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Kernza, winter camelina, and pennycress – you may be farming these in the future

Forever Green, an initiative out of the University of Minnesota, is developing new crops for farmers that achieve conservation outcomes and provide additional revenue.

At the heart of the initiative is the concept of growing continuous living cover (CLC) with perennial, annual, and native woody crops that have a market to be sold into. The types of crops accommodate relay cropping and double-cropping in the Upper Midwest. They include some familiar names: alfalfa, Kernza, perennial flax, winter barley, pennycress, and more.

Nick Jordan, professor of agronomy and plant genetics at the University of Minnesota, says, “Continuous living cover can fundamentally increase the productivity of our Midwest agriculture. That matters because our Midwest agriculture is vitally important to the food system of the world and it’s likely to be even more important in the future.”

In addition to increased productivity for the farm economy, CLC can advance conservation stewardship, promote healthy soil and water, and provide climate solutions.

“We’re trying to build upon our summer annual grain crops to grow crops in spring and autumn that make use of water, growing degree days, and nutrients that corn and soybeans don’t use during their roughly four months of vegetative activity,” Jordan explains.

One of the major benefits of an annual cycle of crops that mature in the spring or are planted in the fall is an increased nitrogen use efficiency.

“This is an opportunity,” Jordan says. “The world is wanting something from agriculture that continuous living cover cropping can give and that opens up market pathways. Forever Green is all about pursuing and then going down those market pathways to build and sustain our agriculture in the U.S.”

He refers to the regenerative ag and climate-smart goals that companies like Cargill, General Mills, and Walmart have committed to within the last several years as indication that CLC may be in demand in the future.

Forever Green’s team uses breeding technologies to improve crop species for the CLC model. Below are crops suitable for added productivity and profitability of the current agricultural system:

Perennial Crops

  • Alfalfa - cover crop for new proteins and food products
  • Intermediate wheatgrass - wheat-like grain for forage and biomass
  • Kura clover - nitrogen-fixing cover crop
  • Native polyculture grassland mixtures - produces biomass and forage for natural products
  • Perennial flax - produces edible oil, floriculture, and fiber
  • Perennial sunflower - produces edible seeds and oil
  • Silphium - edible oil

Winter Annual Crops

  • Hairy vetch - cover crop, nitrogen-fixation
  • Pennycress - cover crop that produces oil and biofuel
  • Winter barley - produces food and malting barley
  • Winter camelina - cover crop that produces new proteins, edible oil, and bioplastics
  • Winter pea - nitrogen-fixing cover crop that produces new proteins 

Native Woody Crops

  • Agroforestry - woody and herbaceous crop mixtures for feed, food, and fuel
  • Elderberries - antioxidant-rich fruit
  • Hazelnut - nuts, edible oil
  • Shrub willow - biomass
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