Walking through an established field of mature plants, the perennial wheat grass Kernza® stands about chest high above the soil. The roots can extend 10 feet or more beneath the soil surface, more than twice the depth of annual wheat, enabling the roots to capture carbon and water, while preventing soil erosion. In good conditions, the long, slender seed heads can contain more seeds than an annual wheat head. Kernza seeds are currently about one-fifth the size of most conventional wheat seeds.

Although intermediate wheatgrass was consumed in ancient times, new varieties of Kernza can enable farmers to grow the grain profitably at scale and bring its environmental benefits to modern farms and diets. Current research reveals that Kernza grows best in cooler northern latitudes, although it is being tested in various climates across the United States. Based in Salina, Kansas, The Land Institute developed the registered trademark for Kernza grain to help identify intermediate wheatgrass grain that is certified as a perennial using the most advanced types of T. intermedium seed.

Early research suggests long-rooted perennial grain crops sequester far more carbon than their annual equivalents and retain it in the soil year over year, says Rachel Stroer, chief strategy officer for The Land Institute. “They utilize nutrients more efficiently and prevent leaching of nitrogen into the water table,” she says. “They build soil organic matter while defending themselves against drought and disease. In short, the ecological promises of perennial grains are robust. This new technology represents the closest grain agriculture can come to functioning like natural ecosystems and our best shot, in my opinion, at sustaining human life on this planet for generations to come.”

Still, there are challenges, she recognizes, and realizing the full potential of perennial agriculture on a global scale will require a movement. Yield of Kernza is strictly limited by the genetic potential of the seed currently available. That’s why breeding programs for diverse regions are a top priority. Currently, four breeding programs are underway in Utah, Minnesota, Manitoba and Kansas. These programs collaborate, but they are developing plant types uniquely adapted to each of the different regions.

“No tilling is a beautiful concept; it’s almost like recreating the prairie — putting health into the soil,” points out Zachary Golper, owner of Brooklyn, New York, bakery Bien Cuit. “Kernza seems to taste different everywhere you grow it. It’s going to taste different based on the soil it’s coming out of.”

An alternative path

Kernza seeds and milled Kernza flour from The Land Institute

Golper is one of the few craft bakers in America working to test breads made with Kernza, the perennial wheatgrass being developed by The Land Institute, where he routinely visits. “This is how we begin to support alternative agriculture with positive results,” Golper says. “I’ve never worked with a grain like Kernza. It’s beautiful, and it’s difficult.”

The history of this unique perennial wheatgrass traces its roots to 1983. Using Wes Jackson’s vision to develop perennial grain crops as inspiration and guidance, plant breeders at the Rodale Institute selected a Eurasian forage grass called intermediate wheatgrass, a grass species related to wheat, as a promising perennial grain candidate. Beginning in 1988, researchers with the USDA and Rodale Institute undertook two cycles of selection for improved fertility, seed size, and other traits in New York state.

The Land Institute’s breeding program for intermediate wheatgrass began in 2003, guided by Dr. Lee DeHaan. Multiple rounds of selecting and inter-mating the best plants based on their yield, seed size, disease resistance and other traits have been performed, resulting in improved populations of intermediate wheatgrass that are currently being evaluated and further selected at The Land and by collaborators in diverse environments.

“Today’s food system is faced with challenges from resource scarcity to soil health and water quality,” says DeHaan, lead scientist for the Kernza domestication program at The Land Institute. “It is estimated that agriculture contributes to about 30 percent of global greenhouse emissions. It has never been more important — or more urgent — to implement farming practices that are climate-beneficial. Kernza has significant potential to redirect the course of climate change and significantly improve planet health.”

In 2010, DeHaan was assigned to the project full-time to accelerate the domestication work and expand it through collaborations with other institutions. Results at this point were showing great potential to increase the yield through plant breeding and to develop products with great flavor and nutritional properties.

Cascadian Farm, a General Mills brand, is working alongside The Land Institute to commercialize organic Kernza, which is characterized by its lengthy roots (four times the root mass of annual wheat).

Investing in the future

Test plots of Kernza ripen in the field at The Land Institute

Since 2015, General Mills Inc. has invested more than $4 million to advance soil health initiatives, according to the company. Among its efforts, General Mills is working with Gunsmoke Farms LLC to convert 34,000 acres of conventional farmland in South Dakota to certified organic acreage, using regenerative agriculture practices. General Mills has developed The Soil Health Roadmap in partnership with The Nature Conservancy. The roadmap outlines steps to achieve widespread adoption of soil health systems on more than 50% of US cropland by 2025.

“We need companies like General Mills who have the scale and commitment to create sustainable agricultural systems,” said Larry Clemens, North America region agriculture director for The Nature Conservancy. “Efforts to improve soil health and enrich biodiversity are critical to addressing climate change and other environmental challenges.”

Techniques for growing Kernza that maximize both yield and sustainability are needed as farmers begin to plant expanded fields. Intercropping, grazing, burning, and thinning are being tested experimentally to determine their impacts on crop yield, profitability, and important sustainability metrics such as carbon sequestration in soils. Since management techniques have different impacts depending on soil and climate, these trials must be conducted across the full geographic range where Kernza will be grown.

Although Kernza grain has made its way into the commercial supply chain in small niche markets, the goal of The Land Institute is to develop varieties of Kernza that are economical for farmers to produce at large scale. The breeding program is currently focused on selecting for traits including yield, shatter resistance, free threshing ability, seed size and grain quality. Within the next 10 years, the Land Institute intends to have a crop with seed size that is 50% of annual bread wheat seed size. Long-term goals include enhanced bread baking quality.