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Perennial Promise: Intermediate wheatgrass returns fields to grass-like prairies of long ago
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Perennial Promise: Intermediate wheatgrass returns fields to grass-like prairies of long ago

MADISON, Minn. – “There was only the enormous, empty prairie, with grasses blowing in waves of light and shadow across it, and the great blue sky above it…” From Little House on the Prairie, By Laura Ingalls Wilder.

A group of farm visionaries hopes to return a portion of the Great Plains to its former vegetation-covered glory through planting perennial crops.

Guided by well-known Lac qui Parle County farmer and leader Carmen Fernholz, a dozen or more organizations are asking farmers to consider planting Kernza®, the first commercially viable perennial grain available in the United States.

Many people have heard of Kernza but may be unaware that it is the trademark name of intermediate wheatgrass – a plant originating in Europe. The trademark is owned and managed by The Land Institute in Salina, Kan.

A Kernza Field Day was held on July 8, 2021, at the Fernholzes’ farm. Along with information on Kernza, attendees learned about a new grower cooperative that is taking shape – Perennial Promise Growers Cooperative.

The field day, said Fernholz, was “to inform both growers and buyers about the grain itself, and how its ecosystem services work for soil and water protection, and how it can become a third crop in a more robust crop rotation.”

Additional Kernza field days were held:

July 17, Cold Spring, Minn. – The Rocori FFA Chapter, in partnership with the Stearns County Soil and Water Conservation District and the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute, hosted a tour of their Kernza test plot.

July 19, St. Paul, Minn. – Minnesota legislators and agency leads joined researchers for an invite-only field day at the University of Minnesota campus.

July 22, St. Peter, Minn. – Kernza field day at the Ben Penner Farm.

July 27, Buffalo, Minn. – Kernza field day at the Stan Vander Kooi Farm.

July 28, Goodhue, Minn. – Kernza field day at the Kaleb and Angie Anderson Farm.

Aug. 19, Rosholt, Minn. – Kernza field day hosted by the Stearns Soil and Water Conservation District manager, Dennis Fuchs, and Pope Soil and Water Conservation District manager, Holly Kovarik.

Aug. 25, Arlington, Wis. – University of Wisconsin-Madison, in collaboration with the Arlington Agricultural Research Station, Kernza field Day.

Virtual field days in Kansas and Montana with information are coming soon.

Fernholz said a Perennial Promise grower meeting will be held at the July 28 Kaleb Anderson field day for the purpose of signing the articles of incorporation.

Working Together

At his field day, Fernholz mentioned the book, “40 Chances: Finding Hope in a Hungry World,” by Howard Buffett, that states the farmer has about 40 chances to “get it right.”

“I’ve had my 40 chances, I’ve had about 46, and I have loved every one of them,” he said.

He added that he began his organic production in the 1970s and good marketing allowed him and his wife, Sally Fernholz, to attain a strong financial position.

With good finances, they are assisting a young farming couple, Luke and Ali Peterson, Dawson, into the operation as the next generation.

Fernholz sees the Capper-Volstead Act (Cooperative Marketing Associations Act of 1922) as an important tool that allows farmers to collaborate on pricing. He wants to see this model used to assure Kernza farmers receive a fair price.

Within this context, members of the Perennial Promise Growers Cooperative must be farmers.

“That’s the technicality of who can be a member of this coop, but we are also looking at people who are really interested in Kernza and the coop, but want to contribute some other way,” he said. “We are looking at something that is possibly a preferred stock.”

While leadership intends to start with Kernza opportunities, they hope other crops like domesticated pennycress or winter camelina (winter annuals) can be added to the mix.

“The other piece that will be important is the market management agreements, and that’s going to be where each grower is going to sign a marketing agreement to market their grain through the coop,” Fernholz said. “There will be some kind of marketing expense that will finance the coop.”

Fernholz serves as the interim president of Perennial Promise, but there are dozens of individuals, growers, and groups involved. These groups include the University of Minnesota and subsets within the University including the Forever Green Initiative spearheaded by Don Wyse, Ph.D. Wyse is a long-time friend and collaborator with Fernholz’s work in organics and sustainability.

Connie Carlson (Fernholz’s daughter) market development specialist and Colin Cureton, supply chain development specialist, are employed by the University of Minnesota’s Forever Green Initiative to work on the many phases of developing Kernza, as well.

University of Minnesota Small Grains Breeder Jim Anderson is also involved as the breeder of the first commercially available Kernza variety MN Clearwater. His team is developing new varieties, with the next one set for release in 2023.

Other groups include the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI) of Minnesota assisting with food development and marketing.

Processing Kernza remains one of the largest hurdles to cross, as the hull doesn’t release easily from the kernel. The grain is also light so special equipment is needed for removing non-Kernza material during cleaning.

The Land Institute began the initial development of Kernza 20 years ago and has maintained a close working relationship with the University of Minnesota on this project.

Bakers, brewers, and major food manufacturers, like General Mills, have expressed their desire to use Kernza in their products, too.

In 2020, a 5-year, $10 million grant from USDA’s NIFA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative’s Sustainable Agricultural Systems program was awarded to scale the research, production, awareness, and commercialization of Kernza. Jacob Jungers, Ph.D., in the department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics at the University of Minnesota is leading a national team as they use the grant funds for what is known as the Kernza® Cap project. These efforts include activities by 10 additional universities and 24 non-profit and farm and food organizations.

Something Special

To stand in a field of Kernza is a remarkable thing.

At the Fernholzes’/Petersons’ field day, a 15-acre field of three-year-old MN Clearwater Kernza waves with the wind. A total of 80 acres of Kernza grows on the farm.

The field will be harvested soon. Unlike wheat that ripens from the bottom-up, the Kernza grain head ripens from the top-down.

Walking through the field, elbows are bent, and palms face down to feel the tight grain heads rattle against your skin.

The strong-stemmed perennial stands tall.

Look in the soil pit to see roots reminiscent of Rip Van Winkle’s beard – long, straggly, and fuzzy. The roots go down 4-10 feet. They grab up nitrogen and keep carbon in place.

Kernza is a carefully selected crop that saves soil, serves as a forage or straw product, offers delicious food, and grows for three-plus years. After that time, the crop can be disced up a couple of times for termination and good biomass into the soil.

For anyone who would like to learn more about Kernza or the Perennial Promise Growers Cooperative, Carmen Fernholz is sharing his email address and phone number. These are: fernholz001@gmail.com and 320-212-3008.

Minnesota Farm Guide Weekly Update

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