Kernza farmers see a market for earth-friendly grain
Don Wyse has long been an evangelist for perennial crops. The University of Minnesota professor, who leads the U of M Forever Green Initiative, now thinks the potential of those crops is beginning to be realized.
“It took us 30 years to get to this point, but we now have what I call real crops that have real possibility for the marketplace and for planting by farmers,” said Wyse. “And it’s really, really exciting.”
Perennial crops can help reduce the environmental impact of agriculture, and they fit well with the regenerative agriculture movement that focuses on soil health.
The largest crop yet of Kernza was recently harvested. Research shows Kernza improves water quality by reducing fertilizer pollution of water, and it can efficiently store carbon in the soil, helping reduce carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas.
It also requires less fertilizer and pesticide than many traditional crops.
“It’s basically continuous living cover, protecting soil and water, enhancing soil health. That’s the basis of all 16 crops that are being developed in the Forever Green Initiative,” said Wyse.
Kernza is just the first of 16 perennial crops being developed at the U of M as part of the effort to make Minnesota farms more environmentally friendly.
Researchers at the University of Minnesota have worked with the Kansas-based Land Institute, to improve Kernza genetics.
There are still challenges for farmers and plant breeders. Kernza yields tend to decline after two years, limiting how long farmers can keep the crop on a field.
Wyse is confident that problem will be resolved as new varieties are developed.
The U of M released a new Kernza variety last year and a second variety is slated for release in 2023.
Farmers aren’t yet busting down the door to grow Kernza, but there’s a steady stream of people calling, wanting to learn more about the crop, said western Minnesota farmer Carmen Fernholz, an early adopter who first grew Kernza on his farm in 2011.