Kernza® Grain: Toward a Perennial Agriculture
Kernza® grain plants are deeply rooted. Walking through an established field of mature plants, they are about chest high above the soil. The roots can extend 10 feet or more beneath the soil surface, more than twice the depth of and in greater density than annual wheat roots. In good conditions, the long, slender seed heads can contain more seeds than an annual wheat head, but Kernza® seeds are currently about 1/5th the size of most conventional wheat seeds.
Kernza® grain grows best in cooler northern latitudes. Although intermediate wheatgrass was consumed in ancient times, new varieties of Kernza® grain can enable farmers to grow it profitably at scale and bring its environmental benefits to modern farms and diets.
We have a growing number of international partners working with us on breeding and developing techniques for successfully growing Kernza®. Farmers interested in growing Kernza® can download our Kernza® management guide below. Bakers, millers, brewers, and chefs interested in purchasing Kernza® seed or flour can contact us below. For media inquiries or additional information, contact .
Program History: From Perennial Wheatgrass to the Kernza® Grain
In 1983, using Wes Jackson’s vision to develop perennial grain crops as inspiration and guidance, plant breeders at the Rodale Institute selected a Eurasian forage grass called intermediate wheatgrass (scientific name Thinopyrum intermedium), a grass species related to wheat, as a promising perennial grain candidate. Beginning in 1988, researchers with the USDA and Rodale Institute undertook two cycles of selection for improved fertility, seed size, and other traits in New York state.
The Land Institute’s breeding program for intermediate wheatgrass began in 2003, guided by Dr. Lee DeHaan. Multiple rounds of selecting and inter-mating the best plants based on their yield, seed size, disease resistance, and other traits have been performed, resulting in improved populations of intermediate wheatgrass that are currently being evaluated and further selected at The Land and by collaborators in diverse environments.
Experiments are also underway to pair Kernza® with legumes in inter-cropped arrangements that achieve greater ecological intensification, and to utilize Kernza® as a dual purpose forage and grain crop in diverse farming operations.
Although Kernza® grain has made its way into the commercial supply chain in small niche markets, our goal is to develop varieties of Kernza® that are economical for farmers to produce at large scale.
The breeding program is currently focused on selecting for a number of traits including yield, shatter resistance, free threshing ability, seed size, and grain quality.
In the next 10 years, we aim to have a crop with seed size that is 50% of annual bread wheat seed size. Our long-term goals include developing a semi-dwarf variety and improving bread baking quality.
Ultimately, we hope to develop a variety with yield similar to annual wheat and to see Kernza® widely grown throughout the northern United States and in several other countries around the world. If that vision becomes a reality, you might see Kernza® perennial grain in common staples found on grocery store shelves.
Kernza® Grain Goes to Market
The Land Institute developed the registered trademark for Kernza® grain to help identify intermediate wheatgrass grain that is certified as a perennial using the most advanced types of T. intermedium seed.
When you buy Kernza® perennial grain, you can be certain that you’re eating product grown on a perennial field that is building soil health, helping retain clean water, sequestering carbon, and enhancing wildlife habitat.
Starting with hobbyist bakers on staff at The Land Institute, Kernza® has been tested in kitchens across the country for over a decade. Innovative chefs, bakers, brewers, distillers, researchers, and growers are now using Kernza® in place of or combined with wheat or other grains. Our friends Karen Leibowitz and Anthony Myint were some of the first prolific users of Kernza® perennial grain at their former restaurant The Perennial in San Francisco. Their pioneering efforts resulted in some of the most innovative Kernza® recipes we have ever tasted. Today, their tireless work in showing all of us that delicious food and the people and stories behind it can be a solution to climate change continues through their new ventures Zero Foodprint and The Perennial Farming Initiative.
It can be used in baked goods and is now being sold in a number of restaurants including Birchwood Café in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Many others have tested it in their products and kitchens. Although current strains of Kernza® grain are lower in gluten strength than annual wheat, consumers sensitive to gluten should exercise caution.
At this point, Kernza® is most frequently blended with annual wheat flour to make bread, and can make up 100% of the flour in quick breads (muffins, pancakes, etc.) or served as a pilaf like rice.
- Patagonia Provisions was the first company to develop a commercial retail product made from Kernza® perennial grain for the mainstream marketplace. Patagonia took a significant risk, breaking through the initial barrier to new product development and market entry. That first-to-market product is Long Root Ale. The initiative and investment on the part of Patagonia Provisions to bring Long Root Ale to market helped pave the way for other partnerships and potential Kernza® products becoming more widely available to consumers.
- Currently, there are a number of restaurants serving products made with Kernza®, including Birchwood Cafe in Minneapolis, Cafe Gratitude in the Los Angeles metro, and Avalanche Pizza in Athens, OH.
- Hopworks Urban Brewery in Portland, OR and Vancouver, WA brewed Long Root Ale for Patagonia Provisions and has it on tap, in addition to the ale in four-pack cans being sold in Whole Foods in California. Bang! Brewing in St. Paul, MN has a Kernza® beer available, as does Blue Skye Brewery near us in Salina, KS.
- Innovative Dumpling & Strand produces Kernza® pasta that they retail through Twin Cities-area farmers’ markets. There are a few other small-scale retail food outlets scattered around the country, but to our knowledge, those are the most reliable sources right now.
- Additionally, Cascadian Farm is excited to incorporate Kernza® into some of its foods, with expectations for products made with Kernza® available in retail markets by late 2019. Cascadian Farm has agreed to purchase an initial amount of the perennial grain which allows us to arrange with farmers to plant on commercial-scale fields versus the test sized plots currently being grown. General Mills (parent company of Cascadian Farm) approved a $500,000 charitable contribution to the Forever Green Initiative at the University of Minnesota in partnership with The Land Institute, to support advanced research to measure the potential of Kernza
to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with food production, determine best management practices for sustainable production, and increase Kernza yields through breeding.
The hope is that increased demand for Kernza® products translates into more growers and acreage dedicated to Kernza® perennial grain, resulting in more Kernza® in production and on shelves, which in turn encourages more research and development into Kernza® and other perennial grains.
Patagonia’s and General Mills’ early commitments to create a market for Kernza® are significant milestones. Yet the transformation to an agriculture and a food system based upon perennial grain crops is a complex and long-term endeavor requiring support for Kernza®; other perennial grains, oil-seeds, and legumes; and agro-ecological research beyond that which market forces alone can provide at this critical juncture.
Kernza® grain is the first perennial crop from The Land Institute’s work to be introduced into the agriculture and food markets, but our researchers are currently working on others, including perennial wheat, perennial rice, perennial sorghum, and wild sunflower, with more to come.
ISARA Lyon, France
Liege University Gembloux, Belgium
Lund University Lund, Sweden
Namik Kemal University Turkey
University of Manitoba Winnipeg, Canada
Cornell University Ithaca, New York
Hudson Alpha Institute for Biotechnology Huntsville, Alabama
Kansas State University Manhattan, Kansas
Michigan State University East Lansing, Michigan
The Ohio State University Columbus, Ohio
University of Minnesota, St. Paul, Minnesota
University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin
Utah State University Logan, Utah
Related Scientific Publications
Abstract: Perennial crops have been proposed as a more sustainable alternative to annual crops, because they have extended growing seasons, continuous ground cover, reduced nutrient leakage, and sequester more carbon…
Quantitative Trait Loci (QTL) for Forage Traits in Intermediate Wheatgrass When Grown as Spaced-Plants versus Monoculture and Polyculture Swards
Abstract: It has been hypothesized that the genetic control of forage traits, especially biomass, for grass plants growing as spaced-plants versus swards is different. Likewise, the genetic control of compatibility…
Abstract: Global expansion of high-input annual grain crops and associated nitrogen (N) fertilizer use can have negative consequences for the environment and human health. Nitrate nitrogen (NO3-N) leaching from fertilized…
Abstract: Plant breeders are increasing yields and improving agronomic traits in several perennial grain crops, the first of which is now being incorporated into commercial food products. Integration strategies and management…
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