Entrepreneurs, Scientists Work Together on Crop That Fights Climate Change
Minneapolis is Mill City for a reason – the town was built on flour fortunes. But the crop that supported this city in the past might not provide the same benefits in the future.
Wheat, although popular, requires yearly plowing, tilling and planting. Over time, this process can result in erosion and deplete the soil’s health.
Local entrepreneurs and researchers believe they may have found a solution in Kernza, the first crop developed for an environmental benefit. Kernza was developed over the course of two decades by scientists at the University of Minnesota and Kansas-based nonprofit The Land Institute.
Kernza is a perennial grain. Because it only needs to be planted once, it eliminates the need for annual tillage and plowing, therefore cutting back on soil erosion. Proponents also say it improves water quality by keeping nitrogen out of the water and fights climate change by pumping carbon into the soil.
Until now, Kernza has been available in a limited commercial release. Bang Brewing in St. Paul and Patagonia Provisions have brewed beer with the grain. Birchwood Cafe in Minneapolis has also experimented with Kernza.
Kernza could soon receive a wider distribution through Perennial Pantry, a spinoff of Minneapolis-based Sprowt Labs. Founded in 2015, Sprowt got its start creating brewing equipment for small and large breweries, as well as hobbyists and academics. Over time, the company realized it could use its technology on other grains.
“Once we really dug into being a hardware company and bringing products to the market, we realized there were opportunities to apply that skill set to other components of grain,” Sprowt Co-Founder Christopher Abbott told Minne Inno.
Earlier this year, Sprowt became the first distributor of Kernza. The company also received a $225,000 grant from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to research the process of Kernza malting.
Through Perennial Pantry, Sprowt aims to give consumers the ability to buy raw Kernza grains and Kernza flour. The company launched a crowdfunding campaign in early May to support the effort and has since exceeded its goal. Perennial Pantry set out to raise $10,000 and has now received just under $13,000 and has eight days left in its campaign.
The crowdfunding effort also includes a citizen science project run by Sprowt’s breeding partners to source feedback from consumers on how Kernza performs in the kitchen. Beth Dooley, a local cookbook author and James Beard award winner, has volunteered to provide Kernza recipes for home cooks and bakers to experiment with.
“I think that Kernza has the base fundamentals to outcompete wheat,” Abbott said. “It could be the next standard small-grain wheat grown throughout the country.”
He added The Land Institute and the University of Minnesota are in the process of developing other perennial grains that could eventually find their way into breads, beers and other dishes.
“I think we’re seeing the beginning of a pretty significant system in agriculture that will be more sustainable long term,” Abbott said.