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How Scientists in Kansas and Missouri Are Exploring a New Frontier in Agriculture

They're partnering with researchers around the world to discover how growing Kernza, a perennial grain, could help solve myriad global environmental and food insecurity issues.

  • 15 min to read

Standing behind the counter at his St. Louis bakery, Union Loafers, Ted Wilson adds 15 grams of wheat flour to a small plastic cup before pouring in the same amount of water. As he stirs the water into the reddish-brown flour with the handle of an espresso spoon, a smooth paste begins to form. “This is a very dark bread when it bakes,” he says.

Using the same measurements, he repeats the process, but now with a mocha-colored flour milled from Kernza grain. The Kernza flour is thirstier than the wheat, quickly forming a rougher, gummier dough, almost like wet, rocky cement. “The way these things absorb flour is very different,” Wilson says. “What I found in making bread with Kernza is that it does take a little more water; it’s much more like rye.”

So far, Wilson is one of only 20 or so bakers in the U.S. to make bread with Kernza, a common wheatgrass with an uncommon story. After waiting a year to receive his first shipment of Kernza flour, Wilson began experimenting with it late last year. He’s had some successes with it, but for now, the failures have somewhat halted his R&D: He was sent only 80 pounds of the flour, and it could take another year to procure more.

“It’s not the best bread I’ve ever made, but it doesn’t matter – it’s worth the failures,” he says. “There’s more to it than that. I don’t know that the true value will be in a game-changing flavor. I think it’s the story and footprint that’s drastically different.”

The potential footprint of Kernza is indeed dramatically different than that of domesticated wheat. The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, thinks Kernza and plants like it could be one possible solution to myriad global environmental and food insecurity issues. Chief among them: In just 32 years, without major changes to our farming and agriculture systems, scientists estimate that we’ll be facing a worldwide food crisis.

Currently, the global population is around 7 billion people. By 2050, scientists calculate that the number will spike to almost 10 billion. That’s also roughly the maximum number of people that Earth can feed with our current agricultural system.

“The constraints of the biosphere are fixed,” wrote Harvard University sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson in his 2002 book, The Future of Life. “The bottleneck through which we are passing is real. It should be obvious to anyone not in a euphoric delirium that whatever humanity does or does not do, Earth’s capacity to support our species is approaching the limit.”

Introducing perennial plants like Kernza, which are far less destructive to the environment than annual crops, is only the first phase of The Land Institute’s project. The ultimate goal is to take these perennials and grow them in fields that resemble natural ecosystems, as opposed to the monoculture, or single species, style of farming that’s pervasive in agriculture today. It’s an incredibly ambitious aim – essentially drafting a new vision for farming that’s not yet been formally explored in our history. Like any new, uncharted frontier, it’s filled with uncertainty, risk and no one clear path forward.

If it works, though, the decades of trial and error, of successes and failures, will certainly be well worth it, for both the health of the planet and its people.

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Domesticated annual crops like wheat, rice, corn and soybeans dominate world food production. The top 10 crops grown worldwide for human consumption are all annuals – meaning they have to be replanted each year, as opposed to perennials like blueberries, strawberries and potatoes, which regrow naturally for at least two years.

Growing annuals requires fields to be tilled and plowed every year, diminishing top soil and causing erosion and groundwater depletion. These crops also require tons of water for irrigation, tapping another valuable – and limited – natural resource. Fertilizer runoff and fossil-fuel pollution number among the additional negative environmental impacts that result from raising annual crops.

Perennial plants, on the other hand, thrive without much human intervention; their deep roots also take advantage of natural groundwater, requiring little or no irrigation. Because perennials are growing at times of the year when annuals aren’t or are still very young, they take better advantage of sunlight and rainwater as well.

For more than two decades, The Land Institute has been working to identify perennial grains, legumes and composite plants – such as those in the sunflower family – with naturally deep root systems that have the potential to benefit soil health and water retention. This ties into founder Wes Jackson’s larger mission to research and develop “food production methods that sustain the land and soil, a precious resource in an increasingly precarious state around the globe.”

The institute has been developing and breeding one particular perennial since around 2003: Thinopyrum intermedium, a wild relative of annual wheat more commonly known as intermediate wheatgrass. The Land Institute calls it Kernza, a name it trademarked in 2009.

The real proof of Kernza’s potential relative to its widely used cousin, though, is perhaps best seen in the soil. To illustrate the striking difference between the root systems of Kernza and annual domesticated wheat, The Land Institute grew both in PVC pipes 3 meters long. The perennial plant was a bit more established when placed in the pipe, while the annual was grown from seed, as it would be on a farm. After a year spent growing side by side, the annual wheat had a root system of five feet, while Kernza grew to double the size.

“The age of the plants wasn’t that different, but there’s a lot of difference between the way perennials and annuals grow, and how many resources they use,” says Lee DeHaan, lead scientist for the Kernza domestication program at The Land Institute.

And those resources are valuable. A perennial’s deeper root system sequesters more carbon from the air into soil; this is particularly beneficial to the Earth now, as greenhouse-gas emissions continue to rise. Although the experiment was done in an artificial environment, DeHaan says the results mirror what scientists have seen in the fields of central Kansas.

DeHaan has been working with Kernza since joining The Land Institute in 2001; he started with smaller projects before breeding began two years later. By 2010, as further development promised increasingly better results, research ramped up. That was the year Kernza stopped being a side project for DeHaan and became his main focus. Under his stewardship over the past eight years, the crop has gone from a lab and field experiment to being grown, processed, milled and used in a limited number of restaurants and bakeries across the country, including Union Loafers in St. Louis.

Still, DeHaan is quick to acknowledge that perennial crops are unlikely to replace or overtake annuals in our agriculture system in the near future. It will take time – what DeHaan refers to as “the enemy of a plant breeder” – to continue refining Kernza for more favorable traits, such as increased yield and a larger seed size. (Currently, Kernza only yields about a quarter of what domesticated wheat does and produces smaller seeds.)

As Jackson points out on the organization’s website, “If your life’s work can be accomplished in your lifetime, you’re not thinking big enough.”

Then there’s the issue of price: Kernza is considered a specialty crop with lower yields than domesticated wheat, costing buyers more money. One solution to getting the cost down and the yield size higher is spending less time between each cycle of selection, or generation, of Kernza.

“When I started [this project], I was spending three years per generation and got it down to two,” DeHaan says. “Currently, we [have] these molecular markers that allowed us to get it down to one year per generation; the idea being, the more cycles you can get completed, faster, the farther we can go. We’re also doing those not just faster, but more accurately, so the plants you select are actually better.”

The approach is still experimental; there isn’t data to show that it will work. If it does shorten the time between generations of Kernza, though, it could mean a cheaper product for farmers producing a higher yield of grain much sooner. That, in turn, could transform Kernza from a specialty crop to one more comparable to – and competitive with – domesticated wheat.

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The sphere of perennial plants like Kernza that exist in nature is vast and, until recently, largely unexplored. Domesticated annual food crops like corn and wheat are the result of thousands and thousands of years of human selection – through both traditional and modern methods – usually to increase yield. Wheat has been domesticated for 5,000 to 10,000 years, gradually evolving under selective breeding.

“People didn’t really know what pollen did until about [the 18th century],” DeHaan says. “Unlike animal breeding, people taking their best male and female animals and breeding them together to get better offspring, no one did that [scientifically or exactingly] with plants. It was just finding things at random that were more like what people wanted. If one farmer’s crops seemed to be doing better, you’d start growing his type. That’s really different now.”

Kernza has been evolving under human selection for about 30 years. The road ahead for Kernza and The Land Institute’s larger mission to domesticate perennials is long – a fact DeHaan readily admits – although one they’re not alone in pursuing. The organization works with nonprofits, universities and scientists around the world to further the research and development of perennial crops.

And Kernza is just one of the perennial plants that The Land Institute is researching as a potential new commercial crop; for example, a perennial sunflower relative, silphium, is also being domesticated to partially replace annual oilseed crops such as soy, canola and sunflower. Similar work is happening throughout the world, as well, much of it in collaboration with The Land Institute, which provides the projects with funding, materials and expertise. In China, for example, perennial rice is being grown, processed and sold commercially; in Africa, a perennial sorghum is being researched.

In St. Louis, The Land Institute’s work with perennials intrigued Dr. Allison Miller, a professor of biology at Saint Louis University and research associate at the Missouri Botanical Garden (MoBot). If the organization was working on Kernza, she thought, what other wild perennial species might be good candidates for domestication?

“People talk about Kernza because this is one of the wild, herbaceous species that’s the furthest along in terms of breeding,” she says. “It’s exciting to see how much progress has been made in Kernza development. But this isn’t going to be the last species like this. We’re really at the very tip of this massive inquiry into wild species that might be developed into new crops and that could have important roles in perennial polyculture agriculture.”

Dr. Miller knew that MoBot, which has comprehensive resources documenting plant taxonomy, distributions and uses from around the world, had the resources to help answer her question. For the past two years, Dr. Miller has been working with two MoBot researchers, Dr. Wendy Applequist, associate curator, and Dr. James Miller, senior vice president for science and conservation, to catalog every known perennial in the wheat, legume and sunflower families to identify other potential candidates for domestication. The project is being funded by three-year grants from The Land Institute and Saint Louis University; Dr. Miller hopes that funding will be extended given its promise and global scope.

“This is about building the resources for the global community to move in the direction of perennial crops,” she says. “No one person, no one institution, one lab, is going to do this; it has to be a community effort.”

Part of that community effort is educating the general public about the theoretical value of perennial agriculture. Currently, MoBot features a display of Kernza and some perennial legumes in its George Washington Carver Garden. Kernza, silphium and an alfalfa hybrid are also featured in an exhibit on perennial plants at the Saint Louis Science Center’s GROW exhibit. The Land Institute provided Kernza and silphium for both displays.

The long-term goal of The Land Institute is not just to introduce perennial crops into the global food system, but to rethink our approach to farming in general.

“I think what’s so appealing to me about the vision of The Land Institute is that it looks to natural ecosystems as models for how agriculture might work,” Dr. Miller says. “Natural ecosystems like the North American prairie consist of perennial plants growing in mixtures. To think about an agricultural system that mimics nature – it’s a radical departure from our current agricultural trajectory – and it may or may not work, that’s the thing. But I think we all get involved in this because it offers something that we can explore that may be the answer.”

Today, annual crops such as corn and wheat are almost always grown in monocultures, meaning 10 acres of land will be dedicated to only growing corn, another 10 acres for wheat, and so on. This is a result of human intervention; plants don’t segregate themselves this way in nature. As a result, farmers must use pesticides and herbicides to tend monoculture plots successfully.

“When you have a whole plot of just one species, you have to spray toxins to try to knock out the other species that will naturally pop up, and then you have this giant buffet for whatever likes to feed on that one species,” Dr. Applequist says. “So, if you have just a wheat field, and a little spore of wheat-leaf rust gets in, it can easily spread from plant to plant, and then the whole field has it.”

However, in a natural prairie environment like those in central Kansas, if one wild wheatgrass plant is infected with wheat-leaf rust, it’s much harder for it to spread to others, as the plants don’t grow together like row crops. “A natural ecosystem is more resilient, healthier and requires less intervention to keep it from going to heck,” Dr. Applequist says with a laugh.

Currently, The Land Institute is growing Kernza in individual acres as in a conventional monoculture; the ultimate goal is to mimic the diversity and health of a natural ecosystem, or polyculture. Theoretically, fields of Kernza would be broken up with other perennial crops, like silphium, other wheatgrasses, oilseeds and legumes.

“There’s evidence that a well-managed polyculture gives you more edible foodstuff per acre than a monoculture,” Dr. Applequist says. “Different plants use different areas of space, nutrients, soil. Some people say [Kernza] will be ecologically unsustainable if it doesn’t have an identical yield [to domesticated wheat]. I don’t know if that’s quite fair, because an acre of Kernza will do less damage to the environment than an acre of wheat. If you can mix in some legumes and an oilseed, and potentially get a total yield of food value that’s a lot higher than an acre of wheat, that would suddenly make even a slightly lower-yielding grass very attractive.”

DeHaan says that the “experimental” pool of farmers currently growing Kernza are doing so in single-species plantings, like at The Land Institute, as it’s proven challenging to grow in a polyculture well and with a consistent result. Some legume intercrop fields were planted with Kernza this fall, though, and DeHaan is hopeful that a true polyculture system is achievable in time – again, “the enemy of a plant breeder.”

First, though, DeHaan says Kernza needs to overcome its own yield and harvesting challenges. In a monoculture environment, Kernza can be reaped with the same conventional combine harvester used for wheat. But in the Upper Midwest, where Kernza especially thrives and tends to grow taller than in Kansas, wind storms can cause the plants to fall over. In that situation, a combine can’t be used; instead Kernza must be swathed, or cut and placed in rows to dry out. Once the leaves and stems are dry, the combine can harvest it. This process used to be more common for harvesting grains like wheat (and is still common in oat production) but today many farmers don’t have swathing equipment.

For Kernza to really take off, it also needs to expand beyond being a specialty grain to make any real impact on the global food system. Only so much of that work can be done at The Land Institute: To truly expand education and demand for Kernza on a large scale, it needs to be featured on restaurant and bakery menus and grocery-store shelves.

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If you Googled “Kernza for sale” a year ago, you wouldn’t see many promising results. Today, the same search will return Kernza flatbread crisps for sale online through Columbia County Bread and Granola out of Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, and West Coast retailers of Long Root Ale, a beer partially made with Kernza by Patagonia Provisions in Sausalito, California. You’ll also see a spate of restaurants, bakeries and breweries across the country working with Kernza: Perennial, a restaurant in San Francisco; Bein Cuit bakery in Brooklyn; Birchwood Café in Minneapolis; Bang Brewing in St. Paul, Minnesota.

You’ll also find Plovgh. Based in Viroqua, Wisconsin, the company acts as a specialty-grain broker of sorts for both farmers and chefs, bakers and other buyers.

Up until about three years ago, DeHaan was fielding the calls and requests for Kernza grain and milled flour that Plovgh now manages. Close to home, DeHaan’s worked with the brewers at Blue Skye Brewery in Salina, which released its Crank Case IPA made with 5 percent Kernza in January. “It adds a lot of the same properties that wheat would add to a beer; the way that it impacts the mouthfeel and flavor is similar to wheat,” DeHaan says. “I’ve asked the brewers for their opinion, and what I’ve heard most is that it adds a bit of spiciness.”

DeHaan also contacted famed bread baker Zachary Golper at Bein Cuit, sending him some Kernza flour; Golper has been testing recipes with it ever since. DeHaan himself has also experimented with baking Kernza bread, muffins, cakes and other treats, to promising results.

“What I’ve found in [Kernza] bread is that [the flavor] can be very unique and pleasant, but hard to describe,” DeHaan says. “It’s not quite like any other grain, which is a good thing, I think. It gives people a unique experience. It’s clearly not wheat – it tastes very different from whole wheat. People who [have tried my] Kernza cake [said it] tasted like it had a spice in it, maybe cinnamon, or honey, even though it was just flour and starch. So you could get some unique flavors.”

A few months after Ted Wilson opened Union Loafers in St. Louis’ Botanical Heights neighborhood in fall 2015, a surprise visitor stopped in: Golper of Bein Cuit. He had been directed to visit Wilson after a nearby meeting at MoBot. “He was this iconic thing in my head; I flipped out,” Wilson laughs.

Golper asked Wilson if he’d heard of Kernza, and at the time, he hadn’t. Golper shared The Land Institute’s work with Wilson, as well his own experiments with the flour in Brooklyn. Wilson was interested, but his new bakery still required a lot of attention, and at the time, Kernza flour wasn’t readily available through Plovgh. Almost two years later, Wilson met representatives from Plovgh at a grain conference, and requested Kernza flour. Early this year, he began his own experiments with it at Union Loafers.

Unlike Golper, Wilson is attempting to use Kernza flour to create the same naturally fermented, old world-style of bread he specializes in at Union Loafers. This has proven challenging, and until Wilson is happy with the result and confident in its consistency, he won’t be selling it.

“Zach’s approach was very different than mine,” Wilson says. “He did all commercially yeasted breads with it, because he didn’t want people to taste any sourdough or deep fermentation, which I understand. But those breads are less interesting to me, and if we’re going to incorporate this like we would any wheat or grain, I wanted to do it in a way that would hold true to everything else that I find interesting in bread.”

Wilson first made a 100 percent Kernza bread, which he says was flavorful but even more dense than a traditional rye bread. Next, he tried various blends of Kernza and wheat flour, finally settling on a bread made with 40 percent Kernza and 60 percent wheat. The dough was naturally fermented with Union Loafers’ wheat starter for around 36 hours before being “built like all our other doughs” and baked.

“Because it’s a whole new grain, it acted differently; it wouldn’t hold its form as well as wheat [bread], because the gluten in there isn’t as strong or suited for the process of Euro-style bread,” Wilson says. “The crust was a little chewier and it set differently as it cooled; it was a little denser. The flavor was great – it had a very grassy note to it. But after two or three weekends of success, it just – and I haven’t identified why yet – we failed.”

Wilson might try making crackers with the Kernza flour next, or perhaps a different style of bread, although he admits he’s less excited about those directions. “I got scared, because I’ve only got 80 pounds of this stuff and that took a year,” Wilson says.

“I don’t know what the future is with it for us. But also, I don’t want to sit on it; I want to make it, and for people who are interested in the story to be able to taste it.”

As with DeHaan’s work in the field, there are likely to be far more trials and failures in the kitchen before the best applications for Kernza are identified. Given how much access to and education about Kernza has increased in the past year, it’s likely that more chefs, bakers, brewers and food producers will begin experimenting with it soon as well. Wilson says that he’d love to “crack the code” of baking naturally fermented, old world-style bread with Kernza flour, but ultimately he just wants to see it thrive in whatever recipes suit it best.

“What causes frustration [with] Kernza is the hope of its enormous potential, so impatience kicks in,” Wilson says.

“But I believe in the hope of what this thing can be.”

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In the next two years, Kernza will see its biggest boom yet, when General Mills releases a cereal made in part with the grain under its Cascadian Farm label – provided that enough Kernza is available to do so. “If the grain is there, they’re ready to go,” DeHaan says.

In March 2017, General Mills announced it was buying a significant – but undisclosed – volume of Kernza from The Land Institute. General Mills, based in Golden Valley, Minnesota, also donated $500,000 to the University of Minnesota’s Forever Green Initiative, which partners with The Land Institute to support breeding, farming, milling and marketing research for the grain.

“Eight years ago, I initially envisioned that General Mills might be in the 2020 or 2030 timeline,” DeHaan says. “General Mills has a goal of becoming carbon-neutral by 2050. That's a difficult goal, so transformative approaches like perennial grains will need to succeed in order to attain it.”

It will take investment from more than just General Mills over the next 30 years to bolster Kernza and further explore The Land Institute’s bold new approach to agriculture. Yet if other multinational food manufacturers follow suit, it could help to unlock the future of, as Edward O. Wilson put it, “Earth’s capacity to support our species.”

“We’re not talking about small, incremental fixes, but something that’s really transformative even though it’s going to take decades of work,” DeHaan says. “We’re not going to see quick results, but if it does work, it will be huge.”

The Land Institute, 2440 E. Water Well Road, Salina, Kansas, 785.823.5376, landinstitute.org

Missouri Botanical Garden, 4344 Shaw Blvd., Shaw, St. Louis, Missouri, 314.577.5100, missouribotanicalgarden.org

Union Loafers, 1629 Tower Grove Ave., Botanical Heights, St. Louis, Missouri, 314.833.6111,  unionloafers.com

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