Kernza – A New Perennial Grain in Development

Kernza is a grain crop currently being bred and developed that is gaining the interest of small-grain farmers, cereal makers and climate scientists.

What is Kernza?

In 1983, plant breeders for the Rodale Institute selected a Eurasian forage grass called intermediate wheatgrass (Thinopyrum intermedium). Kernza is a grass species related to wheat for domestication. The Rodale Institute, along with the USDA, began selecting the seed for traits such as improved seed size and fertility. In 2003, under the guidance of Dr. Lee DeHaan, the Land Institute (link) in Salina, Kansas, began the Kernza Domestication Program along with the University of Minnesota, to further the progression of the grass traits to include disease resistance. In 2019, the university released its first “named” variety called MN-Clearwater.

Unlike other grain crops, which are annuals, Kernza is a perennial. In a study by Steve Culman of The Ohio State University, “Kernza provides environmental benefits relative to annual grain crops, including reduced soil and water erosion, reduced soil nitrate leaching, increased carbon sequestration, and reduced input of seed, tillage, energy and pesticides.”


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A study conducted by Michigan State University over eight years looked at 70 million acres of farmland in 10 Midwestern states and found that a quarter of the cornfields are inconsistent yielders, or “unstable yielders.” This is a result of the fields, either being too wet or unsuitable for cropping. As a result, any nitrogen applied to the fields is wasted because there is less plant material to absorb the nutrients and roughly 40% in the water and into the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas.

The University of Minnesota’s Forever Green Initiative has been working with Kernza to help improve water quality by preventing soil erosion and prevent excess nitrogen runoff. Kernza can assist in turning land that is inconsistent yielding into acreage that could be used to produce a crop and provide good forage for cattle. In the studies, Kernza appears to do well with grazing in the fall and producing grain the following summer. By using rotational grazing, the cows help contribute nitrogen that helps to build soil biology and helps farmers use fewer inputs.

Current uses

The grain has a sweet, nutty flavor making it a good for cereals, snacks, and brewing. The kernel has more bran and fiber, but fewer carbohydrates than wheat. Kernza can replace up to ten percent of wheat flour without changing its flavor profile, according to Chris Wiegert of HFI in Valley City, ND. Wiegert also states that a few large food companies are interested in the flavor profile and its sustainability.

Due to the unique flavor profile, Kernza has been used by a few companies to make beer with the grain. Fair State Brewing Cooperative in northeast Minneapolis created a golden ale called Keep the North Cold, that replaces white wheat and can be enjoyed on a summer day. The brew was developed in partnership with the clothing company, Askov Finlayson to source the grain locally to create an all-Minnesota product.

In 2016, California-based Patagonia Provisions partnered with the Land Institute to create the first brew from Kernza called Long Root Pale Ale. The name comes from the long root system of the plant which can grow ten feet or more. This year the company launched its second beer with Hopworks Urban Brewery in Portland OR. made with organic ingredients and Kernza called Long Root Wit.

General Mills is also interested in the grain and has partnered with the University of Minnesota and the Land Institute to market the grains under the Cascadian Farm label. The company donated $500,000 to the University’s Forever Green Initiative to advance research and development including the processing of the grain. Its efforts to market the cereal, called Honey Toasted Kernza Cereal, were derailed by a crop failure this year.

General Mills was able to use the grain from its’ 2018 crop to market 6,000 boxes of the cereal which are available through with the funds going to the Land Institute for further research of the grain. Maria Carolina Comings, marketing director for Cascadian Farm, hopes to have more grain next year making it available to more consumers and “continuing to build awareness for the potential of climate-beneficial foods.” It also has committed to making the crop a commercial reality by 2040.

Further development is being made with Kernza to determine the best growing practices, long-term impacts of the crop on the environment and to improve grain yields. Studies are also being conducted to determine the grazing capability of the crop. While it may be a while until Kernza is available on a wide-spread basis, it is something to keep an eye out for and learn about in the future.



Christmas trees – memories created, supporting the local economy, but prices may be higher

If you haven’t started decorating the house, you may be deciding between an artificial tree or getting a real one. If you choose a real tree, this year there may be a shortage of having the best selection and deals may be harder to come by. With the Recession of 2008 and 2009, tree farmers were reluctant or unable to plant tree seedlings.

As supplies have dropped, the average price for trees has also increased. Sales data from the National Christmas Tree Association show that, between 2015 and 2018, retail prices rose 23% from $62 to $73 — including a 5% jump last year. A tree typically takes seven to ten years to mature into a six or seven-foot tree.

“There are some variations to that by tree varieties and location in general. But, its that long before a grower sees a harvestable crop,” said Tim O’Connor, executive director of the National Christmas Tree Association. “There are annual maintenance costs, there are certainly the challenges of growing a crop outdoors that all of agriculture is familiar with. There are bugs, there are diseases. There are the wet years, there are the dry years. It’s one of those challenges where you try to read the market that far out.”

Whether you are a fan of the smell of a real tree or prefer an artificial tree, a survey conducted by Nielsen found that three-quarters of American households display a tree, whether it is real or artificial.


However, the increase in price shouldn’t distract you from considering a real Christmas tree. With a real tree, there is the experience of going out with the family and picking out just the right tree. O’Connor likens it with two videos playing side-by-side.

On the one side is the family having the experience of getting in the car, going to the tree lot or the farm, and finding the right tree. Perhaps this is the year of not finding the perfect one where you have to put one side in the corner to hide the bad spot. O’Connor tells the story where one year, his family found a tree with a bird’s nest in it, and the kids loved it. Every year, they put back the bird’s nest, and the kids take turns putting it back into the new tree.

On the other side of the screen, mom or dad drags a dusty box with the tree from the basement, attic, or garage. On the way, they bang their head on the pipes or rafters, cusses, and slaps the tree up. Afterward, you spend a considerable amount of time rearranging the branches to make it look realistic.

Then, there is the question of the environmental impact of a real versus artificial tree. O’Connor points out that with an artificial tree, while you are reusing it every year, it is made from PVC plastic and aluminum or steel shipped from overseas, and eventually, it sits in a landfill for a very long time. A study conducted by WAP Sustainability Consulting on behalf of the A.C.T.A, which represents manufacturers of artificial trees, claims the environmental impact is lower than that of a real tree if you use the artificial tree for five or more years. The study contends that a real tree, which may end up in a landfill, has a bigger impact on water and energy use and has a more significant impact on greenhouse gases.

O’Connor points out real trees they are biodegradable, mulched, used in landscaping, and other things such as hiking trails. As was pointed out at the beginning of the article, seedlings are replanted for each one cut down, they are not cut down from wild forests on a large scale, said Bert Cregg, an expert in Christmas tree production and forestry at Michigan State University. Cregg stated that the study conducted by WAP Sustainability Consulting was too narrow in its parameters. He and O’Connor point out the effect on wildlife and the local economy.

“The fact that a real tree is grown by a farmer who is conducting their business in a local community,” said O’Connor. “They are buying goods and services. They are employing people.”

Besides, with the consumer trend of buying local and knowing where their food comes from. Real trees can fit into that perspective.

“You can learn the story of where your tree came from, grew it, and how it was cared for,” said O’Connor. ”There’s a whole lot about a tree that matches up with the trend that the consumer cares about today. Which is very different from the tree made by a big factory in a foreign country.”

If you do decide to purchase a real tree this year, here are a few tips for buying the tree. Touch it, observe it, and make it is not dried out and brittle or having needles falling off of it when you purchase it. It should be fresh and soft. The needles as you run your hand over it should stay on the tree. Then, you should put a new cut on the bottom of the trunk, right when you bring it home, and before you put it in the stand. Take off about an inch. Think of it as a fresh cut flower, and you have to keep that trunk underwater and allow it to drink and not go dry. If you do that, it will drink a lot of water for that first week or ten days, and don’t let it run out.

Nation’s highways could be a pollinator-friendly habitat

A bipartisan bill introduced to establish pollinator habitats on nation’s highways

Habitat for pollinators such as monarch butterflies and bees continue to decline, but a bipartisan bill introduced in the Senate could help to reverse the decline. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) along with Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Tom Carper (D-DE), and Mike Rounds (R-SD) submitted the Monarch and Pollinator Highway (MPH) Act of 2019 would establish a federal grant program available to state departments of transportation and Indian tribes to carry out pollinator-friendly practices on roadsides and highway rights-of-way.

According to a press release by Merkley, the bill would establish grants that could be used for:
• The planting and seeding of native, locally-appropriate grasses, wildflowers, and milkweed;
• Mowing strategies that promote early successional vegetation and limit disturbance during periods of highest use by target pollinator species;
• Implementation of an integrated vegetation management approach to address weed and pest issues;
• Removing nonnative grasses from planting and seeding mixes except for use as a nurse or cover crops; or
• Any other pollinator-friendly practices the Secretary of Transportation determines will be eligible.

“With so much of our natural landscape lost, the millions of acres of roadsides across the US have become increasingly important as pollinator habitat,” said Scott Black, Executive Director of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. “The Xerces Society is excited to support the Monarch and Pollinator Highway (MPH) Act of 2019, which will provide much-needed funding for states to maximize habitat management and restoration for these vital animals.”

The Xerces Society conducted its annual survey from 97 sites, mostly along the California coast, where 77% of the monarch population overwintered and found that the population in 2018 reached “historic lows” over the previous year’s population. The Center for Biological Diversity showed in their 2018 survey for overwintering grounds in Mexico to be down as well from 2.91 hectares to 2.48. It stated that the population has been in decline from an estimated one billion in the mid-1990s to roughly 93 million. Milkweed is the primary plant that monarchs require for breeding and food, and acreage of the plant has decreased.

When we think of bees, we generally picture the European honeybee or Apis mellifera, which is responsible for the pollination of over $170 billion in crops. However, there are over 4,500 native bee species that are also responsible for the pollination of these crops, including 1,600 of them in California. In an article written for Medium entomologists stress that saving all species of bees versus the just the honeybee is equivalent to “conserving chickens because you’ve heard that North American birds are vanishing.” That is not to say there has been a decline in the numbers of European honeybees, they have also seen a dramatic decrease of 40% between 2018-2019 with one expert calling it “unsustainably high.

The bill does not specify how these grants will be funded, but anything we can do to help these populations is critical. I can distinctly remember as a child oleander and bottlebrush plants were growing in the median of Interstate 5 in the Central Valley of California and throughout the area. Sadly, they were taken out because of the drought and also the fear of them harboring invasive insects. Although oleander is considered a deceit pollinator and insect cheater by looking attractive, offering no nectar, and yet still accomplishing pollination.
Besides, wouldn’t you like something interesting and aesthetically pleasing to look at while you spend time in the driving or sitting in the passenger seat?