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| Kernza®, Our Team

Interview With Tessa Peters

What brought you to TLI?
After doing some work for a different non-profit after my PhD, I was looking for something that was full time, stable, but still mission-driven. When the job application for Commercialization Manager (now Crop Stewardship) came across my desk, I was really excited by the prospect of broadening my understanding of supply chains and economics. For some time, I had been interested in becoming involved in grain agriculture because grain is such an important part of the human diet. Pairing that with ecological and socioeconomic sustainability happens at The Land Institute in a way that it doesn’t happen anywhere else.

 

Do you have a general timeline that you could describe for your work throughout the year?
My work is somewhat less seasonal than others’, so the work that happens in the winter does extend throughout the entire year, but there is still a seasonal flow that follows the growing and harvest season. In the winter, I’m often meeting with prospective growers, ensuring that they have a full picture of the risks and rewards of adopting a new perennial crop on their farm. I am also giving presentations to farm conferences that often meet in the winter and planning and coordinating with supply chain partners to try and improve utilization of the harvest that will arrive in the coming year. In spring, things are pretty calm as the crops are growing and everyone is waiting. By late summer, harvest is in full swing and we’re working to try and help growers send samples for disease testing, harvest, and store their grain. We’re also often making connections between interested markets and available grain. By fall, we may be helping to arrange shipping of grain and get things organized for processing. TLI doesn’t take possession of grain, but we do try to ensure that grain doesn’t get ‘stranded’ in the supply chain if we can help it. In the fall, I’m also working to get plots planted for seed increase of our upcoming crops and best varieties.

 

What are some of your biggest challenges?
The main challenge in the world of Crop Stewardship is always changing! With Kernza®, a year ago it was ensuring a seed supply, so we contracted seed production. This year, the market has softened because of COVID-19, and we’re working to ensure that potential market partners know there is grain available to purchase on the market. We’re also working with other crops like sainfoin and silphium to understand what kinds of processing and food science may be needed and predict the kinds of partnerships that will need to be in place to ensure smooth market entry. My biggest challenges are that these new crops require new markets, new supply chains, new partners, and new ways of thinking. I’m always pushing those I work with to think outside the box and to value these crops and what we’re doing for their social and environmental benefits rather than just their yields and caloric value.

 

What are some exciting developments of the past year or two?
Having a stable seed supply for Kernza® has been a huge improvement and has really pushed our ability to get good establishment and hopefully productivity. I’m excited about the work of establishing a multi-stakeholder Kernza® association that includes growers, food manufacturers, and other supply chain stakeholders to increase collaboration and communication. We have funding to get this organization up and running through the USDA NIFA Kernza®CAP grant, and I think this structure will be critical in improving supply chain functioning and marketing in the coming years. This is very exciting work that, I hope, will be a model for all kinds of new crops as they enter the market.

 

What are your personal agricultural goals for the next 5-10 years?
I’d like to see Kernza® on a million acres with a stable and secure market for all the grain produced on those acres. I’d also like to see pilot commercialization phases begin for at least two of our other crops in the next five years. I also hope that in the next five years we’ve got a robust system for communicating with growers and collecting and communicating data that helps us understand the best practices for growing our crops based on farmer know-how in collaboration with our current civic science program.

 

What is one new thing that you have learned this summer or an interesting experience you have had outside of TLI?
I have been running seriously for the first time since having both my kids and it’s been great to hit the trails again this winter. Soon I’ll be switching to snowshoes and skis, but it’s been great to explore Southeast Wyoming, where I relocated in April. For me, it’s the most beautiful place in the world, even if training at 7,200 feet has been a challenge!

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