Kernza wheat might be in your future

ST. PAUL — A taste of what could be the next green revolution sits crisp as a cookie in front of Tonya Schoenfuss.

ST. PAUL — A taste of what could be the next green revolution sits crisp as a cookie in front of Tonya Schoenfuss.

The University of Minnesota food scientist picks it up, appreciates its textured topside and then takes a thoughtful bite.

"I get some kind of green, grassy notes," she said. "I get, like, a molasses flavor, almost like brown sugar."

She says she also tastes a bit of honey, although there is no honey in her sugar cookie, or brown sugar, either.

There is a sort of grass, however. These cookies were made of flour milled from intermediate wheatgrass, also known by its trade name of Kernza, a new crop being developed by the University of Minnesota's agronomy department in St. Paul.


The cookies don't taste quite like regular sugar cookies, and the grain they're made from doesn't grow quite like regular wheat.

Intermediate wheatgrass is a perennial, much like the grass growing in your neighborhood. You plant it once, and it comes back year after year, harvest after harvest, and that could be the advantage that puts it on cookie plates and bread racks around the world one day.

"That's been the 'holy grail' talk for years," northern Minnesota farmer Richard Magnusson told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "If you had a perennial wheat you didn't have to plant every year, you'd get rid of the tillage expense, the potential for erosion in annual crops."

Magnusson is one of three Roseau County farmers who harvested the country's first commercially grown Kernza crops this fall, using seed from the Land Institute in Salina, Kans.

They're growing it for Patagonia Provisions and other companies that are experimenting with the grain.

Magnusson said his first Kernza crop, which was planted last fall in a field that didn't dry out in time for an annual crop, survived a harsh winter without any signs of damage and went on to produce its targeted yield this fall.

Northern Minnesota has notoriously short growing seasons, so farmers such as Magnusson are understandably interested in a perennial crop that can endure tough winters and thrive in marginal fields.

"In general, perennials have an advantage in the landscape," Magnusson said. "On the prairie, most of the plants are perennials."


Perennials reduce wind erosion and flooding by holding down their bit of earth.

The agronomy department in St. Paul has launched the Forever Green Agriculture Initiative to develop a series of new perennial crops for Midwestern farmers.

The department is the same one that helped develop hybrid corn and other crops that made the Green Revolution of the 1960s and '70s possible — the revolution that earned U alumnus Norman Borlaug the Nobel Prize for his contribution to productivity advances in agriculture worldwide.

"Here we sit, 50, 60 years later, thinking about the next generation of crops," said Don Wyse, the longtime agronomy professor who leads the Forever Green initiative. "But in this case, we're thinking about a series of crops that will not only be highly productive, but ones that produce ecosystem services."

"Ecosystem services" is what agronomists call the added environmental benefits of perennial crops. Because they live year-round on the landscape, they improve water quality, reduce erosion and provide habitat for waterfowl and pheasants.

The initiative also is developing perennial flax, sunflowers and hazelnuts for northern farmers.

One of the most-promising perennial crops is wheatgrass.

Intermediate wheatgrass, like its cousin wheat, is a native of the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East and has been grown in North America for decades. But until now, it has been grown only as forage for livestock.


The Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania looked at 100 different perennial grasses and identified intermediate wheatgrass, with its relatively big seeds and reputation for hardiness, as the best bet to turn into a food crop.

The Land Institute in Kansas took over from there and has been leading the charge to convert wheatgrass into a food crop. It is the one that trademarked the name Kernza.

But the Land Institute needed help from the University of Minnesota to improve the breed, figure out the best ways to plant and harvest it, and zero in on the smartest end uses.

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