Kernza

Kernza

Photo by Douglas Gayeton

Kernza

Most fields in the US Midwest lie fallow from October to April. Planting a perennial crop like Kernza, whose root systems can reach over 15’ in length, can help reduce soil erosion and nitrogen leaching into nearby groundwater. And because these grains are perennial, they require less water and less chemical inputs which can mean healthier soils, more atmospheric carbon sequestered in the ground, cleaner water, better air quality and even the potential for additional on-farm revenue.

Kernza is the commercial name used to describe a 30+ year plant-breeding initiative that seeks to create a market-viable perennial wheat-like grain from intermediate wheatgrass, a Eurasian forage grass related to wheat.

Annual crops deplete soil organic matter while requiring fertilizer inputs that often leach into nearby waterways. Can a perennial wheatgrass produce grain and build healthy soil at the same time? Yes. In 1983, plant breeders at Rodale Institute, with support from the USDA, selected a Eurasian forage grass as a promising perennial grain candidate and worked to improve the grain’s yield, seed size, disease resistance, and other traits. Soon thereafter, the Land Institute began their own work with partners like UMN on projects that include intercropping to achieve greater ecological intensification and trails using kernza as both forage and grain crop in diverse farming operations.