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.

Kernza Research is in Full Swing at Cornell University

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.

Kernza, a perennial grain, prior to grain harvest at the Cornell Musgrave Research Farm in Aurora, NY, on August 11, 2016. Photo credit: Sandra Wayman

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.

Farmer advisors and Cornell University researchers evaluate a plot of Kernza at the Musgrave Research Farm, July 19, 2016. Photo credit: Matthew Ryan

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, sw783@cornell.edu.

De-hulled Kernza grain (left), harvested from plots in Aurora, NY and a can of the first commercially available product made from Kernza grain (right). Photo credit: Chris Pelzer

Intermediate wheatgrass Kernza® established in the SITES Agroecological Field Experiment (SAFE) for long-term agroecosystems research in Sweden

Linda-Maria Mårtensson, Maria Ernfors and Erik Steen Jensen
Cropping Systems Ecology
, Department of Biosystems and Technology
Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU)
P.O. Box 103, SE-23053 Alnarp, Sweden

The Swedish Infrastructure for Ecosystem Science (SITES) was established in 2013, with the aim of promoting long-term, field-based ecosystem research at world-class level in Sweden for interested scientists globally. The infrastructure consists of nine research stations, covering terrestrial and limnic systems in a climatic range from alpine sites in the north to temperate sites in the south. One of the participating research stations, SITES Lönnstorp (SLU campus Alnarp between Lund and Malmö in southern Sweden) is a resource for agricultural research in conventional and organic cropping systems. At SITES Lönnstorp a new long-term field experiment; the SITES Agroecological Field Experiment (SAFE) has been established, focusing on cropping system diversification, agroecological systems, biodiversity, biogeochemistry and research on ecosystem services in agroecosystems. The SAFE experiment consists of four replicated cropping systems with large plots to allow for experiments and manipulations within the different systems. The long-term approach and the contrasts between the cropping systems will provide unique possibilities for research within ecology, agronomy, agroecology, environmental research and other disciplines, particularly for projects related to climate change, sustainability and ecosystem resilience. The SAFE at Lönnstorp is accessible for any researcher from all over the world. Basic running costs of the facility are covered by the Swedish Research Council and SLU and scientists interested in doing experiment within the systems will have to cover the cost of their specific studies, but will have access to basic data from the SAFE experiment.

At Lönnstorp the SAFE agroecosystems are: (1) a reference cropping  system corresponding to a contemporary conventional crop rotation with winter sown wheat, sugar beet, oil seed rape and spring barley followed by grass-legume ley as cover crop; (2) an organic 8-year crop rotation corresponding to Swedish/EU organic agricultural certification with spring barley/lupine intercrop – winter rye in-sown with ley – grass-legume ley – reed beet – phacelia – faba bean/spring wheat intercrop, winter oil seed rape, winter wheat in-sown with ley – grass-legume ley; (3) an agroforestry and more diversified  system following the crop rotation in the organic system in alleys between hedgerows with a mix of perennial species and rows of Apple trees; and (4) a perennial cropping system with intermediate  wheat grass (Kernza®) with and without alfalfa (Medicago sativa, Lucerne) as intercrop. The Cropping Systems Ecology Research group at SLU is collaborating with The Land Institute in Kansas.

Kernza before maturity, August 2015. Photo: Linda-Maria Mårtensson

An ongoing project on N dynamics in perennial cereal based cropping system, where Kernza is used as a model plant, studies

  • the total N acquisition,
  • allocation of N and C between reproductive and vegetative parts,
  • the relative N acquisition from soil and biological N2 fixation in intercrops of Kernza and Lucerne, incl. the potential transfer of N from Lucerne to Kernza, and
  • potential soil inorganic N leaching during the autumn and winter after harvest of Kernza, with winter wheat used for comparison.

For more information and access to SAFE, please contact:

Kernza field in August 2015 at Lönnstorp, Sweden. Photo: Linda-Maria Mårtensson

Perennials as a tool to combat climate change

As we watched the first snow of the year quickly melt away on a balmy 40 degree December day here in Michigan, you might be filled with the urge to reminisce about the winters of your younger years.  “I remember when I went trick-or-treating in a snow storm at the end of October!” Or, “I remember there was always snow on the ground for the opening day of gun season!”  The climate is changing and here in the Upper Midwest a delay in the first familiar snowfall  is one result of this, others include drought and flood.  Parts of the state of Michigan were declared to be in a state of drought this past summer, having detrimental effects on yields of certain crops. States around the country share similar sentiments. As climate change continues to threaten agriculture nationally and globally, scientists have identified farming practices that might lessen the blow of these extreme weather events, allowing the farmer to better adapt to the changes. A conversion of annual crops to perennials, which more closely align with natural systems, has been recognized and discussed as one possible solution to climate change not only in scientific journals, but also in the popular press. Perennial grains, particularly Kernza, have been gaining a lot of attention recently.

The article “How farmers can get to the root of climate response – literally” published by Christian Science Monitor includes comments from  researcher Jerry Glover of USAID, Matthew Ryan from Cornell University, and Timothy Crews from the Land Institute about how perennials reduce soil erosion during extreme weather events and sequester carbon. Moreover, National Public Radio published an article featuring Kernza, as several other articles have recently, as a sustainable crop to face climate change.  Comments from bakers, brewers and others in the food industry indicate that there is a demand for Kernza.  Rapid advancements are being made in developing Kernza into a crop that may be adopted by farmers, but it is still a work in progress.  Nonetheless we are excited to see the potential of this grain recognized in popular news articles!