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), 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 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.”

According to Carmen Fernholz of Madison, Minnesota, Kernza produces its best yields in the first three years of production and then declines significantly. The kernels are one-eighth to one-quarter the size of a spring wheat kernel. Fernholz says that older varieties yield about 200 to 500 seeds per acre, which translates roughly about 30 bushels per acre. Yields are still much lower than conventional wheat, though improving. The grains are tiny, more like grass seeds than conventional wheat, which makes milling more complicated.

A study published in 2017 in the Agronomy Journal, shows to “maximize grain yields in the Upper Midwest, TLI-C2 (a species bred for grain production) should be seeded in fall and fertilized with between 60 and 100 kg N ha–1 annually after the first year.” Higher amounts of nitrogen resulted in lodging and a lower yield. The study also showed, “that residual biomass removed after grain harvest is consistently high yielding and has potential for forage…therefore potentially reducing the economic risks for adopting farmers if sold as a secondary source of revenue.”

They have learned there’s a very low probability of success if the seed is planted too late in the fall. Ideally, the Kernza seed, which does best in the Upper Midwest, needs to be in the ground by Sept. 1 for the root to have enough time to establish before winter.

Clair Keene, an extension specialist at NDSU’s Williston Research Extension Service is currently testing nine different varieties and is in the second year of the program. The first trial was planted in September 2018 and harvested the following year. Keene also planted a spring seeded trial in May 2019 and will be harvested in 2020. Two varieties from Kansas and one from Minnesota had the highest yields, but it is still too early to draw conclusions. Keene noted that the fall-planted trials had fewer weeds than the spring planted trial.

“I think it has a lot of potential for farmers who also raise cattle because they will be able to graze or hay it in addition to the grain,” said Keene. “Right now, it is important to have two uses for it (grain and hay/graze) because the market for the grain is still so new and immature.”

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.