Kernza® Grain: Toward a Perennial Agriculture
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 intercrop arrangements that achieve greater ecological intensification, and to utilize Kernza® as a dual purpose forage and grain crop in diverse farming operations.
Kernza®: A Tasty Work-in-Progress
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. We project that the first Kernza® variety will be more widely available by 2019.
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® in the Field
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.
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.
The Kernza® grain is the first perennial crop from The Land Institute’s work to be introduced into the agriculture and food markets, but researchers are currently working on others, including perennial wheat, perennial rice, perennial sorghum, and wild sunflower, with more to come.
Find out about other perennial crops under development at The Land Institute on our Perennial Crops page.
Kernza® on the Plate
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 using Kernza in place of or combined with wheat or other grains.
It can be used in baked goods and is now being sold in a number of restaurants including The Perennial in San Francisco, California, and 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.
Kernza® has also been brewed into beer and distilled into spirits by a number of producers nationwide, most notably a Kernza® beer from Patagonia Provisions.
Got Kernza®? Want Kernza®?
If you are a farmer interested in growing Kernza or a baker, miller, brewer, or chef interested in purchasing Kernza seed or flour, please contact Plovgh.
Plovgh (pronounced “plow”) contracts with The Land Institute to help match Kernza consumers with farmers so our scientists can focus on research. All farmers growing Kernza® enter into a license agreement for use of the Kernza® trademark in the sale of the grain.
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