50 years pass before intermediate wheatgrass typically experiences die-off. 3 years into its lifespan, the plant infamously stops seeding but continues to grow. 25 years or more could pass before geneticists discover a natural variation of the plant with enough yield to be competitive. These were the numbers spinning around in my head as I took in all the information from researchers at this year’s conference on Kernza.

holding kernza in an experimental crop field in kansas
Holding Kernza in an experimental crop field in Kansas.

Kernza, a name created and owned by the Land Institute for this perennial wheat, is also known by its scientific name Thinopyrum intermedium. The plant is native to Eastern and Central Europe as well as Asia, but experimental plots currently exist in the US and many other countries such as Sweden, France, and Paraguay. Crop in experimental plots is being tested for human consumption. Previously, the plant was mainly used for forage. Forage for cattle can be a mixture of grasses whereas crop must emphasize profit and meeting FDA standards.

Kernza spikes came up to my chest in one field.
Kernza spikes came up to my chest in one field.

While in Kansas I spoke with Wes Jackson, co-founder and former president of the Land Institute, as well as Don Wyse, a professor from University of Minnesota who conducts research for the Forever Green Initiative. Rather than shy away from issues like soil erosion, water demand, and land conversion, these people have made it their life’s work to craft sustainable agriculture that can solve these problems. Kernza has a deep root system compared to annual wheat which means it can prevent soil erosion. Its distinction from other crops as a perennial also brings it to the forefront of sustainable agriculture because it eliminates frequent crop rotation. Pictured below is the flux tower setup that will tell scientists how Kernza interacts with the atmosphere, and its impact on climate. See my previous post on flux towers here.

Flux tower and its power source at the Land Institute.

Believe it or not, Kernza hasn’t been genetically modified. Genetic modification may be a quick solution to Kernza’s seeding issue, but then certified organic farmers would be unable to purchase seeds. Not to mention, GMOs have been hotly contested in the US due to possible links to allergy outbreaks and loss of biodiversity. The Land Institute is determined to find an honest solution.

We visited a good deal of experimental plots in Kansas. Shown above are the interspersed alfalfa and non-irrigated plots. Alfalfa has been shown to store nitrogen, which can help Kernza with lodging but still hasn’t resolved the seeding dilemma. The pictures on the right show the plant under drought stress, as well as the weeds that start to overtake the rows after a couple of years. Research is ongoing.

Kernza isn’t the only perennial in consideration. Perennial rice is another crop in the experimental stages in regions of China, Laos, and Africa. Kernza is clearly still in developmental stages but agricultural studies such as these broach sensitive topics in our society, like “Can we stop deforestation with a growing population?” or “Can we maintain crop yield but also eliminate fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides on farms?”

Kansas was 104 degrees Celsius when I took this picture.

There were so many new things I learned in Kansas, from the definition of seed shatter to how grain goes to market. There are also tons of resources on the internet about perennial grasses, so click on the links I provided or do a little research yourself! I hope you learned something from my post. If you did, let me know in the comments. And don’t be afraid to try to answer some of my questions. Have you ever worked on a farm? Do you think introducing perennials to an ecosystem could reverse climate change?

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