Lead Scientist of Intermediate Wheatgrass Breeding Program Talks Challenges and Potential in Bringing First Perennial Grain to Market

By Dana Christel

Kernza seed head. Photo credit: The Land Institute


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.

Dr. Lee DeHaan, Lead Scientist of the Intermediate wheatgrass breeding program at The Land Institute. Photo credit: The Land Institute

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.

Intermediate wheatgrass plot at The Land Institute. Photo credit: The Land Institute.

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