It’s a hopeful story for land and farm livelihoods: a grain that can restore the soil, heal the land, sequester carbon, and feed the nation and its livestock. The grain is called Kernza, or an improved kind of intermediate wheatgrass, which is an experimental new grain developed by The Land Institute and which has a growing list of partners who believe it may offer a regenerative alternative to wheat. The grain’s list of potential pluses is long. In the winter, it serves as forage for livestock; in the summer, it produces a nutritious grain that can be milled for use in brewing beer, baking breads, and many things done with traditional wheat with a sweeter, nuttier flavor.
Best of all, say its proponents, it’s a perennial, which means that once it’s planted, it comes back year after year, reducing the need for tilling, planting, and fertilizing. Its 10-foot-deep roots are where its healing power for soil resides: holding it on the land, rebuilding soil’s mycorrhizal network, locking down atmospheric carbon, and even absorbing excess nitrogen from fertilizers to keep them out of lakes and streams. Kernza shows potential as a climate solution, although more work needs to be done to unlock its full potential.
Yet today, only 4,000 acres in the U.S. are planted in Kernza. This conversation aims to review Kernza’s strengths and identify challenges to wider implementation—from lower yields to a lack of existing markets and the risk of growing a niche crop. Our goal is to come away with a clearer understanding of how Kernza may help define a path forward for perennial grains.
- Holly Korab, U.S. Nature4Climate Coda Fellow, The Nature Conservancy
- Cynthia Bartel, Research Scientist – Iowa State University Department of Agronomy
- Colin Cureton, Director of Adoption and Scaling – Forever Green Initiative, University of Minnesota
- Trenton Bohling, Grain Merchandiser – Johnson, Nebraska
- Lee DeHaan, Lead Scientist for Kernza Domestication – The Land Institute
- Mitch Hunter, Associate Director – Forever Green Initiative, University of Minnesota
Origins of Kernza
Can Perennial Grasses Deliver Environmental Benefits?
Before Iowa had corn, it was covered with tall grass prairie, which was long-lived. Extensive root systems of diverse plants growing in that environment grew the soil from sand, silt, and clay into a healthy, rich, soil ecosystem that contains lots of biota and lots of carbon, carbon which was delivered there from the atmosphere through plants capturing it and turning it into their stem, flowers, seeds, and roots. These natural systems inspired perennial grains, says Lee DeHaan. So did observing that after less than 100 years of tillage, those deep, rich soils had lost about 50% of the organic matter, which is critical to soil health.
The underlying hypothesis for perennial grains is that if grain-producing agricultural plants were more like those plants that gave us the deep, rich soils of the prairies, says DeHaan, we could begin to restore the functions that we had lost, such as water that’s clean and drinkable, as a natural means of reducing climate-changing carbon levels in the air, and as habitat for wildlife. The soil is improving in quality instead of declining. There’s more habitat for wildlife. As noted by Lee DeHaan, commonsense tells is it will work, though the research is ongoing:
“There’s a lot of university experimentation looking at these questions, such as whether we get those ecosystem functions by having, say, just one perennial grass growing in a field. There are different ways to grow it. We can graze it or hay it. We could burn it. We could till between rows or grow it solid. We could mix alfalfa with it. We have great confidence that perennial grasses can deliver these benefits from decades of work starting with pasture and prairie restoration and from the flurry of biomass energy crops, perennial crops being grown for biomass energy, such as switchgrass.”Lee DeHaan, Lead Scientist for Kernza Domestication – The Land Institute
DeHaan further noted that studies around nitrates in water have yielded “answers about the increases in soil carbon and water infiltration because of better soil structure, better water retention.” However, he added that extrapolating from one field to another becomes complicated:
“Fields have different amounts of sand cells and clay; different rainfall patterns. Saying how much soil carbon will accumulate next year is a very difficult question. We’re doing modeling, research, and studies of many particular fields managed in many different ways around the country, so we can provide the numbers.”Lee DeHaan, Lead Scientist for Kernza Domestication – The Land Institute
Kernza’s Potential for Improving Water Quality in Farm Country Is Clear
In Minnesota, researchers have “directly compared leachable nitrate at about a meter of depth under intermediate wheatgrass fields with more conventional crops such as corn, soybeans, as well as switchgrass, which is a native perennial grass,” says Mitch Hunter. “Again and again, we found that Kernza reduces potentially leachable nitrate by usually at least 90, sometimes up to 99% as compared to corn, so near total reduction in nitrate leaching.” Instead of moving into surface waters and groundwaters, Kernza’s deep root system absorbs excess nitrates. Hunter added:
“What we can’t yet say conclusively is how that translates to water quality in the local stream or the Mississippi River, much less the Gulf of Mexico. But it stands to reason, and based on other landscape-scale conservation studies, that if Kernza were deployed somewhat extensively and strategically on the most vulnerable acres, it could make a meaningful difference in nitrate leaching.”Mitch Hunter, Associate Director – Forever Green Initiative, University of Minnesota
Colin Cureton added that alternatives, even if imperfect, are needed now:
“When we talk about a 99% potential reduction in nitrates, it’s important to clarify that the path we’re on is not sustainable. If you’re putting 200 pounds of nitrogen on an acre of corn, roughly 50%, or 100 pounds of that, is going somewhere other than into the corn. For the most part, it’s moving into our surface waters or groundwater. We’re drinking that water. And for a rural community, with perhaps a small if not declining tax base, adding a nitrate removal treatment system or reverse osmosis system could be anywhere from half a million to a 1 million dollars or more—increasing the cost of water provision to those citizens by about fourfold.”Colin Cureton, Director of Adoption and Scaling – Forever Green Initiative, University of Minnesota
The Future: No Trade-Offs Between Environmental Benefits and Yields
The green revolution was heralded as the solution to global famine, and efficiency and production were prioritized because of mass hunger. But perennial grains are part of a profound shift in agriculture away from an emphasis on yield towards a reduction in inputs, sustainability, and an increase in profits.
Currently, Kernza’s yields are only 20 to 40 percent of annual wheat. This differential is tolerable for a niche crop. But Kernza is being developed to address challenges that cover thousands to millions of acres. “What we grow extensively is also what we feed humanity,” says Lee DeHaan. “It is unreasonable to suggest we’re going to extensively grow something that yields 20% as much as our current crops.”
Developing markets and improving crop management are only partial solutions. The difference, says DeHaan, has to be made up largely by breeding and genetics — a multi-decade, multi-million-dollar undertaking:
“As one of the main breeders of Kernza, we can say definitively that we are not running out of the genetic variation we need to make progress. If anything, using modern genetic tools, our rate of progress is accelerating. It took our ancestors 1,000 years to domesticate most of our crops. We must deliver in decades.”Lee DeHaan, Lead Scientist for Kernza Domestication – The Land Institute
Colin Cureton addressed whether Kernza yields that fall short of parity with annual wheat will ultimately lead to more prairie being sacrificed to grow lower-yielding perennial crops:
“Land use is much more dynamic than we usually give it credit for being. For example, 40% of US corn acreage right now is used to make fuel. Is that going to be the case 30 years from now? The idea that a lower yielding crop means we’re going to have to till under prairie is not a direction we would ever recommend.”Colin Cureton, Director of Adoption and Scaling – Forever Green Initiative, University of Minnesota
Lee DeHaan added that though Kernza originates in a dry environment, it does best in areas that receive more than 15 inches of rain. However, because Kernza’s tolerance to drought is variable, some are evaluating the role Kernza can play on drought-impacted Western landscapes:
“People are considering production places in the West where irrigation is becoming uneconomical, as the aquifers are depleted. Perhaps a couple of inches of rain to get the crop established, then you only add a few inches in the winter.”Lee DeHaan, Lead Scientist for Kernza Domestication – The Land Institute
DeHaan also stressed that the perennial grain landscape is changing overall, with opportunities to expand adoption crops like perennial rice and sorghum to other parts of the world:
“We’re also looking at perennial grains moving into Africa. We have worked on perennial sorghum since the 1980s. Though native to Africa with lots of drought tolerance and unique features, its production as an annual grain led to a lot of degradation of soils. We think perennial sorghum could be a viable crop in Africa within 10 years. And perennial rice has been brought into Africa now as well. It’s very exciting to think that in less than 10 years, we may transform production systems where it is desperately needed.”Lee DeHaan, Lead Scientist for Kernza Domestication – The Land Institute
Who Is Growing Kernza?
Not surprisingly, the early adopters of Kernza are entrepreneurial. Studies in Minnesota found that about a third to a half of growers in the state are certified organic; the other half are not organic but are focused on diversification. These growers tend to be small to medium scale—1,000 acres or less—and are interested in adding 10 to 50 acres of Kernza in their operation. Colin Cureton offered a profile of early Kernza adopters:
“Growers span the gamut of management practices, but all interested in this work around the soil health principles of diversification, animal integration, keeping a living root in soil year-round, keeping the soil covered. These folks are experienced developing markets for crops other than corn and soy and in tackling the challenges Kernza presents. Kernza offers a lot of opportunities to do all of those things right.”Colin Cureton, Director of Adoption and Scaling – Forever Green Initiative, University of Minnesota
Trent Bohling, a Nebraska farmer about to take the leap into growing Kernza fits this profile:
“The crop rotation is very important to me. I’m looking for a high-value niche market I can capitalize on as a row-crop farmer with less than 500 acres and a livestock producer with 100 to 150 head. I want to integrate livestock on land grazed 365 days a year. Fall and early spring grazing of Kernza can be a benefit if corn stalks aren’t readily available. The straw also has tested higher quality than wheat straw and would probably be a good dry cow feed source throughout the winter.”Trenton Bohling, Grain Merchandiser – Johnson, Nebraska
On what farm operations do the reduced need for fertilizer and reduced costs outweigh concerns about yields?
Farmer operators motivated by Kernza’s flexibility figure prominently on the crop’s path toward viability. Colin Cureton noted that a benefit of Kernza for producers is that it’s a relatively low-input crop:
“We’re talking about 60 to 80 pounds of nitrogen per acre per year, and then something roughly in the range of production costs $350 per acre per year for establishment. But then those costs drop by at least about a third in the subsequent years. You’re not buying seed. You’re not out planting. You’re not buying much more fuel to take passes over the field.”Colin Cureton, Director of Adoption and Scaling – Forever Green Initiative, University of Minnesota
Cureton added that Kernza’s flexibility as forage is also a major draw:
“Early on we tried to prioritize adoption by growers that could either utilize the crop as a dual-use crop within their own operation or had interest and ability to sell forage to their neighbors who had cattle or animals on-farm.”Colin Cureton, Director of Adoption and Scaling – Forever Green Initiative, University of Minnesota
Mitch Hunter reinforced Kernza’s potential value as a forage crop:
“We’ve seen farmers who have stopped harvesting in grain, but they’ve left the crop in. They see a decline in yields over time but not in the stand. It’s often getting thicker and thicker, so the forage productivity remains good.”Mitch Hunter, Associate Director – Forever Green Initiative, University of Minnesota
Policy Levers for Scaling Up Kernza
Is policy in support of Kernza keeping pace with shifts toward regenerative agriculture? Farm policy expert Cynthia Bartel provided several insights that address this question. First, Bartel highlighted the importance of organizing efforts around existing infrastructure:
“With three-quarters of the 300 million+ US cropped acres dedicated to five annual row crops, we must frame the efforts on any new crop or cropping system in the context of existing stakeholders and the industry infrastructure that’s been built around those crops.”Cynthia Bartel, Research Scientist – Iowa State University Department of Agronomy
Bartel added that many USDA programs are structured in ways that incentivize established practices, with a shift toward quantification of conservation:
“The burden falls on any new crop or cropping system to deliver demonstrable data for financial solvency, resilience, and reliability for farms.”Cynthia Bartel, Research Scientist – Iowa State University Department of Agronomy
Bartel also highlighted incentives being offered by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service to defray adoption costs for Kernza:
“A farmer can apply for what’s called the Conservation Stewardship Program. A new practice called ‘Perennial Grain Crop Conservation Rotation’ (E328O) would defray the cost of Kernza by $150 to $200 per acre. It’s available in many states.”Cynthia Bartel, Research Scientist – Iowa State University Department of Agronomy
Bartel noted work being done with the Risk Management Agency to develop crop insurance tools with some degree of parity to annual crops and cropping systems:
“We have worked with the Farm Service Agency for intermediate wheatgrass crop certification so that there’s some legitimacy for growing Kernza either as forage or as a grain so a farmer can certify their crop. We are currently working with the Risk Management Agency to develop crop insurance products for intermediate wheatgrass in the future as the crop develops.”Cynthia Bartel, Research Scientist – Iowa State University Department of Agronomy
However, Bartel also highlighted the major role that yield plays in shaping farmer decisions:
“Yield is an anchor in farm programs. When I report my yield -my Actual Production History – it not only affects my revenue today, but it also informs my crop insurance coverage and my future safety net. I’m actually receiving a double penalty if I don’t maximize my yield in any given year. For example, cover crops are hugely beneficial for soil. But we’ve seen a 5% reduction in corn yield across the countryside with cover cropping. It’s especially unappealing with tight margins that today’s 5% yield reduction is lost again in future crop insurance coverage.”Cynthia Bartel, Research Scientist – Iowa State University Department of Agronomy
State policies can also play a key role in helping farmers interested in adopting perennial grains like Kernza. Colin Cureton spotlighted the leading role Minnesota has taken in advancing state-level efforts:
“A new Developing Markets for a Continuous Living Cover Crops program, recently passed [in Minnesota], with bipartisan support, that focuses on post-farmgate value chain and market development for these crops. Similarly, a pilot program will defray some costs for early adopter costs. We’re basically offering partial crop insurance and an environmental benefit payment combined with technical assistance, targeting Kernza adoption around Drinking Water Supply Management Areas.”Colin Cureton, Director of Adoption and Scaling – Forever Green Initiative, University of Minnesota
Learn more about how Minnesota is advancing perennial grain research and adoption in U.S. Nature4Climate’s article, Partnerships for Developing ‘Forever Green’ Agriculture in the Upper Midwest.
Developing Markets for Perennial Grains
Somewhere between 50 and 60 Kernza products have been released around the country, Kernza flour can now be bought in big box stores nationwide as can Kodiak Kernza Cakes mix. Even as larger enterprises begin to take notice, most innovation was and is still bootstrapped by early adopters. Overall, getting involved with Kernza is easier now than five years ago, says Colin Cureton, because there are processing specs and storage specs and basic structural-functional characteristics that have been developed by food scientists. Still, Kernza development is undercapitalized. Colin Cureton provided insight on how this development process works:
“When you really look at where we’re at, we have about 5 to 10 years of experimentation within an early-stage technology. We tend not to think about agriculture this way, because we invent new crops so infrequently, but it’s like we have an early-stage solar panel. We’re on a technology development curve. But we need to go through this kind of dialogue between technology improvement, market success, technology improvement, market success and market innovation.”Colin Cureton, Director of Adoption and Scaling – Forever Green Initiative, University of Minnesota
Watch this U.S. Nature4Climate video to learn more about how one Minnesota company is working with scientists and farmers to make Kernza part of the foods we eat every day.
For Trent Bohling, it comes down to market availability:
“When you start talking 200 to 500 miles of transportation, it’s going to limit a lot. It’s easy to take corn or soybeans to the local elevator, dump it, get a check the next day, and move on. That’s worked, it’s worked well, and it’s worked a long time. But there are other options out there that I think we need.”Trenton Bohling, Grain Merchandiser – Johnson, Nebraska
It’s Not Just Kernza
Researchers in China recently announced the development of a perennial rice with yields equivalent to that of annual rice. The rice can be harvested for twice a year over four consecutive seasons and is being sold in the regular versus specialty market. Questions about environmental benefits are still being researched. But the overwhelming reason why farmers in the area are rapidly adopting perennial rice is the lower production costs and reduced energy and labor needed for the same yield. The success of perennial rice also proves that it is possible to breed a perennial grain crop with decent yields—good news for the future of Kernza.