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Western Minn. farmer a pioneer in raising perennial grain Kernza

Tom Cherveny / Tribune Kernza, an intermediate wheatgrass trademarked by the Land Institute, is higher in protein than hard red wheat and has less gluten. 1 / 2
Tom Cherveny / Tribune Carmen Fernholz planted two acres into Kernza in 2011. Researchers are working to develop the perennial as a crop that will benefit farmers by improving soil health and fertility, reducing input costs and providing revenue as a grain for for its forage value. 2 / 2

MADISON — Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak needed only a garage to develop Apple computers and change the world forever.

Carmen Fernholz is hoping a two-acre parcel of his Lac qui Parle County farmland will be what it takes to launch a change in Minnesota's agricultural landscape for a long time to come as well.

At the request of a researcher he's known at the University of Minnesota, Fernholz planted the acres in 2011 with an intermediate wheatgrass grain trademarked as Kernza.

It's one of a number of perennials being developed by the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, in partnership with researchers at the University of Minnesota and other land-grant universities as a potential crop for the "second green revolution.'' The goal is to develop perennial crops for their many ecological benefits.

In Minnesota, Fernholz is believed to be the first person to really plant Kernza on a scale larger than small research plots, according to Jacob Jungers, a researcher with the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.

Researcher Don Wyse had asked Fernholz to give this new crop a try. "Don, I'm always willing to try something,'' said Fernholz of his response.

Now the well-known organic farmer is excited about the possibility of playing a part in the second green revolution. With six years of experience with Kernza, Fernholz has seen how this perennial improves soil health, reduces erosion and benefits water quality. The deep-rooted grain is very efficient at utilizing nitrogen and preventing it from leaching into groundwater.

Kernza also makes a great beer. And a tasty bread and pasta. And there's more to come.

General Mills has made public its interest in Kernza under its Cascadian Farms label, Jungers said. Bang Brewery in St. Paul has found its craft beer made of Kernza to be popular. A Twin Cities miller and noodle-maker Dumpling & Strand have produced breads and pasta with it successfully as well, he said.

Of course, that is what will matter most: Will consumers make Kernza as popular as the Apple computers that Jobs and Wozniak created?

Jungers said Kernza development is taking place in four tracks. Some researchers are looking at ways to develop a supply chain and commercialize the plant. Others are looking at breeding better versions of it. Some are tackling agronomics and others the environmental impacts.

Step-by-step, progress is occurring, according to Jungers. He is well-aware of the challenges and the time it can take. Soybeans were an already established crop in Europe when they first reached Minnesota research plots in 1937, according to "Ten Plants That Changed Minnesota'' by Mary Hockenberry Meyer and Susan Davis Price.

The Kernza that Fernholz planted six years ago can already be considered outdated. Newer versions produce bigger kernels and better yields, Jungers said.

As a perennial, Kernza could offer farmers more benefits to their operations than soybeans, Fernholz said. A perennial reduces input costs and adds to soil fertility while still producing a grain to harvest.

Kernza can be harvested strictly for the grain, but some are enhancing its revenue potential by grazing it in the spring, harvesting its grain in August, and returning cattle in late September to graze it again.

Fernholz's role is to help researchers identify the on-the-farm issues that must be addressed if farmers are to start raising the crop. He knows well the challenges the crop faces. His Kernza produced a very good yield three years after planting. In subsequent years the perennial has become "soddy,'' putting more energy into its leaves than kernels, and yields have declined.

Knowing when to harvest the crop is a challenge. It is vulnerable to shattering and the tiny kernels are more challenging to handle and process than wheat. But Fernholz said farmers can adapt their equipment to meet the needs. And, Jungers said researchers are improving the genetics to address the sodding and shattering issues and increase kernel size.

Fernholz does not expect his name to land in the history books alongside those of Jobs and Wozniak just for his role in this research. Parcels of Kernza are being raised at research sites and by farmers from Kansas to Minnesota; a group of farmers in Roseau are raising 40 acres for a commercial venture.

Fernholz likes what he's seen enough to make that step as well. He's planning to plant 30 acres of Kernza in 2018 as a cash crop.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

(320) 214-4335
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