Dirt Rich

34: The Potential of Perennial Crops & Kernza

July 7, 2021

“I’m so heartened by the work that our farmers are doing, that our researchers are doing, to create these really sustainable crops--they’re actually regenerative crops--that are not only delicious on the plate, but really good for the land.” Beth Dooley shares the excitement for Minnesota perennial crops and Kernza that she, Jacob Jungers, and Peter and Anne Schwagerl all bring to today’s episode of Dirt Rich.

Research by a variety of stakeholders, including the Forever Green Initiative and University of Minnesota researcher Jacob Jungers has been focused on the economic and environmental impacts of perennials like alfalfa, hazelnuts, pennycress, and the intermediate wheatgrass Kernza®. They’ve found that fewer pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers are needed to grow perennial crops, and farmers reap the economic benefits. Additionally, the deep root systems that perennials grow provide many ecosystem services: fixing nitrogen, building fertility. While Kernza doesn’t fix nitrogen, it takes it from deeper levels of the soil than annuals can reach, and reduces the leaching of nitrogen into groundwater.

Beginning farmers and SFA Western Chapter members Anne and Peter Schwagerl have certainly noticed those benefits on their farm so far. They have 40 acres of Kernza seeded on their organic farm this season. Says Peter, “it also offers a good way for us to tackle some of the very nitty gritty challenges that we face on a farm, particularly us as organic farmers. It really feeds a lot of needs for us from an agronomic standpoint.” They’re able to keep living roots in the soil, reduce tillage, improve pest and weed management, and break up soil compaction.

The Schwagerls intend to eventually incorporate that fifth principle of soil health, 'Integrating Livestock,' and graze the forage that Kernza provides as well. As Jacob Jungers explains, grazing Kernza results in four potential income streams for the crop: grazing forage in early May, harvesting the grain, using the leftover straw for bedding or rations, and grazing again in the late fall.

As markets expand for Kernza--just to name a couple examples: a Kernza grower co-operative is forming, and Dooley recently published a cookbook highlighting perennials--academic and farmer partnered research continues on quality, taste, measuring environmental factors, and increasing yields. The future of the crop seems to have great potential for connecting eaters to growers and land, tied in by the passion for great-tasting food and climate change mitigation.

 

Links: 

July 8 Kernza Field Day

UMN Sustainable Cropping Lab

The Land Institute

Kernza CAP

Forever Green Initiative

 

Thoughts? Comments? Ideas? Drop us a line on our Virtual Comment Box.

Katie Feterl, SFA Communications Director

Jacob Jungers, Assistant Professor, Agronomy and Plant Genetics, University of Minnesota

Beth Dooley, Food Writer and Cookbook Author, Beth Dooley’s Kitchen  

Peter & Anne Schwagerl, Prairie Point Farm, SFA Western Chapter members  

 

The viewpoints of the speakers expressed within or outside of this episode do not necessarily reflect the goals and mission of SFA.

Dirt Rich is produced by the Sustainable Farming Association.

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