Down at the Arlington Agricultural Research Station, farmers and researchers came together for the fourth International Kernza Conference to talk about a new crop that could change the way farming has been done for the last 10,000 years.
The new experimental grain and forage crop, Kernza, is an intermediate wheatgrass that is the first perennial plant of its kind. Unlike other grains such as corn, soybeans, barley or rice, it does not need to be replanted. This allows the soil to stay covered all year long, which prevents soil erosion and could have significant ecological benefits.
Valentin Picasso, assistant professor of agronomy at UW-Madison, led the two-day conference where researches discussed all aspects of Kernza from breeding and genetics to agronomic management, as well as visiting the many Kernza plots around Arlington and listening to what farmers’ experience with the grain has been.
“Intermediate wheatgrass, particularly the Kernza, is the seed of intermediate wheatgrass that can be used for food. It can be brewed into beer, it can be milled into flour for bread,” Picasso said. “It’s really an innovation.”
Picasso said researchers, industry partners and farmers have been meeting every year to see what advances have been made in the conversation with the crop and what farmers have been learning. He said the international conference was held in Wisconsin this year based on the amount of research being done in the state and the interest from the Kernza community to learn what places like the Arlington Agricultural Research Station are doing.
Kernza is currently being studied from a wide range of perspectives. Tests are being done to increase the seed size and yield but also the agronomic aspect of the crop; when should Kernza be planted, when to harvest it, what type of nutrients should be provided and what type of machinery should be used.
“The main reason we’re trying to develop this perennial grain crop is because it is much more environmentally sustainable because you can protect the soil and protect water quality,” Picasso said.
Here in Arlington, the research station is looking at answering questions such as what are good legumes to intercrop with Kernza, what are the optimal planting dates for Kernza, what is the forage quality when it’s fed to cattle and what is the response from Kernza when harvesting it in the spring versus the fall or summer.
Right now, Kernza hasn’t been certified as a commercially-viable crop, but Picasso said this is because the crop is so new and experimental, unlike annual crops that have been domesticated for the last 10,000.
“We have to catch up, but we’re doing it much faster,” Picasso said. “Maybe this crop won’t be much expanded in the next two or three years but we’re very certain that in the next 10 years you will see it much more in the landscape and it will contribute much more to the quality of the Midwest.”
He said they learn best about Kernza from other farmers, who have been planting test acres of the crop over the last few years. A panel of farmers from around the country spoke at the conference about their experience. Many talked about how they weren’t given much information on how to grow or harvest it but talked about their highs and lows with the crop over the years.
Farmer Erik Engellant from Geraldine, Montana said despite a brutal winter and late planting and harvesting, he was impressed how the Kernza “popped right back up” the following year. He said he’s excited about the crop going forward.
John and Dorothy Priske from Fall River said they planted for the first time last year and, while they had a lot of weed problems, they said it came back “very nicely.” Farmer Carmen Fernholz from Madison, Minnesota said he believes livestock is essential to growing Kernza.
“Livestock is a critical piece for the whole ecosystem services and the system operation,” Fernholz said. “You enhance the whole possibility of success by incorporating livestock.”
While much is being discovered through the farmers’ experiences, Picasso said there are still many questions left unanswered, and many only farmers will be able to answer in time. He said there are going into their second and third years of experiments for many test plots and researchers will soon be able to see whether the different management tactics they’re applying are working.
“After this year, we’ll have much more clarity on a lot questions we have,” Picasso said. “When is the optimal harvest time, when is the best planting date. We still need many years of research.”