Ben Penner—Vice President of PPGC
Q: You say your farm is “wherever I am with my cell phone” and that certainly is a unique description! Can you elaborate on that please?
A: Yes, I have a very unique operation in that I do not own any land, and I don’t have a “home base” farm per se from which to conduct farming operations. I have agreements with landowners for land rentals as well as equipment storage and usage which are spread over LeSueur, Nicollet, Scott and Mower counties in MN. I spend a lot of time on my phone, traveling between locations for specific tasks and arranging activities within my network.
On my farm I grow, market and sell Kernza, Heritage Wheat and Hybrid Winter Rye. My products are marketed through approximately 20 different locations in Minnesota and in Kansas. I consider my farm to be focused on the market first, which in one perspective is typical of many farm operations, however the difference is that many farm operations are highly capitalized real-estate arrangements. I am trying to leverage my skill as a farmer and marketer to bring new crops and markets into the supply chains where I have developed strong relationships with end-use customers. This focus on end-use is highly atypical of most farm arrangements, but I’m hoping I can add value there.
Q: Turkey Red Wheat was originally brought to Kansas in 1873, carried by Mennonite immigrants from Crimea in the Ukraine, fleeing Russian forced military service. By the beginning of the 20th century it was planted on almost five million acres in Kansas alone, largely contributing to the description of the grain-growing region across the Great Plains as the “breadbasket” of the United States. Your ancestors are part of this incredible story. Tell us more about that.
A: Yes, I have been growing wheat or a part of the wheat harvest since the time I could walk. I remember planting a little plot in my parents’ home garden when I was about eight. Turkey Red is a stalwart heritage wheat that grows far taller than most modern-day wheats, which presents challenges such as lodging, but it also works fairly well in an organic system because it tends to shade out most, if not all weeds until about a week before harvest, making it an ideal choice as part of the rotation for an organic operation. One shortcoming of Turkey Red is that it typically yields less than modern wheats, though I have had yields of over 50 bushels per acre, which isn’t too bad for an organic wheat crop.
Before he died, I spoke with my Great Uncle Johnny (Siebert), my paternal grandmother Helen’s brother about Turkey Red. He said that it was grown more or less widely until the 1950s or 1960s in Marion county, Kansas where I grew up, which is about 30 miles south of the Land Institute where Kernza is being developed today.
Eventually, Turkey was replaced by modern semi-dwarf varieties developed by Norman Borlaug which typically yield higher when they are in more conventional operations using synthetic nitrogen and modern chemicals to keep weeds at bay. I believe there has been a renaissance of Turkey Red in the last 20 years or so, with several farmers in Kansas beginning to bring it back. When I started growing it in Minnesota in 2016, I was the only farmer growing it in Minnesota. That has changed now, and Turkey Red has become more widely available.
Q: How does being a Mennonite influence your views as a farmer?
A: My farm’s mission is to inspire human flourishing through agriculture, which reflects my deeply held passion for bringing my Mennonite background and sensibility to leading transformational change on the landscape. In my current role as Vice President for Perennial Promise Growers Cooperative (PPGC), representing 35 growers in the Upper-Midwest I am helping to develop markets for Forever Green Initiative (FGI) Crops, with a focus on Kernza Perennial Grain and Winter Camelina and serve as a collaborator on the KernzaCAP Grant, Supply Chains and Economics Team. I think this represents the highly historical communal aspects of growing up as a Mennonite. While living in a tight knit community can have its drawbacks, I believe we are at a moment in modern history that could use a little bit more of the insights from my Mennonite community’s migrations. We need to take care of each other, and at least in theory, if not always in practice, Mennonites have been doing that for a long time.
Q: Your relationship with farming started as a child growing up on a farm in Kansas, a short 30 miles from The Land Institute. What was The Land Institute like in those days, and can you share how your relationship with The Land Institute led to your early learnings about intermediate wheatgrass and Kernza?
A: That’s a great question. The Land Institute has been in operation for quite a while, and growing up I seemed to have some inkling that there was something interesting going on up there, but it seemed very out of sync with most farming operations in the area, and was likely dismissed as a bit of a novelty, though I don’t remember anyone really saying that out loud. I had an interest in the environment when I was in college at Tabor College in Hillsboro, KS and Wes Jackson came to speak, likely in 1996 or 1997. So I had some exposure to his ideas through that academic channel. Wes was a professor at the nearby Kansas Wesleyan University.
I visited TLI in 2005 or 2006, and I learned about this new wheat grass on a tour by one of the researchers there. While I was on my visit I learned that they had just planted a small plot of intermediate wheatgrass, the first outside of the lab on a farm that was a mere two miles from my own family’s farm in Marion County. In fact, I knew this farmer very well as I had worked on a roofing crew putting a new roof on his house several years earlier. His name is Herb Bartel, and I visited that little plot of (not yet) Kernza and snapped a photo. I think it might still be growing there today.
Q: Ben Penner Farms is not only a description of your farming operation but also a brand that sells organic Turkey Red Wheat flour, rye berries, and other products. That makes you a vertically integrated operation from the field to the shelf. How does that experience inform your thinking about the marketing of Kernza and what do you think the Cooperative should be focused on from a marketing perspective?
A: I think there is a tremendous opportunity for entrepreneurs to solve supply chain problems for food coops and end-use customers by figuring out how to get this exciting new crop into products that will be used every day by millions of customers who are looking for a way to directly have a positive impact on the environment. In my opinion, Kernza and the other Forever Green initiative crops are the most direct way to influence climate change and other environmental challenges that we face. I hope that many others will be inspired to put their knowledge, marketing skill and innovative talent to work getting these crops to market on a wide scale.
Q: You have a beautiful mission: “to inspire human flourishing through agriculture.” Tell us more about that.
A: As a Mennonite and a Christian, I believe that our highest calling is to flourish, which can be defined in any number of ways, however, I believe that my faith has flourishing at its core. As an extravert, and a bit of a unique type of evangelical, I also believe that I can work to help others to reach this vision, however they define it, in their own lives. To me, making the earth more hospitable and habitable for humans, our families, communities and all the animals and plants in it is a worthy way to spend my life.