Updated: Feb 21, 2019
Kernza™ - Perennial Wheat
The majority of the world’s plant-based food supply comes from annual plants. That means, every year farmers till their land, sow seeds, grow crops, harvest them and start all over again the following year. Herbicides are used to kill weeds, fertilizer is used to boost yields, irrigation is needed to keep plants alive during dry spells and valuable topsoil is lost to erosion. Imagine turning farming upside down and growing key crops as perennials not annuals, meaning the crops stay in the fields for several years and regrow for multiple years.
After four decades of research, that is exactly what the Land Institute in Kansas is doing with a new breed of wheat called Kernza™. Kernza™ has roots as deep as 10 feet into the ground, holding soil in place and preventing erosion, better absorbing water and nutrients and reducing the need for fertilizer and irrigation. Since it doesn’t have to be replanted every year, there is no need for annual tilling and sowing new seeds, which reduces the chemicals needed for weed suppression and builds soil health. An added benefit is since the plants grow year-round, they continue to absorb carbon from the atmosphere after harvest, in contrast to a bare field.
Unfortunately, there is a downside. The edible Kernza™ seed is only one fourth the size of an annual wheat seed. Kernza™ also has less gluten, a necessary ingredient for bread, which is how most of the wheat is used in this country. However, it has been successfully used in making crackers, tortillas, cookies, pasta and beer.
Kernza™ and other perennial crops could revolutionize farming. Ancilla Beef and Grain Farm in Marshall County planted an acre of Kernza™ this fall, and I can’t wait to see what happens!