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.


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

Perennial Grain—Biggest Agriculture Breakthrough in 10,000 Years

PULLMAN, Wash. –Earth-friendly perennial grain crops, which grow with less fertilizer, herbicide, fuel, and erosion than grains planted annually, could be available in two decades, according to researchers writing in the current issue of the journal Science.

Perennial grains would be one of the largest innovations in the 10,000 year history of agriculture, and could arrive even sooner with the right breeding programs, said John Reganold, a Washington State University Regents professor of soil science and lead author of the paper with Jerry Glover, a WSU-trained soil scientist now at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas.

“It really depends on the breakthroughs,” said Reganold. “The more people involved in this, the more it cuts down the time.”

Published in Science’s influential policy forum, the paper is a call to action as half the world’s growing population lives off marginal land at risk of being degraded by annual grain production. Perennial grains, say the paper’s authors, expand farmers’ ability to sustain the ecological underpinnings of their crops.

“People talk about food security,” said Reganold. “That’s only half the issue. We need to talk about both food and ecosystem security.”

Perennial grains, say the authors, have longer growing seasons than annual crops and deeper roots that let the plants take greater advantage of precipitation. Their larger roots, which can reach ten to 12 feet down, reduce erosion, build soil and sequester carbon from the atmosphere.  They require fewer passes of farm equipment and less herbicide, key features in less developed regions.

By contrast, annual grains can lose five times as much water as perennial crops and 35 times as much nitrate, a valuable plant nutrient that can migrate from fields to pollute drinking water and create “dead zones” in surface waters.

“Developing perennial versions of our major grain crops would address many of the environmental limitations of annuals while helping to feed an increasingly hungry planet,” said Reganold.

Perennial grain research is underway in Argentina, Australia, China, India, Sweden and the United States. Washington State University has more than a decade of work on perennial wheat led by Stephen Jones, director WSU’s Mount Vernon Research Center. Jones is also a contributor to the Science paper, which has more than two dozen authors, mostly plant breeders and geneticists.

The authors say research into perennial grains can be accelerated by putting more personnel, land and technology into breeding programs. They call for a commitment similar to that underway for biologically based alternative fuels.

Source: http://researchnews.wsu.edu/physical/328.html 

Watch video on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xPpjGV3kvnw&lr=1

Michigan State works to advance perennial wheat

Michigan State – with the $1 million grant that it has recently won is joining the well-know Washington State University and The Land Institute to create a line perennial grains. Success at Michigan State and these other institutions has been resonating with farmers to save them time, money and resources. 

Author: James Prichard, Associate Press
Date: September 2009

As Steve Culman squatted in the southwestern Michigan farm field, he used his left hand to gently clasp several dead wheat stalks still in the ground, then pointed with his right toward something remarkable near the bottom of them.

There were new sprouts of wheat, emerging shortly after the summer harvest.

Culman is a researcher at Michigan State University, which recently won a four-year $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to further the development of a new type of wheat that would help reduce soil erosion while saving growers money, time and labor.

Read the full story here. 

This American Land, episode 108

Check out this YouTube Video from the “This American Land” channel that talks about perennial crops and their implications. Thanks to Jerry Glover for sharing this link. The portion on perennial grains begins at 6:45, and goes until 12:02.

Link: www.youtube.com/watchv=_Fc2rvaMHh8&list=UUFrajUTrVVLHNj5ljlLXcpQ&index=9&feature=plcp

Perennial Grains are Getting Bigger

Author: Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan
 February 2011
Affiliation: USDA Blog
Excerpt: “Recently three scientists from USDA’s Agricultural Research Service– Ed Buckler, James Holland, and Brent Hulke – joined colleagues from The Land Institute, several U.S. universities, Australia, and China on a paper in the prestigious journal Science summarizing the potential benefits of perennial grains to global food security and the environment and explaining how recent advances in crop breeding may speed progress toward this challenging goal.”
Source: blogs.usda.gov/2011/02/15/perennial-grains-are-getting-bigger/

Perennial Grains Food Security for the Future

Author: Jerry D. Glover and John P. Reganold
Date: 2009, Issues in Science and Technology
Affiliation: The Land Institute and Washington State University
Abstract: Adding perennial grains to our agricultural arsenal will give farmers more choices in what they can grow and where, while sustainably producing food for the growing population.
Source: http://www.issues.org/26.2/glover.html 

Perennial Wheat: A new option for organic and sustainable farm systems

Author: Sieglinde Snapp, Steve Culman, Lee DeHann, John Green, Stephen Jones, Janet Lewis, Vicki Morrone, Dan Rossman, Martin Nagelkirk, Scott Swinton, Sienna Tinsley, Anne Weir
Michigan State University, Michigan State University Extension, The Land Institute, and Washington State University
Abstract: A new perennial crop is being explored for opportunities on organic and sustainable farms. The overall goal to grow this crop is to improve farms and protect the environment (Glover et al., 2010). Successful establishments crop requires it to be replanted only once in three years (see figure below). As a perennial crop, it provides greater soil coverage and an extensive rooting system, compared to an annual grain. These factors are the foundation for building soil in organic farming. The perennial wheat team integrates the work from plant breeders, economists, cropping systems scientists and ecologists with farmers and Extension educators to identify useful plant lines and management approaches with the greatest potential for success in a Upper Midwest organic farm systems. The team has set a goal to find stable varieties within five years, depending on plant regrowth and seed production. We are evaluating this crop for multiple uses including grain, forage and environmental services.
Source: pwheat.anr.msu.edu/upload_max_filesize=32m/2012/01/pwheat-extension-poster1.pdf

Progress in Breeding Perennial Grains

Author: T.S. Cox, D.L. Van Tassel, C.M. Cox, and L.R. DeHaan
Date: July 2010
Affiliation: The Land Institute
Abstract: Annual cereal, legume and oilseed crops remain staples of the global food supply. Because most annual crops have less extensive, shorter-lived root systems than do perennial species, with a correspondingly lower capacity to manage nutrients and water, annual cropping systems tend to suffer higher levels of soil erosion and generate greater water contamination than do perennial systems. In an effort to reduce soil degradation and water contamination simultaneously – something that neither no-till nor organic cropping alone can accomplish – researchers in the United States, Australia, and other countries have begun breeding perennial counterparts of annual grain and legume crops. Initial cycles of hybridization, propagation and selection in wheat, wheatgrasses, sorghum, sunflower and Illinois bundleflower have produced perennial progenies with phenotypes intermediate between wild and cultivated species, along with improved grain production. Further breeding cycles will be required to develop agronomically adapted perennial crops with high grain yields.
Source:  http://www.landinstitute.org/vnews/display.v/ART/2011/04/22/4db199966cf1a