Q: As The Land Institute’s Director of Crop Stewardship, you have worked closely with the development of Kernza® for four years. Tell us more about the work that you do.
A: Crop Stewardship builds upon the foundational work of our breeding, ecology, genetics, and ecosphere studies programs, encouraging collaborations and sharing resources to develop sustainable, just supply chains, partnerships, and economies. Our team provides agronomic and technical advice to growers, collects supply and demand data to help market-partners make decisions, engages in food science studies, creates seed systems, and builds economic models for perennial grain crops.
Q: How many farmers are growing Kernza now (including the PPGC members), how many acres are in production, and what states is it being grown in?
A: We’re still assessing this data for 2022. The results will be released in February. The 2021 stats can be found here.
Q: What progress is being made in the Kernza breeding program in terms of yield, seed size, shatter resistance, free threshing ability and grain quality?
A: A new paper, with lead author Prabin Bajgain, will give the best and most up-to-date information on this, but the gist is, we’re seeing grain yields that have increased by about 200% from cycle 0 to cycle 8. Last year (2022) resulted in the selection of cycle 12. So, we are certainly making gains. Naked seed % (free threshing) has increased nearly 400% from cycle 0 to cycle 8. Seed size has increased by 75% from cycle 0 to cycle 8. Shattering has decreased by more than 30% over the same cycles of selection.
Q: Your website mentions that experiments are underway to pair Kernza with legumes in inter-cropped arrangements and to utilize Kernza as both a forage and a grain crop (which some of our PPGC members certainly do). What are some innovative inter-croppings that you have learned about utilizing Kernza?
A: Many producers are trying intercrops, but we haven’t done a comprehensive look at any sort of yield effects related to intercropping, so what I’ll say here is primarily anecdotal. We have done an intercrop experiment where Kernza was planted into alfalfa after two years. The alfalfa was either undercut or sprayed every other row and Kernza seeded into those rows. This seems like it has the ability to provide the nitrogen necessary to maintain a Kernza stand in year one. The experiment is ongoing, so we will learn more about how this works over time as the stand ages.
Q: How are plans for the Kernza Stewardship Alliance progressing?
A: The Kernza Stewards Alliance planning process has resulted in a mission, vision, values, revenue model, equity plan, and governance model that we will use moving forward this year to build bylaws and articles of incorporation. The KernzaCAP group will be reaching out to the Supply Chain and Economics group to begin discussing this process in February! It’s really exciting to put the foundation under this model of shared leadership and ownership.
Q: We were excited to learn that Kernza is going to be included in the USDA’s NRCS Comet-Planner starting in May (Comet is a web-based tool that provides generalized estimates of the greenhouse gas impacts and carbon sequestration benefits of conservation practices). What benefits do you see for farmers as a result of Kernza data being available on Comet?
A: I think it will improve our ability to estimate ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration for the grain crop and its production systems. There are carbon markets that producers might choose to be a part of, but it’s unclear whether/how those will affect growers’ bottom lines at this time.
Q: How can farmers provide the data needed for Comet?
A: I haven’t used COMET yet, but I have been connecting with people who have and we are working on understanding what growers need to know. At this point, I think they need rotation and input information.
Q: What federal programs are available to support Kernza growers?
A: The NRCS Conservation Stewardship Program introduced Enhancement 328 O last year. Producers can enroll in most states to receive a payment for planting perennial grain crops. More information on how to enroll is here.
Producers in Minnesota can also enroll in the EECO program (Now Open for Enrollment: EECO Pilot Program - Kernza®) The program is funded by the State of Minnesota’s Clean Water Fund (CWF), was developed in partnership with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA), and will be implemented by UMN Forever Green staff along with the support of key institutional and local partners across the State.
Q: As you know, there are a lot of challenges convincing brands to include Kernza in their formulation. Consumers still don’t know what Kernza is and the price can be five times more expensive than other grains. Do you have any advice for us as we continue to focus on market development?
A: I think we have to focus on two things:
1. Local markets that reduce additional cost incurred by shipping
2. Markets where small inclusions across multiple product lines reduce the likelihood of companies abandoning “hero SKUs” when other commodity prices increase
Finally, the stagnation in the market that we are seeing (ie lots of growers holding on to 2021 and 2022 harvests) is due to the price point being too high for FNB companies to include Kernza in products that consumers will purchase, especially in light of inflation.
I think we need to reassess the current price of Kernza and include government program incentives and forage value into the pricing strategy. For example, if a producer needs to make $1200/acre but they can make $300 on the straw or equivalent on the forage by grazing cattle in the winter, then that should be considered in the overall enterprise budget for the crop, not just the grain pricing. Thus the producer would only need to make $900/acre on the grain vs. $1200. Additionally, once producers are receiving an additional ~$50/acre for 3 years from NRCS, that should translate into lower prices for the buyer.
Q: If food brands are able to utilize insetting as a “reward” for including Kernza in their recipes, this could provide a real value add to brands, do you agree?
A: Absolutely. I think we need to get companies to stop seeing Kernza as a ‘hero’ and start seeing it as business as usual. I want it to be in 50% of their products so that if one gets pulled it’s no big deal. Right now, we’re seeing the results of having depended on splashy products that are super easy to discontinue the second the price of wheat goes up. Also—I think that we are seeing smaller entrepreneurial businesses that center Kernza in their business model are having success. So, let’s encourage big companies to reimagine how they build impactful change into their everyday SKUs.
Q: In your role at the Land Institute you interface with all the licensed Kernza growers across the USA. What are you seeing as the biggest farming challenges and what advice do you have for our Cooperative growers?
A: I believe that the #1 thing we need to do is ensure we’re using the newest varieties of Kernza and that we are working to develop new best management practices and disseminate that information effectively. We expect a new grower’s guide to come out this Spring.
Q: What else would you like to share with PPGC members?
A: I would like the PPGC members to know that they can reach out any time! I know that right now, things are pretty slow with regards to grain purchases. We are excited to work on some new marketing ideas that will hopefully build interest that is for the long term.