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Is kernza the miracle grain to help Wisconsin fightclimate change?

Is kernza the miracle grain to help Wisconsin fightclimate change?


June 7, 2024 1:59 PM CDT
By: Jana Rose Schleis / The Cap Times

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This article is provided courtesy of a content partnership with the Cap Times, an independent news organization based in Madison.

Ross Bishop farms over 600 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat in Jackson. He was an early adopter of sustainable farming practices so when he heard about kernza, a wheatgrass developed by The Land Institute in Kansas, it was a natural fit.   

“I wanted to grow it because of the roots,” Bishop said.  

Listen to Todd Allbaugh’s interview with journalist Jana Rose Schleis starting at 22:57.

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Kernza’s roots can reach 10 feet deep, which increases soil health, improves water quality, holds the ground in place to reduce erosion and sequesters carbon. Bishop planted his five acres of kernza on a hilly field that’s more susceptible to erosion. He said the crop has kept that soil in place.  

Agriculture accounts for 10% of America’s greenhouse gas emissions, much of that coming from the cultivation of annual crops, including grains. Private companies, federal and state governments, researchers and farmer groups have been testing and funding ways to farm in more environmentally sustainable ways. There are a slew of emerging crops that could naturally support that effort and many of them are perennials like kernza.  

Kernza is a very small, very fine grass seed with an earthy flavor that tastes similar to bran or nuts. The only perennial grain grown in Wisconsin right now, it’s produced on a small scale for a niche market of bakers and brewers. When consumers find kernza in a cookie or a beer, many don’t know what to make of it. 

Farmers like Bishop are eager to grow perennial grains given their environmental benefits, but they need someone to buy them. Bishop’s harvested kernza is sitting unused in a wagon. 

“I can’t sell it so it’s not making me any money,” Bishop said. 

Two Wisconsin environmental organizations, along with researchers, are aiming to build and grow the market for perennial grains like kernza. Clean Wisconsin, a Madison-based nonprofit, and the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute in East Troy are embarking on a two-year grant-funded initiative to connect farmers like Bishop to local businesses.  

The grant project is holistic, aiming to develop best practices for growing kernza, enable in-state grain mills to process the crop, and help Wisconsin brewers, bakers and other end users to incorporate the ingredient in their products.  

Nicole Tautges, agroecologist and farm manager at Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, has been growing and studying kernza for seven years. The environmental benefits of a product don’t necessarily go very far in the marketplace, she said. “We really need to figure out how businesses can use it regularly enough,” she said. “Once that happens then more growers are going to jump in.” 

For this perennial wheatgrass to transform from a niche grain to a commercial commodity, innovation in the marketplace is required, Tautges said.  

“We really need more business owner champions of kernza,” she said. “We really need the marketplace to grab hold of it.”

To read the full story, click here.

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