Pushing Perennial Grain Product

A simple plant that began to take root as a grain crop several decades ago, has been refined in Kansas to reach revolutionary potential.

With the help of researchers and proponents, Kernza® is rising in popularity and has some thinking it could change the way the world is fed, while simultaneously providing fixes for an ailing environment.

The crop with seeds suitable for inclusion in human foods, is set for a grand opening in Kansas during Earth Day weekend April 19 through 22.

“It’s the Wild West of food exploration for Kernza®,” said James Bowden, a Saline County farmer-rancher and former researcher at The Land Institute near Salina, where the perennial wheatgrass was domesticated as a grain crop.

Packed with protein and fiber, and containing fewer carbohydrates than annual wheat, the crop that doesn’t have to be replanted every year, holds a wealth of possibilities.

“There’s a lot of opportunities that we have yet to realize in Kernza® because it is a very versatile grain,” Bowden said.

“People have used it in beers and pasta, in desserts, as a part of breakfast, and in flat breads like Naan,” he said. “My personal favorite things made with Kernza are pancakes.”

The Earth Day weekend event, dubbed Kernza®4Kansas, will feature the grain in food and beverages at restaurants, breweries and other sights from Wichita north to Courtland, west to Wilson, and Sylvan Grove and east/southeast to Council Grove and Emporia (check out the list).

Salina will serve as the epicenter, and local experts — Bowden, Brandon Schlautman, Kathryn Turner and others will be on hand to answer questions about Kernza® and sing its praises.

“Kernza® was developed in Kansas. It’s being grown by farmers in Kansas. It’s better for the environment and better for the people,” said Schlautman, of Moundridge-based Sustain-A-Grain, a business that he co-founded with Brandon Kaufman. They have been growing, processing and marketing Kernza® since 2018. Schlautman doubles as lead scientist at The Land Institute, working on perennial legumes.

“The Land Institute domesticated this awesome crop. (Scientists and technicians) did all the research, breeding, and early education,” he said. “We at Sustain-A-Grain are co-hosting Kernza®4Kansas with The Land Institute to let Kansas people know about the crop, taste it and get better access to it.”

Pushing Kernza® into the mainstream of agriculture involves improving the crop, influencing more farmers to produce it, and dazzling the palates of consumers, with tasty and healthy options both at home kitchens and on restaurant menus.

Proponents aim for all of the above to improve after Earth Day as the new grain gains notoriety.

Kernza® is now being grown and studied around the globe.

“It has been a long time in the making, built on the foundation and principles of the prairie,” said Turner, lead scientist in crop protection and genetics at The Land Institute.

For the potential to be realized, she said, Kernza® must be put to use.

“I would like 50 percent of farmers to know about it in Kansas and at least 10 percent to have tried it in their fields within the next 10 years,” Turner said.

From there, proponents aim for Kernza® to find its way to more tables.

“If we had 10 percent of Kansas businesses selling and making items with Kernza® in a year, and then we increase by five percent every year, that’s what I want to see,” she said. “I want every person in Kansas to have tried Kernza® within the next 10 years.”

While hopes are high for the grain crop, Lee DeHaan PhD, lead scientist for the domestication of Kernza® at The Land Institute, cautions that the crop “is a work in progress,” with a number of improvements pending.

“The important thing to know is there is lots of work still to be done, to increase the yield and other properties of the crop,” he said. “Using modern breeding techniques, we may achieve yield similar to wheat in about 15 years.”

While Kernza® improves over time, central Kansas has the infrastructure in place right now to further develop and grow the market, Schlautman said.

“There’s barely 1,000 acres in Kansas right now and Sustain-A-Grain has been working with nearly every one of those producers. We need 100,000 or more acres,” he said, “We want to be able to help more Kansas farmers grow Kernza®, but to do that, we need to build demand and markets locally and nationally. Doing that will require more time, more capital, more collaboration with The Land Institute, and organizations like the Kansas Department of Agriculture, while adding to our team at Sustain-A-Grain, including full-time people like James (Bowden), and a marketer for national food brands.”

Earth Day could add momentum to build demand for the promising crop, for the sake of both the farm economy and Earth.

“If everything were to fall into place with this event, the sky is the limit,” Bowden said. “Kernza® would be incorporated into every kitchen, restaurant, food retailer, and grocery store across the country. So much demand for this product would be created that we would have to double, or even triple the number of farmers and acreage to grow the supply needed to fulfill the orders coming in.”

Producers would be fairly compensated and Kernza® would be part of all farms, he said, “regardless of age, race, gender or any of the other silos of diversity. Everyone from farmer to factory worker, would be well aware of the benefits this crop provides to their environment, whether through soil conservation, carbon sequestration, or its ability to maintain clean, quality water.

“This is the dream, but the market has to be there to make the dream come true.”

FACTOID: A good Kernza® yield, in ideal conditions, approaches 700 pounds to the acre, James Bowden said, compared to approximately 3,000 pounds an acre for annual wheat, or 50 bushels an acre based on industry standard test weights of 60 pounds per bushel.

A Kernza® grower in Montana once reported a test weight of 28 pounds a bushel, according to a 2020 report from projects.sare.org. Factoring a bulk weight with 700 pounds per acre, the bushel yield would be 25.

FACTOID: Kernza® costs at sustainagrain.com:

• 25 pounds of perennial whole grain, $68.75.

• 15 pounds of Kernza® whole grain flour, $74.99

• 15 pounds of rolled Kernza®, $67.99 (Schlautman estimated regular oatmeal would be roughly half that price).

FACTOID: While Kernza® is a perennial plant, researchers are trying to extend the longevity of the crop in the field. Yields typically drop after the third year, said James Bowden, farmer-rancher and Kernza® proponent.

“We’re trying to address that problem through plant breeding and plant selection,” he said. “The goal is a longer timeframe without tilling the ground.”

FACTOID: Kernza® is on the schedule and menus after Earth Day weekend. During the Kansas Road Trip, a pancake feed, beginning at 10:30 a.m. April 27 is planned at Midland Railroad Hotel in Wilson. Food made with Kernza® will remain on the menu at Fly Boys Brewery & Eats in Sylvan Grove.


Blue Skye Brewery & Eats, 116 N. Santa Fe, of Salina; Walnut River Brewing Company of El Dorado; and River City Brewing of Wichita, plan to have beer made with Kernza® by early May, but will just miss the Kernza4Kansas event, said James Bowden, of Salina, one of the organizers.

“We want to be supportive of The Land Institute’s efforts in any way possible. It fits our model to buy local, drink local, and shop local,” said Monte Shadwick, Blue Skye owner.

“We would prefer to have all of the businesses as long term partners anyway,” Bowden said.

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