says that by adding organic matter with a crop with deeper roots that a farmer doesn’t have to till for a few years in between could increase yields of, say, potatoes that follow it. “So it’s a different target to hit than replacing grain where grain is grown. And I think that’s something important to point out.”
“If I were to use materials that do well here [right away] as opposed to bringing things from somewhere else, [a shorter timeline] could maybe work, if the environments are similar enough, but as a plant breeder you don’t expect to get lucky like that. You expect to have to bring in interesting components and then reassemble them through the breeding process.”
When asked about the attitudes of area farmers that are interested in perennial grain crops Curwen-McAdams says they are “generally interested and cautiously optimistic”. Growers have shown a lot of interest in a crop that can be used as both grain and forage, but he emphasizes the importance to not over promise this idea to farmers; “With perennial grain development there’s a constant struggle between over promising and letting people down and then having people stop caring because you can’t produce something on a timescale that they’re familiar with.” Curwen-McAdams reasons that an annual wheat variety from a cross to a release might take 8-10 years, and a lot of producers have a similar expectation for perennial grains. However, Curwen-McAdams and other perennial grains breeders know that following a timeline like that isn’t all that feasible. “If I were to use materials that do well here [right away] as opposed to bringing things from somewhere else, that could maybe work, if the environments are similar enough, but as a plant breeder you don’t expect to get lucky like that. You expect to have to bring in interesting components and then reassemble them through the breeding process,” he says. The goal of their program has been to add a genome onto bread wheat through cross pollination and selection and at this point they have some advanced materials that are stable, which to my limited understanding of plant breeding, is a great success in the world of perennial grains. Materials that are ready to be adopted by farmers is still several years down the line as of now, but Curwen-McAdams remains hopeful, “The message to me is there’s a tremendous potential and in order to realize that potential we need breeding efforts, we need to have conversations with growers to understand what the crop actually needs to do in their system, and then we need those conversations to expand beyond that to the people who are actually going to use that grain in order to make sure that we [are on target].”
Another facet of sustaining the interest, is getting the potential users of perennial grain like bakers, maltsters, and brewers, and the consumers of these potential products, to think of the crop in a different way than they think of wheat. “Trying to get a hybrid is really about trying to capture a lot of those qualities that we like from wheat in the new crop and then hopefully being able to give it a name and a place so that it doesn’t have to be defined as wheat, because if it has to be defined as wheat, it has to do exactly what wheat does and be perennial. That’s really a challenge.”
Curwen-McAdams points out Triticale, the product of crossing rye with wheat, as an example. It’s given its own name, isn’t expected to fully behave like wheat or rye, and with that has a different place in the market. Curwen-McAdams refers to the purple and blue spring wheat breeding, another project he works on, to further explain, “The only market classes for wheat now are red and white. By breeding something that is outside market classification you immediately remove any sort of potential market for it and you also remove any pricing structure that’s been placed. With that there’s a potential to redefine what the price of that grain is based on what the farmer needs from it and what it can do for the community.” I found this a very interesting point made for developing a crop for a specific area, and something to certainly keep in mind as breeders continue to make advancements on perennial grains.
What Should We Name It?
Naming a new crop is not only important in the realm of marketing and bringing consumers on board, it’s also important for scientists to effectively communicate their progress to one another. Curwen-McAdams, Jones and several other scientists just published an article in Journal of Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution suggesting the nomenclature for one of the stable lines they’ve developed, a cross of Thinopyrum ponticum and Triticum aestivum, as ×Tritipyrum aaseae after Dr. Hannah Aase who contributed to early efforts working with these hybrids. “At this point it is its own thing separate from its two parents,” said Curwen-McAdams.
“Names are important. They help us organize information and influence how we think about the world. “
He expressed his frustration in talking to other researchers because there was no more specific way they could refer to this advanced material except to call it ‘perennial wheat’. Washington State University had put out a press release announcing the article’s release, generating excitement among several local news sources. The message may have gotten blurred, as stories portrayed the Mount Vernon group as discovering perennial wheat, rather than naming a new hybrid species. As of now, Curwen-McAdams hasn’t gotten a lot of feedback from scientists in the perennial grain community yet, but he’ll continue to use the proposed naming structure as a foundation. He hopes that he’s started a conversation and brought attention to this important component of developing a new crop, “Names are important,” he says “They help us organize information and influence how we think about the world. The name doesn’t define the crop, but hopefully having one opens the space for people to collaborate in doing so.”
The article is open access at SpringerLink. Click here to read it.
If you have ideas to share with Colin about perennial grain nomenclature or other questions about breeding projects at Mount Vernon Research Center you can contact him at: email@example.com
By Dana Christel
Jerry Glover, Senior Sustainable Agriculture Advisor for the United States Agency for International Development, has been an important figure in perennial grains research. He was recognized as a National Geographic Emerging Explorer in 2010 for his work on soil health and perennial grass systems at The Land Institute. He has been an author of several significant papers on perennial agriculture, and worked to display perennial root systems at the United States Botanic Garden. Today he continues to be influential in communicating the benefits of perennial systems and promoting perennial crops in agriculture in the developing world. I had the pleasure of meeting with Dr. Glover over a warm cup of tea on a snowy day in Michigan and ask about his work over the past 20 years. Glover shared his lightbulb moment of inspiration, tactics he uses to engage audiences in the topic of soil health, and his thoughts on perennial grain Kernza®, recently introduced to food markets by The Land Institute.
Q: Can you walk me through the history of your involvement in perennial grains work? Why did you choose to work with perennial grains?
A: I had one of those Eureka moments. I was in Kansas in 1996 doing research comparing soil quality between organic and conventional farming systems. I was seeing differences between those two types of systems, but I wasn’t really impressed with the differences I was seeing. So then I wondered, what does soil quality look like under natural grassland ecosystems? Luckily, I was able to find a relatively intact prairie meadow with the same soil type as the farms I was studying. I was looking at soil aggregate stability, soil C, N, and P levels, among other things and found that the meadow had much greater soil quality, especially organic matter than the two farming systems I studied. I found out that a farmer had been haying this meadow for a while. I started doing some back of the envelope calculations while I was in the field to figure out the nutrients taken off in the hay, and it was then that I had this sort of epiphany: perennial grass systems can support similar nutrient yields as annual agriculture, but without all the depletion of soil organic matter and soil quality.
So I went back to Washington to finish my Ph.D. and then I returned to The Land Institute to set up some more rigorous studies. I worked with an interdisciplinary team of ecologists and soil biologists and we studied above ground food webs of insects, looked at nematode populations and other chemical, biological and physical soil properties of perennial grass systems. We found that these systems can sustain harvests of similar levels of N, P, and K as annual wheat systems. We found that with no N fertilizer inputs that N was still getting into the soil. Now part of this has to do with legumes being present in some of those ecosystems but I credit biological N fixation in and around the perennial grass roots to be a big part of soil N in natural grassland soils. So I got really excited about everything we were finding, but you can’t really eat hay. So how do we emulate this in a viable way in our agricultural systems? And I thought perennial grain crops were a remarkably feasible and revolutionary way to do so.
Q: In what capacity are you working with perennial grains now?
A: In my work now I deal with a wider variety of farming systems and it’s a much wider scope dealing with more socio-cultural aspects. Though the geographic and thematic scope of my work has expanded I still include and talk about perennial grain crops a lot in my work.
Q: There’s a popular picture of you with roots that shows up in a lot of articles about perennial grains and I notice in many of your talks that you bring a perennial grass with long roots to show to your audience. How has this imagery helped influence, educate and inspire people?
A: When people see perennial grain crops growing above ground next to annual crops, they look pretty similar and there’s little indication of the differences in the benefits or services they provide. But when you look below ground it’s easy to see those differences. I used to try to explain the benefits by talking about the good things perennials do for soil, but this does not capture people’s imaginations. It bores people. But when you show the roots it inspires people to what the profound implications of those roots are below ground.
Using the roots as a prop is a tool to sustain people’s interest but transfer their attention to the more important topic of soil. Showing the roots seems to change the nature of questions from an audience. Instead of asking big picture questions about how perennial grains can fix societal problems, they start to ask more questions about how the roots absorb nutrients or retain water. Those are the things I want to talk about.
Q: What’s the biggest barrier in perennial grains work?
A: Plant breeding. Perennial grains can’t catch on in countries because they don’t really exist yet in viable forms that can compete with annual grain crops. I see big potential in some perennial legumes in the immediate future in developing countries, such as those we work with in Africa, but even there, varieties need to be improved to be more widely used and with better effect.
Q: Let’s talk about Kernza® for a little bit. Kernza® has been one of the most promising perennial crops coming out of The Land Institute. It seems though, that there might be a lot of management required to maintain grain yields over time. Do you think that the management needs would negate the benefits of growing a perennial crop?
A: Disturbance might make a system more productive. Well established perennial grass systems aren’t cycling a lot of nutrients. Using some kind of disturbance, such as grazing or rotations, might keep perennial systems in what ecologists have called a mid-successional state so that nutrients are more actively cycling might be the best thing. I think Tim Crews at The Land Institute is looking at how disturbance can play a role in sustaining productivity. So even if we would have fields of Kernza® that measure 25% less in soil quality than prairie, that is still remarkably better than annual wheat fields.
But, yield is no small concern. We don’t want to have to use twice as much cropland to grow the same amount of grain.
Q: Do you think that Kernza® is best suited for a particular region or farming system?
A: What is exciting about perennial grains and Kernza® is that we are adding to the toolbox of options for farmers. By providing one more economically viable option for a crop to grow, you’re automatically increasing diversity. I think it will be interesting to see how farmers use it in their systems. I could see farmers with livestock getting excited about it, using it in rotations easily and alleviating weed pressure and potentially breaking disease cycles. These multi-purpose options will be important in places where there are land constraints. But here in the U.S. there isn’t really a land constraint so I see farmers using them in rotations.
There’s also going to be some differences in the way farmers understand this new crop depending on the region. Here in the upper Midwest and in dairy country I think farmers will see the value in having perennials because they have animals. They’re more used to growing perennials for forage and they’ll see the inherent benefit of having something that is dual purpose for grain and forage. Farmers on the prairie might not grasp that as well, but they do understand the cost of planting, fertilizing and managing weeds every year. So if they can see that fewer inputs are required with growing something like Kernza then it will be more attractive to them. For example, there’s a study from Australia showing that the yield of certain perennial crops only has to be 60% of annual crops to be economically viable since there is reduced inputs.
Q: It seems like a lot of scientists currently working on Kernza and other perennial crops were part of the Land Institute Graduate Fellowship Program. How do you think that has contributed to success?
A: I think that the graduate research fellowship was an important catalyst for expanding perennial grains research in the U.S. and throughout the world. Without that effort I think that the perennial grains community would be a lot smaller, and given the small amount of money allocated for it each year, I think they got a lot of return on it. I thought it was very successful.
Q: What does the future of perennial grains work look like?
A: I see two trajectories. Expansion in niche markets in the Western world like with Kernza in things like beer and multi-grain bread as a way to increase awareness and show potential is one way. In places like the U.S. it’ll be only after a significant period of time, due to the time it takes for breeding, for it to expand more widely. Also U.S. agriculture has such high production levels already, so perennial grains have higher yields to compete with here. But perhaps more significant is development and expansion in the developing world where people are resource poor and food insecure. These places have the most to gain and would see those gains more immediately.
This is a short Science Daily article highlighting the work of researchers at Michigan State University, the University of Kansas and the University of Virginia that shows that the Barley yellow dwarf virus, which plagues wheat crops, can cross over and affect native prairie grass switchgrass: Wheat virus crosses over, harms native grasses
This is an interesting issue to consider as scientists continue to develop perennial crops that are either domesticated wild grasses or hybrids of an annual crop and wild grass relative.
By Dana Christel
The Land Institute was founded in 1976 in Salina, Kansas by Wes Jackson and his wife Dana, fueled by a vision of sustainable agriculture through perennial grain crops. Forty years later, scientists have introduced Kernza®, the first perennial grain from The Land Institute to be introduced to food and agriculture markets. Kernza is the registered trademark name of intermediate wheatgrass seed that is being bred for perennial grain at The Land Institute. Researchers have made relatively quick progress with domesticating this sod-forming grass. We had the opportunity to talk with the lead scientist of the intermediate wheatgrass breeding program at The Land Institute, Dr. Lee DeHaan. In this post you’ll learn about how the Kernza breeding program got started at The Land Institute, the challenges and promise DeHaan is seeing along the way, and the future of the program.
DeHaan’s dream to develop a perennial crop was planted when he was young; He grew up on a farm in Minnesota and learned about The Land Institute’s perennial grains work when he was in still middle school. He connected with The Land Institute through their fellowship program while studying for his Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota. He went on to work for The Land Institute and began leading intermediate wheatgrass breeding efforts in 2003, using collections obtained from The Rodale Institute in Kutztown, PA and the Big Flats Plant Materials Center in upstate New York in 2001. This was not the primary part of his job however, as his efforts were focused primarily on perennial wheat at that time. He carried on intermediate wheatgrass breeding as more of a side project, but was excited about the early products of his team’s efforts in domesticating this wild grass. Between the years of 2003 and 2010 they made rapid progress, showing its potential as a perennial grain could be readily attainable. “What should or could take as long as 50 years was happening a lot faster with intermediate wheatgrass”, he says. When asked to what he attributes this rapid success DeHaan explains that, “With intermediate wheatgrass we are taking advantage of the fact that it is already perennial rather than trying to make it perennial”, which differs from wide hybridization techniques used in other perennial grains projects at The Land Institute, such as perennial wheat. Wide hybridization involves crossing an existing annual crop with a wild relative. There was also the additional benefit that intermediate wheatgrass was already used as a forage crop, so grain could be a supplementary value, serving as a multi-purpose crop for farmers. Now DeHaan works on the Kernza breeding program full time and in the past six years has been working to expand breeding and research efforts at other institutions, helping establish Kernza breeding programs at the University of Minnesota and the University of Manitoba in 2011.
Though he’s making great headway with Kernza, it is not ready to be widely adopted by farmers yet. DeHaan is sure to acknowledge the challenges when he talks to interested farmers about growing it. “I tend to focus on the negativity. Generally if a farmer is approaching me, the benefits of Kernza will be pretty obvious to them. They want to hear about the challenges”. DeHaan says one of the main challenges he’s facing when he talks with farmers is the uncertainty about agronomic practices. He gives the example of spacing. “We can’t necessarily tell a farmer the ideal spacing to plant yet. What we can tell them is that in narrower rows the grain yield will be higher in years 1 and 2 and in wider rows there might be higher yield in later years, but will likely require cultivation of weeds”. Due to this uncertainty, DeHaan says that pioneer farmers will have to be willing to take risks and not be afraid of taking on challenges. Along with a lack of established growing recommendations, Kernza lacks a clear market. Currently Kernza is gaining a presence in niche markets, featured in the Long Root Ale, a beer released by Patagonia Provisions, and in other assorted food items in cafes and restuarants in New York City, Minneapolis, and San Francisco. DeHaan says with confidence that there are indeed buyers for Kernza, however there are many different pieces to figure out for Kernza to move towards wider adoption. For now, The Land Institute has contracted Plovgh, an organization located in Southwest Wisconsin, to respond to farmer interest and administer small amounts of seed to farmers eager to try it out on their farm.
Much of the interest from farmers is coming from states in the Upper Midwest. DeHaan notes this is where a lot of the research started, and so accordingly farmer interest has followed the research. He points out that the Upper Midwest has the temperatures and geography that allow Kernza to grow well and perform its greatest ecological function. “Yield potential is higher in Northern climates and higher altitudes,” says DeHaan of Kernza. Cool season grasses such as intermediate wheatgrass don’t fill grain well in high night temperatures. It might be well adapted to higher elevations in the West, but for now there is only a small trial going on at Utah State University. In terms of topography DeHaan says, “We think that places with sloping land would be good, but not in regions where the soil is very thin, because then the benefits of the root system won’t be fully realized. But there is plenty of ground in the Upper Midwest in places like Wisconsin or Minnesota that is gently sloping and with deep soil. Those are the places it would do really well. DeHaan also remarks that Kernza would be best-suited in farming systems where forage has value, providing another reason Kernza would be successful in the Upper Midwest, since states in this region have a high concentration of livestock farmers. Furthermore, Kernza could mitigate agricultural runoff problems that remain a big concern in these places.
When asked about the future of the Kernza breeding program, DeHaan said the main challenge will be time. “No one thing seems insurmountable to us as this point. We are making progress in all the traits that we’re trying to improve. We just need to go faster.” Up to this point, DeHaan has been using traditional breeding techniques, however he plans to transition to genomic selection this year, while maintaining some projects using traditional phenotypic selection. The need to go faster may in part be enabled by the increasing press that Kernza has been receiving. Kernza has been popping up in a lot of popular news articles in the past couple of years that have been getting the word out to the general public, generating excitement among different players in the food industry. As more interest gathers around Kernza, the ability to scale up production with a plant that can produce competitive grain yields will be integral to its success. After speaking with Dr. Lee DeHaan it sure seems all very possible.
By Dana Christel
Last week I spoke with Sandra Wayman, Research Technician with the Sustainable Cropping Systems Lab at Cornell University about emergent research on Kernza in the state of New York. The lab’s first project was established in 2014 with long-term intentions, as part of a multi-state project focusing on grain and forage yields of Kernza. Wayman said that some of the main things she’s learned from this project is that Kernza has a very high forage quality in the spring cut of the first year, though cutting in the spring does seem to compromise grain yield. She acknowledged that Kernza grain yields in general are low in comparison to their annual counterpart; they found it was 23-25% of annual wheat in their studies. Yet she and other researchers in their lab remain optimistic as the Kernza breeding program at The Land Institute is making rapid progress, and this crop offers more than just grain.
They’ve also been doing some work on the side with looking at different ways of harvesting, swathing first followed by the combine, for example, as well as exploring the seed cleaning and de-hulling process. When asked about the big challenges that remain with Kernza, Wayman said that the harvesting process remains a challenge, as the seed is so light and as a result they’ve noticed a lot of harvest losses.
The farmers whom Wayman has worked with in New York express both interest and skepticism in perennial grains. She said farmers have concerns over disease, since the Northeast has a moist climate and the perennial nature of Kernza means you don’t rotate as often as with other crops. Farmers also express concern about weed management in a perennial crop, but she said their research group hasn’t had overwhelming weed problems in their experimental plots yet.
The Sustainable Cropping Systems Lab will continue to work with three farmers on a new three year project that began in September of 2016, in which grain yield, soil health and weed competition will be evaluated. They also hope to begin consulting with brewers, distillers and bakers who will test grain from the project.
The results of these projects are particularly valuable as Cornell University is one of the few institutions in the Northeast conducting research on Kernza. You can read more and see results from their research in this Newsletter, or check out their lab website.
For more information contact Sandra Wayman, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Founder of The Land Institute Wes Jackson talks about the importance of conserving our precious soil resources and how the work at The Land Institute contributes to those efforts.
“If you imagine the periodic chart of the elements that we see in our chemistry classrooms, in the upper third of that chart are [20-something] elements that go into life. There are only four of those in the atmospheric commons, the [others] are in that soil- the stuff of which we’re made. And so, soil is more important than oil and as much of a non-renewable resource as oil.”
-Wes Jackson, Founder of The Land Institute