Long Kernza Journey Continues
No one appreciates nature’s timelines better than Lee DeHaan, director of crop improvement and the lead scientist for the Kernza domestication program at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. Kernza is the trademarked name for a variety of perennial intermediate wheatgrass (Thinopyrum intermedium) originally selected by The Rodale Institute.
“There are no quick fixes; solutions are going to take time,” DeHaan told High Plains Journal. “They are only worth investing in for the long term.” He is spending what will probably be his entire career on this single project, directing the project’s many activities from Salina, collaborating with a variety of academic researchers and farmers. He began studying it in 2003.
Kernza sprang from the vision of Wes Jackson, the colorful and controversial farmer, writer and godfather of the sustainable agriculture movement whose books on soil health challenge the way conventional agriculture has been practiced. Jackson was a professor of biology at Kansas Wesleyan.
In his 1980 book New Roots for Agriculture, Jackson wrote, “This book calls essentially all till agriculture, almost from the beginning, into question, not because sustainable till agriculture can’t be practiced, but because it isn’t and hasn’t been, except in small pockets scattered across the globe.” He has received a MacArthur genius grant and helped established the environmental studies program at California State University in Sacramento, California, where he became a full professor.
The Kernza project is part of the development of Jackson’s vision of perennial crops that will develop a deep root system like that of original prairie grasses, fixing more carbon, preventing soil erosion and restoring the soil without chemical fertilizers. The Land Institute is also working on perennial legumes, rice, oilseeds and sorghum. DeHaan has explained in interviews how it was his dream from childhood to work on perennial crops, and Jackson’s Land Institute was the only place where that was possible. Kernza wheatgrass can be easily harvested using conventional combines, according to DeHaan. It yields a seed that is, so far, smaller than conventional wheat kernels but can be ground to a flour that can easily be blended with other flours and reportedly has a distinctive nutty, appealing flavor.