Scientists at Salina’s The Land Institute are working diligently to create a new crop from wild perennial wheatgrass, a difficult task that is expected to reap significant benefits.
Lee DeHaan, Ph.D., is the lead scientist working on the domestication of Kernza, a wheatgrass perennial that the institute hopes to see in fields as a dual purpose forage and grain crop.
“I started working on this crop about 15 years ago,” DeHaan said. “It’s a difficult job and it’s long-term work to make a new crop from scratch, essentially, starting with wild plants and making new crops we can grow for grain. But it’s worthwhile because of the high benefits.”
The payoffs, he said, include economic positives for farmers, who can decrease the dollars they spend on inputs in their operations, less loss of nutrients in the field and less water loss from the field.
Perennial, by definition, means the plant reseeds so farmers wouldn’t have to buy seed every year, DeHaan said. In addition, the roots of perennial crops are much deeper than those of annual crops, which can be helpful for weathering short droughts.
“Also important is the annual crops require moisture right when you plant them to get the seeds to germinate,” he said, adding that’s not the case with the perennials.
Scientists at The Land Institute are working on several perennial species.
“Many of them are not quite to the point where we’re looking at farmers planting them,” he said. “One project that’s going well is rice in China. Itactually been very successful; the rice flavor is very similar to annual rice. We’re expecting that to really do well in the future.”
The Land Institute has financially supported the creation of perennial rice in China.
But at the institute itself, the focus has been on perennials on par with wheat.
“When it comes to Kernza, which I work on, we’re dealing with the plant that’s a different species,” DeHaan said. “It’s not wheat or rye or barley. It’s related to those plants, so it tastes somewhat like them, although it’s a little bit different.”
The progress to work with Kernza to create a crop that yields are strong has been slow and steady.
“We’ve been seeing results for a long time,” DeHaaz said. “I’ve been at it for 15 years and people worked on it before that. We’re getting to the point where the yield is something where we can actually grow it on farms at a profitable level with a good price premium.”
Still, there is a long way to go, he said.
“It’s not our goal to create a very expensive specialty crop that only a few people can afford,” he said. “We’re looking at a crop that can be stable for people around the world. We anticipate yields of grain crops that will be comparable to other annual crops that can be grown.”
DeHaan sees his work as being “at the very beginning of success,” especially as the yields remain far below annual crops. He’s not at all dissatisfied in working on something that takes years, even decades, to achieve a goal.
“I grew up on a farm in Minnesota. I heard about the idea of perennial grains back as a teenager and was very captivated by what it would offer agriculture,” he said. “I had quite a strong interest in environmental concerns, and also in the lives of farmers in rural communities. The idea of perennials impact both at same time, a win-win that could be achieved by changing the crop that we grow. I like the idea of working on something that takes a really long time to achieve.”
Still, though he considers the institute’s work far from done, people are eating the fruits of his labor now.
He’s been pleasantly surprised at the flavor of Kernza, which he called a “big bonus.”
Patagonia Provisions developed a commercial retail product, Long Root Ale, made from Kernza for the mainstream marketplace.
Kernza grain has been the first perennial crop from The Land Institute’s work to be introduced into the agriculture and food markets, according to the institute’s website.
Critical to success will be the work being done now on Kernza to make the seed larger, and DeHaan said scientists are hopeful they’ll get the seed size similar to that of wheat. Smaller seed size means “less of the flowery part” that when it’s milled you end up with a higher primary grain with lower carbohydrates.
“Increasing size is very important to us,” he said.
Bakers are working with Kernza, testing it in kitchens nationwide for about 10 years. They’ve used it in place of wheat or combined it with other grains. The Perennial in San Francisco, Calif., and other restaurants sell bake goods using the grain, the institute’s website said.
DeHaan’s work recently was recognized by EatingWell, a publication that focuses on healthy eating. He was named one of the first annual American Food Heroes, “top individuals making an outsized difference in the biggest food, sustainability and nutrition issues of today,” an EatingWell release said.
“We are living in a golden age of food. There has perhaps never been a time with more positive changes happening around food. That made this the ideal time to create this forum,” said Jessie Price, EatingWell’s editor in chief. “At EatingWell, we’re focused on helping Americans eat better each and every day and that shines through in our devotion to writing about where our food comes from and how it’s produced.”
DeHaan said he views the award as recognition of The Land Institute’s team.
“To me it’s a recognition of the whole team that I’m working with and the fact that we’re making progress toward this very difficult project we’ve been on for decades now,” he said. “I think the recognition comes as we have built really a national and international collaboration to work on the development of perennial grain crops. Researchers at universities all over the country, Europe, Australia and China work with us. For many decades, we were really on the fringe and considered a little bit radical.
“I think we’re turning a corner and people are beginning to see that there actually is real potential,” DeHaan said.