Growing good grain

(L-R) Sustain-a-Grain founders Peter Miller, Brandon Schlautman, and Brandon Kaufman

Kansas company promotes environmental benefits of perennial wheat

Wheat has been one of the world’s most important food staples for thousands of years. But erosion on frequently tilled land is a serious problem in several areas of the world. By some estimates, the United States has lost as much as one-third of its topsoil over the past 100 years. Wind and water have ravaged and degraded formerly fertile fields.

Kansas, one of the US’s major wheat-growing states, loses 190 million tons of topsoil each year. Three Kansas men have developed a business to address these problems. Sustain-a-Grain is working to promote and help build the use of an alternative crop. Kernza fits into the growing practice of regenerative agriculture. Kernza is a relatively new perennial cereal grain. Growing it will help prevent erosion, improve soil fertility and hold soil in place. Its roots, which can grow as deep as 10 feet, are said to improve soil structure.

Early this year, the MarthaStewart.com lifestyle blog praised Kernza as being “a super grain that’s good for you and the planet.” The story noted that Kernza is high in protein and antioxidants, with eight times the amount of insoluble fiber as wheat. A 2017 study found that each acre of Kernza sown sequesters between 300 and 1000 pounds of carbon. Another study found that Kernza production can result in a 95 percent reduction in nitrogen leaching from the soil compared to annual grain production.

Kernza is harvested from intermediate wheatgrass. It was developed by The Land Institute, a Kansas agriculture research non-profit. Sustain-a-Grain is headed up by Peter Miller, Brandon Kaufman, and Brandon Schlautman. Miller has a background in specialty grains. Kaufman is a farmer, and Schlautman works on plant breeding.

The idea of a company based on Kernza arose from a chat Kaufman and Schlautman had at a wedding. Schlautman, a researcher at the Land Institute, challenged Kaufman to consider planting a new crop that could be harvested for multiple years. Kaufman, who has a history of growing niche crops on his farm, liked the idea of getting multiple harvests from the same acreage. And there is another benefit.

[Photos by Jake Smucker] Farmers Jess and David Mueller stand in a field with conventional wheat ready for harvest on the left and Kernza a month before harvest on the right.

Because the stubble remains in the field, it provides winter feed for his cattle. That is worth several hundred dollars an acre at a time when hay is expensive. “They (cattle) have four legs and can do it (graze) on their own,” he said. Sustain-a-Grain sells Kernza seed to interested farmers and provides agronomic support, including advice on how best to grow the crop. It also offers to buy the grain and do processing, then market it to food and beverage firms.

Kernza is being grown commercially in Kansas, Minnesota, Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, and Montana. It is also being tested on trial plots at universities in parts of the US, Canada, France, and the United Kingdom. While the total amount of Kernza under cultivation is small so far — 4,000 acres yielding over 600,000 pounds of grain — that might grow quickly. Acreage will increase by 50 to 100 percent this fall, a spokesperson for The Land Institute said this summer.

“We have a waiting list of farmers,” says Miller, Sustain-a-Grain’s CEO. “Farmers are very interested in growing it.” One of the biggest choke points preventing Kernza from being grown by more farmers is good processing, he said. Dehulling and cleaning of the grain don’t require special equipment. But the facilities that can do the job are not that common. “We’re investing in kind of creating these regional hubs to do that dehulling and cleaning.”

Breeding will soon get the seed to the point where the hull will come off naturally, he said. Kaufman has been growing Kernza for five years. He has seen major improvements over the past three years. The seed now being harvested is about 85 percent dehulled. That is clean enough for some uses. Kernza is now about the length of a rye kernel, but not as plump as a grain of wheat. Ongoing breeding programs aim to continue to increase grain size, yield, and standability. Standability is the ability of a plant to stand unsupported.

Brandon Kaufman and Brandon Schlautman examine a field of Kernza stubble, which farmers use to graze their cattle.

The other major business challenge facing Sustain-a-Grain is finding committed buyers. Kernza is a high-cost ingredient compared to other specialty grains. Currently, Kernza costs 80-90 percent more than specialty grains such as organic quinoa. That restricts Kernza’s use to craft products and as a small portion of a flour mix. Yet Kernza has found receptive end users in specialty bread flour mixtures, egg noodles, and craft brewing.

Miller thinks the gap between the price of Kernza and other specialty grains could close within a few years. The Land Institute is aiming for a 20 percent yield improvement each breeding cycle. Farmers are not typically displacing their regular wheat crop in order to grow Kernza. Much of the current acreage is on marginal ground or land that is used to pasture cattle.

Kernza could be grown on the same land for more than a decade. But most farmers will only let it grow in the same spot for three to five years, Miller said. As improved varieties become available, it’s going to make sense for farmers to rotate a plot out of Kernza, he said. They would do a year of corn and then a year of soybeans and then come back to Kernza with the latest improved seed.

Kernza roots (on the right of each image) compared to other grains — Land Institute photo

Martin Entz, an agronomist at the University of Manitoba, has studied how Kernza can be intercropped with legumes. Kernza has a role in managing diverse farm landscapes, he said. As interest in integrating crops and livestock and minimizing agriculture’s environmental footprint continues to grow, Kernza is a tool for farmers to consider, he said.

Kernza is most viable for farmers who can graze their cattle on the stubble after a crop is harvested, he said. Higher crop yield or governments offering farmers financial incentives to grow more environmentally friendly crops could increase its viability.

At the same time, large food processors such as General Mills are aware of Kernza and are waiting to see how it develops, he said.
Getting a company like General Mills to replace a small portion of the wheat in its cereal with Kernza would be a breakthrough, Schlautman said.

He also points to franchise restaurants across the US that advertise their sustainability efforts. Having one of those chains use Kernza for even one percent of the flour they put into buns or other bread products would spur rapid growth in Kernza production. “We know that Kernza is about the best thing we can grow on most of our acres ecologically,” Schlautman said. “We just need the food companies to kind of stand behind a lot of the promises and commitments that they’ve made in recent years in terms of improving their carbon emissions and sustainably sourcing their supply chains.”

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