Back to the Future with Kernza® Grain
PRIMGHAR, Iowa — Kernza? I’d never heard of it until last November when I watched the PBS News Hour airing of “How New Grain Could Help Combat Climate Change.” I was motivated to find out more about this new grain named Kernza. Here is what I found:
The plant’s real name is intermediate wheatgrass. A distant relative of our annual wheat, it is a perennial plant that grows like grass on the prairie. Its roots grow deep into the soil allowing the plant to store nutrients, resist drought and reduce soil erosion. Kernza is not a strain or species of wheat, but a registered trade name owned by The Land Institute in Kansas. The result of 40 years of selective breeding by this non-profit research organization, Kernza was specifically developed to reduce the environmental impacts of conventional farming seen in agriculture today. According to The Land Institute, “Kernza is among the first of a range of new perennial crops in development that together are expected to build soil, improve wildlife habitat, protect water and provide abundant nutritious food.” They hoped new varieties of wheatgrass grains would, in the future, enable farmers to grow them profitably at scale bringing environmental benefits to modern farms and dinner tables.
Today there are about 1,000 acres of Kernza in commercial production, mostly in Midwestern states including Iowa. This is expected to increase to hundreds of thousands of acres in another few decades. But the future is near as Kernza grain has already made its way into the commercial supply chain in small niche markets. General Mills’ organic brand, Cascadian Farm, has produced sample boxes of Honey Toasted Kernza Cereal available to consumers on a limited basis. Patagonia Provisions produces Kernza craft beer called Long Root Ale sold mostly on the West Coast. Chefs in Minneapolis and San Francisco restaurants serve artisan breads and crackers made from Kernza flour.