Have you ever planted Kernza™? The Land Institute’s variety of intermediate wheatgrass, in a collaboration with the University of Minnesota, introduced the perennial grain in 2001 and has been working to educate farmers on its uses.

Ben Penner, owner of Ben Penner Farms in Minnesota, recently presented on Kernza in a webinar hosted by Practical Farmers of Iowa.

Penner raises grain, including Kernza, using no-till, USDA certified organic practices. He operates Aestiv LLC, a farm consulting firm, and serves as vice president of the Perennial Promise Growers Cooperative. He’s also part of the steering committee of the Artisan Grain Collaborative in Chicago. He sells grain to bakeries, schools, Baker’s Field Flour & Bread and co-ops statewide.

Although he has seen Kernza rise in popularity among farmers in Kansas, Minnesota and Montana, it has made little headway outside America’s breadbasket. One reason is that farmers lack a market for the grain, which Penner views as environmentally important.

“In this time of climate change, this is so important to know,” Penner said. “Ag is a contributor but a resource in alleviating climate change in the soils.”

He wants farmers to join him in developing Kernza as a product by focusing on what society needs; the hopes and needs of the land, ecosystem and people; the concept of who the customer is and what they need and want; and understanding the problem we are attempting to solve. This requires testing and iteration.

“Failure can equal success if you’re failing at the right things,” Penner said.

Talking with people investing in the product and the core audience helps, as does linking all points in the supply chain: farmers, researchers, customers, distributors, marketing, salespeople and policy, environment, trade and professional associations.

“Through an entrepreneurial mindset, we’re helping inspire people to bring new change in their landscapes, communities and farms,” Penner said.

One way in which his farm is making a difference is by bringing Kernza products to store shelves.

“We need that to make change on the landscape and address climate change through these crops,” Penner said.

Kernza stands out because of its use as both a grain and a forage. He has grazed others’ sheep and goats on his Kernza field after harvesting the grain.

“The benefit is I get manure which goes back into the system for a regenerative process,” he said.

He first planted Kernza in 2020. As an organic farmer, he had to till to get the bed ready. He planted the seed with a grain drill.

“Kernza is like planting alfalfa or a small-seeded crop,” Penner said. “It was a challenge to get the seeding rate correct as it’s a low rate.”

Kernza offers cover and fodder

Ben Penner has had sheep and goats graze in his Kernza fields after harvesting, demonstrating that the grain can also offer fodder. Photo courtesy of Ben Penner

The grain grows for three years, with the first and second years a little challenging because of weed pressure. By its third year, “it’s amazing, owing to those deep roots,” Penner said.

Learning to harvest Kernza also challenged Penner. “Some have tried to straight cut with a combine with a wheat or soybean head to cut off as little of the top as you can,” he said. “But in the current state of development, it’s not the best. I swath it, put it in windrows and let it dry one to two days.” He added that the grain has hulls a bit like oats.

“The goal of researchers is to get the level of clean grain to a threshold where we don’t have to do a lot of handling to get it ready post-harvest,” he said.

Despite the learning curve of growing Kernza, Penner believes that its environmental benefits merit more farmers to try growing it.

“There’s evidence that Kernza with its deep roots helps mitigate the effects of runoff,” he said. “The soil health improves almost immediately with that root structure, keeping all the nitrogen and phosphorus all in place.”

The only missing part of Kernza’s success story is the market – something that Penner and his colleagues at the Perennial Promise Growers Cooperative are working on.

“We believe we can do better as a group than individually as it gives us better control over the supply and make sure the supply we offer is uniform in quality,” Penner said. “It saves farmers time and hopefully brings the farmers more money. We are looking towards commercializing the ecosystem service of Kernza, of keeping those nutrients out of the watershed.”

He also meets with legislators to share the benefits of Kernza. “We’re dealing with a system developed over the past 75 years,” Penner said. “It will take a great deal of effort to change things.”

As the first commercially available perennial grain in the U.S. is still in its early stages of market development, Penner faces an uphill battle, both in educating lawmakers and farmers.

“Where I live in southern Minnesota, the landscape is dominated by corn and bean rotation,” Penner said. “We pay the land price, whether that’s the purchase price or rent that’s pegged to that rotation and the revenue that comes from that rotation and the overhead it requires. Kernza is a step change in that system. It’s not planted every year so there’s a reduction in cost and it’s a dual use crop. The yield currently is significantly lower than corn, beans or even wheat.”

He added that researchers estimate that it will take farmers 15 years before their Kernza yields are comparable to winter wheat, as they tweak their growing and harvesting methods.

As of 2022, the Land Institute’s data state that 5,000 acres were planted in Kernza, mostly in Montana, Kansas and Minnesota. More than 50 farmers are licensed to grow Kernza. In 2021, they harvested 603,864 lbs. of grain with an average yield of 409 lbs./acre, but that does not necessarily indicate cleaned product.

by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant