There is just one food-grade Kernza line in the United States presently, and it just so happens to be from a facility in North Dakota.
Healthy Food Ingredients, which specializes in ingredient categories such as non-GMO, organic, certified gluten-free, and others, has a flax processing facility in Valley, North Dakota, which also has a standalone unit for Kernza.
Kernza’s opportunity isn’t the health food angle. It’s more the story that large companies like General Mills want to tell about supporting sustainable agriculture.
“What if we had a crop that doesn’t need to be replanted each year?” cropping specialist Dr. Clair Keene asked. “A crop that is protecting soil against erosion and building organic matter, not just on the surface, but at depth.”
If that crop also needs minimal fertilizer and pesticides, and has the potential to produce both forage and grain in the same year, the Kernza story just gets that much better.
“We don’t have many crops that (produce grain and forage in the same year),” Keene said. “And that grain has the potential to be a high-value.”
Chris Wiegert, with HFI, said five to six of the top food companies are interested in Kernza both for the story it tells, and its flavor profile.
“It doesn’t act like wheat,” he said. “It doesn’t taste like wheat, but that is OK. It’s very palatable.”
Kernza can replace up to 10 percent of wheat flour without changing a product’s flavor profile, Wiegert said. But, even at just 10 percent of say Wonderbread, that’s a huge opportunity.
There are still some question marks hanging over this new perennial grain crop when it comes to feasibility.
General Mills had thought it was going to have 100,000 pounds of the grain to manufacture a toasted cereal this year that is 21 percent Kernza. However, there was a crop failure, and the volume came in at just 5,000 pounds. The company instead offered a limited edition cereal for donations of $25 a box, with proceeds going back to The Land Institute for further development of the promising grain.
Wiegert estimates there are only 1,500 acres of Kernza in production. Despite that, interest is very high.
“Our phones are ringing off the hook,” he said. “There is a lot of market excitement for this 1,500 acres of production.”
While demand is higher than supply right now, there is still nowhere to take a whole truckload of Kernza, even if someone had that much of the grain. A food company would want a sample first, to determine if it suits their needs.
“I sure wouldn’t do this with the spot market,” Wiegert said. “Find someone who is buying it and see what their farm program looks like and whether it is something you think you can do.”
HFI would be one place farmers with a Kernza crop could call, Wiegert said. If a bakery or brewery pops up that is seeking Kernza, that’s worth a direct call as well, as many of those are looking to direct source.
Seeds are in short supply right now. Keene is growing 7 acres of the Cycle 5 variety from the Land Institute in Kansas to increase seed. Some of that will be for North Dakota, but how much, and the criteria for distribution are being decided.