Clair Keene kernza

Cropping specialist Dr. Clair Keene checks Kernza heads prior to harvesting the intermediate wheat grass. The perennial crop shows great promise for the MonDak, though it has a long way to go before it arrives at commercial viability.

An ancient perennial cousin of wheat has so far shown it makes great beer and potentially great honey-toasted cereal as well. It’s also showing potential to grow very well in the MonDak, and it is thus going to get a starring role at an upcoming field day at the Williston Research Extension Center.

The grain is called Kernza, and it has already debuted in a few food products. A beer made by Patagonia for one, and 6,000 boxes of a limited edition cereal produced by General Mills subsidiary brand, Cascadian Farms, for another.

Kernza has a long way to go before it can be considered commercially viable, but among the early steps in that journey are variety trials. Thee are already taking place at Williston Research Extension and at six other locations in the nation, including Ohio, New York, and Minnesota, to name a few.

Cropping specialist Dr. Clair Keene became interested in Kernza after a presentation by Lee DeHaan with the Land Institute at a recent Hard Red Spring Wheat Show in Williston.

“The idea of a dual purpose crop is very appropriate here,” Keene said. “We have a lot of producers here who have cattle, and even if they don’t, having forage to sell is not a bad thing to spread risk across multiple products. It could be a really good fit for this area.”

Keene planted the first round of Kernza last fall. That will have been harvested by the time of the field day, but she also planted the variety trial again in the spring.

“That is looking pretty good as well,” she said, “so we’ll be able to see both a one-year and a spring-seeded stand.”

There are nine different lines in Keene’s trial.

“Two of (the Kernza lines) are old forage types,” Keene said. “They are not truly Kernza, they are just intermediate wheat grass.”

Two other lines came from the Land Institute in Kansas and five came from the University of Minnesota, whose spring wheat breeder has also been working on several lines of the crop for five to seven years now.

“The point of the site trial is to put the different breeding lines out in a variety of habitats and see how they do,” Keene said. “We want to see if the material being developed in Kansas and Minnesota are a good fit for other places.”

So far, Keene said, the answer to that appears to be yes, at least for this region.

Development of markets for Kernza, however, have been a little shaky. The limited edition cereal, Honey Toasted Kernza, for example, was offered by Cascadian Farms in exchange for a $25 donation to the Land Institute. It was so limited due to crop failure.

The Land Institute, meanwhile, is trying to find ways to increase the crop’s yield, which right now is substantially less than wheat on a per acre basis. Bigger seeds and more seeds per plant are the goals, all without losing the perennial nature of the crop.

Hybridizing with wheat accomplishes the former, but not the latter, and it is the latter that Dehaan believes is a game changer for agriculture.

Perennials, DeHaan explained during his lecture at the Hard Red Spring Wheat Show, are in the ground year-round, and that gives them a lot of “green” potential, in multiple senses of the world.

First, they can save farmers some “green” by reducing input costs, since they don’t have to be planted every year.

They’re also good for the soil. Kernza has deep roots extending more than 10 feet. That’s twice as deep as conventional wheat.

Such deep roots that are in the ground year-round working can do a lot of good things for the soil. They reduce erosion, help retain more organic matter, as well as reducing the amounts of nitrogen and other amendments that are lost to runoff. Farmers also might not need to apply as much of these amendments each year for Kernza as they do for annuals.

“The idea of having a perennial that you don’t need to plant or till the ground every year, that’s big,” DeHaan said. “There’s a nice association between the economic benefits and the environment, as well.”

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