Every year a wheat crop is planted, it grows, is harvested, and then dies, leaving several months of bare soil on the land. Plant breeders at The Land Institute are developing intermediate wheat grass, which has been used as a forage, or as an alternative grain crop. It can be milled into flour and the products are being sold under the trade name Kernza.
Lee DeHaan is the lead scientist for Kernza domestication with The Land Institute. He says besides opportunities for grain, the perennial plant also does a lot for the soil.
"Kernza is a crop that we can plant once and then have it live for many years and it will be green whenever it’s not frozen. Spring, summer, even winter here in Kansas it stays green and it can be taking up available nutrients and it holds onto the soil," says DeHaan. "So, roots growing in the soil hold that against erosion and protect that soil. Even builds soil carbon."
It’s not considered an alternative to wheat just yet, but DeHaan says food manufacturers are experimenting with Kernza.
"It’s a very tiny specialty crop, but we are seeing it substituted for wheat in recipes. So, breads, and muffins, and cookies, and pancakes. Beer is a big one that’s being explored," he says. "All of these are good uses for the grain where humans can eat it directly and explore the new taste options they have available there."
DeHaan says more research has to be done, including yield, seed size, and grain quality. A handful of farmers are now producing and selling Kernza grain, but it will be another five to ten years before the seed is widely available.