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Research Effort Aims to Get New Type of Grain to the Masses

In addition to environmental benefits, supporters of Kernza, an alternative grain crop, say it also could help reduce farm labor costs. (michaelfields.org)
In addition to environmental benefits, supporters of Kernza, an alternative grain crop, say it also could help reduce farm labor costs. (michaelfields.org)
August 6, 2020

EAST TROY, Wis. -- The Wisconsin agricultural sector could play a key role in accelerating production of a relatively new type of grain, which supporters say is safer for the environment. A nonprofit organization based in the Badger State is taking part in research that aims to give producers more solutions.

The alternative grain, which is called Kernza, doesn't grow like traditional wheat.

Nicole Tautges, agroecologist for the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, said a key difference is that it's not an annual, and after one planting, could keep producing crops over several years.

That helps reduce tillage, and she noted Kernza roots run deeper into the ground, providing additional benefits to soil.

"We're hoping to also decrease chemical and fertilizer inputs as well," Tautges added.

The Institute is part of a coalition, which also includes the University of Wisconsin, that will share a $10 million federal grant to look at ways of making Kernza easier for farmers to grow and manage.

Tautges says Wisconsin producers are collaborating with evaluators, and will continue to do so. Recently, a brand under General Mills ran into setbacks with the grain when trying to develop it for a new cereal.

In addition to figuring out mysteries in managing the crop's growth, Tautges said they also need to develop a reliable supply chain for Kernza. She said the goal is to make it the nation's first large-scale, perennial-grain crop that could be used for a lot of products.

"It should be ending up in more beers, in more granola bars and those sorts of consumer products," Tautges said.

So far, the wheat substitute primarily has been used in organic food products. Prior to the new research grant, the University of Minnesota and the Land Institute played a big role in the early developmental phase of the crop.

Disclosure: Michael Fields Agricultural Institute contributes to our fund for reporting on Hunger/Food/Nutrition, Rural/Farming, Sustainable Agriculture. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.
Mike Moen, Public News Service - WI