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Minnesota farms may soon have a solution to the increasing pollution problem from row crops that’s been threatening the drinking supply of towns throughout the Upper Midwest. It all depends on a new strain of wheatgrass — called Kernza — and how quickly a team of farmers, researchers, wholesalers, chefs and even brewers can bring it to market.

The University of Minnesota will help lead a $10 million project, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, over the next five years to scale up the production of the long-promised grain — the first perennial grain to be commercialized in North America. Researchers at the U will work with dozens of scientists, farmers and buyers from Kansas, the Great Plains and around the Midwest to both increase the yield of the grain and expand the market for restaurants, millers and brewing companies to purchase it.

“Right now a farmer can’t just take Kernza to the local grain elevator and expect to sell it there,” said Jacob Jungers, researcher at the U and lead coordinator of the project. “So it’s about setting up the infrastructure and the supply chain. That’s the major economic hurdle we’re trying to overcome.”

The potential of a perennial grain grown in the United States, both economically and environmentally, has been the stuff of dreams for crop engineers and food scientists for decades. After more than 20 years of breeding and working with a Eurasian wheatgrass that was primarily used for livestock forage, the Land Institute, a nonprofit research center in Kansas, developed Kernza.

As a perennial, the crop requires less fertilizer than corn and soybeans, which now dominate Minnesota farm fields. Its roots are about twice as deep as the common annual wheats that are now grown throughout the United States. Those roots stay in the ground year-round, stabilizing the soil to prevent erosion and soaking up the chemicals and fertilizers that are contaminating well water.

Kernza can be used just like any other wheat in cereals, muffins, crackers and flour. Perennial Pantry, based in Burnsville, is developing a way to malt it to make it more useful in brewing beer.

The U has been working closely with the Land Institute over the last decade to get the crop into farmers’ hands and to improve its yield so it will become profitable to grow.

A crop with growing appeal

Over the past year, the environmental benefits of the crop have become clearer. Minnesota researchers have been testing what happens when farmers replace corn and soybeans with Kernza on land immediately surrounding wells and drinking water supplies.

“We’re seeing 100 times less nitrogen leach into the groundwater,” Jungers said. “These wellhead protection areas were losing about 30 pounds of nitrogen per acre in a corn or soybean rotation. With Kernza, that’s dropping down to 0.3 pounds per acre.”

With that kind of reduction, the crop could become a powerful and profitable tool to combat the nitrate pollution that has been a growing problem throughout the region for decades. Since 1994, the Minnesota Department of Health has found 51 community wells drawing water with nitrate levels near or above federal safety standards. Cities including Hastings, St. Peter and Perham, Minn., have had to install multimillion dollar water-treatment systems, costing the households they serve thousands of dollars.

Still, Kernza won’t replace corn or soybeans. It most likely will wind up in rotation with the row crops, where Kernza is grown for two or three years at a time, before turning the soil back over to the two farming staples, Jungers said.

Today, it’s grown by about 100 farmers on 2,000 acres of land, according to the Land Institute.

So the big question for growers remains: Will it sell?

Perennial Pantry has been working as a wholesaler for the grain for a little over a year. It started by selling the product to niche bakers, brewing companies and cafes that were looking for something new and environmentally friendly, said co-founder Christopher Abbott.

Demand has been growing and Perennial Pantry now sells Kernza to companies in 46 states, Abbott said.

“We’re really getting to a tipping point where suddenly more seed is in the ground, where acreage is increasing and yields are increasing,” he said. “We’re getting to that point, as breeding continues, where it can move from a specialty grain to start competing more directly with wheat flour.”

This fall, Anne Schwagerl and her husband planted the U’s first commercialized variety of Kernza, called Minnesota Clearwater, on 40 acres at their farm near Browns Valley, Minn., at the South Dakota border.

“The idea of having a perennial crop that’s actually worth something would be amazing,” she said. “We’re flat-landers here and when the wind blows there’s not much to stop it. So to have something that could be profitable continuously living in the ground year-round protecting the soil, it’s a no-brainer.”

Greg Stanley • 612-673-4882