Sunday, November 15, 2015

Kernza, the Wheat of the Future

There's so much bad news, I thought it was time for a piece of good news. If you don't garden, you may not realize that most of the plant foods we eat are annuals, which means they have to be planted from seed every year. That means more cost to the farmer for seed, fertilizer, and time plowing, plus more damage to the soil and waterways from tilling and runoff.

Perennial food-bearing plants require fewer inputs from farmers. Examples are asparagus, rhubarb, and all of the fruits that come from trees and shrubs. But our staple crops, like wheat, corn, and soybeans are all annuals.

The Pioneer Press recently reported on the development of intermediate wheatgrass (IWG), also known by the trademark name Kernza. It's a perennial grass that can be milled like wheat for flour. Some farmers are already growing it, and food scientists are baking with it to see how it works and tastes. An added bonus for those of us in places with short-growing-seasons is that perennial plants start growing earlier because they're already in the ground while farmers are waiting for the soil to dry out so they can start planting.

The latest Kernza developments are courtesy of the Forever Green Initiative at the University of Minnesota, which is the same department that developed crops for the 1960s Green Revolution. They're also working on perennial flax and sunflowers, and to improve the nut size from our native hazelnuts.

Full-size images of a wheat plant and its roots (left) and Kernza (right). Source

IWG is already grown as animal feed, and was chosen by the Rodale Institute as the most promising perennial because of its natural seed size and hardiness. Scientists are working to increase the size of the seed heads so that they're closer to those of wheat.

Scientists at the Forever Green Initiative are trying to compress the plant breeding as much as possible with the help of DNA testing, which lets them zero in on desirable traits without wasting time and effort on duds.

"We're probably in the neighborhood of one-third to one-half what spring wheat would yield on the same land," Anderson said. "But remember, we're just in our first breeding cycle here. This is like 1905 for spring wheat."

Wyse said he thinks wheatgrass someday could produce bigger crops than wheat simply because it spends so much more of the year collecting sunlight, nutrients and water.

Wheatgrass doesn't have to outperform wheat in the field to outperform it on the bottom line, Wyse said. It should be more efficient to grow because one planting will produce several years of harvests -- plus haying or grazing -- before it needs reseeding.

"And the farmer's going to have fewer input costs," Anderson said. "No tillage, and you reduce pesticide input to almost zero. Farmers in northern Minnesota that were never organic farmers before are growing it organically."
And less runoff means not just less damaging runoff, but less money going down the river. Runoff costs $125 million directly every year; the indirect cost is much higher, of course, in terms of the environmental damage.

The article reports that the Birchwood Cafe in Minneapolis will be serving Kernza pancakes and tortillas at breakfast and brunch for the month of November. I'll have to get over there to check them out!

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