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.”


Image courtesy of


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.



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?

Agriculture can be part of the Solution to Climate Change

What if the government paid producers to be an effective tool in combat to fight climate change? What if private enterprise paid farmers to sequester carbon or for carbon-credits in a cap and trade exchange?

On October 30th, House Democrats’ climate panel explored what role agriculture can play in the climate crisis. Jennifer Moore-Kucera of American Farmland Trust urged Congress to seize the opportunity to engage ag through either legislation or “a transformational farm bill.” Experts at the committee were unanimous that agriculture can be a big part of the climate change solution through sequestering carbon in the soil. They also supported using the USDA conservation programs to focus on climate-friendly practices and called on more funding for research into this matter. Members of Congress want to know what policies they should adopt to “maximize carbon storage,” as well as “help farmers, ranchers, and natural resource managers adapt to the impacts of climate change.”

The USDA’s Economic Research Service published a study  titled Economics of Sequestering Carbon in the U.S. Agricultural Sector that studies this issue. It found that if farmers adopted conservation tillage or converting some land to either forest or grasslands, it could be economically feasible and could provide low-cost opportunities to sequester additional carbon in soils and biomass. The study took into account if farmers switched to conservation tillage and paid $125 per metric ton for permanently sequestered carbon, that as much as “72 to 160 million metric tons could be sequestered, enough to offset 4 to 8 percent of gross U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases in 2001.” The study also takes into consideration different scenarios for payment amounts, whether payments would be supplemented by current conservation programs, conversion to forestry or grasslands, and found different potentials in the amount of carbon sequestration.

Currently, there are six Democratic candidates in the race for the nomination that are advocating paying farmers to help fight climate change. All have similar means by paying farmers through either grants to convert to more sustainable practices or expanding conservation programs in the USDA. According to Politico, the candidates have not given a price tag on how much they would it would cost to fund their programs. However, Senator Elizabeth Warren has said she would provide $15 billion a year to USDA conservation programs. Former Vice President Joe Biden said the program should be part of potential carbon markets by allowing corporations, individuals, and foundations to contribute funding to offset their emissions.

There is one corporation currently that is paying farmers. A four-year-old startup called Indigo Ag wants to feed the world and pay farmers to be a part of the climate change solution. Via the Indigo Carbon marketplace, companies can pay farmers $15 to sequester one metric ton of carbon dioxide in the soil. The chief executive, David Wells, has lofty goals through regenerative agriculture, and the use of their products, half to 100 percent of the carbon dioxide could be sequestered. A more realistic goal was presented by Rattan Lal, a soil scientist who heads the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center at Ohio State University. He says the maximum soil sequestration that can be achieved, under ideal conditions, is nine billion tons. Indigo Ag makes non-GMO seed treatments that help farmers maximize their yield on row crops, including soybeans, rice, wheat, corn and cotton. The treatments consist of naturally occurring microbes, like plant-friendly bacteria and fungi. Farmers apply them to their seeds as a spray or powder coating before planting. In 2018, they had roughly 5,000 producers throughout the globe on 4 million acres. The company has also expanded into a sort of eBay, called Indigo Marketplace, and into assisting farmers using geospatial satellites. Incorporating this technology allows Indigo Ag and its customers to monitor the world’s food supply and figure out where to focus their efforts next.

Paying farmers and ranchers make sense from an environmental standpoint and an economic standpoint as well. As commodity prices have been at their lowest, paying producers would give offset their costs and encourage them to practice sustainability. As we lose 27 acres of prime agricultural land every minute to development, developers should bear the costs of degradation of these lands and helping to further contribute to climate change. Agriculture is a viable solution to carbon sequestration and climate change, and we should look further into this possibility.