GOODHUE COUNTY, Minn. — If humans want to continue eating we need to continue farming. But many farming practices that have become common in the 21st century result in pollution and harm to local environments. So people and organizations are working to find creative solutions to the puzzle of eating while maintaining a healthy ecosystem. The use of perennial crops is one emerging idea.

There are already many perennial crops that can be found in grocery stores: apples, raspberries, asparagus and strawberries are some of the most common examples. Organizations like The Land Institute, based in Kansas, are working to increase the number of perennial products that are available for humans and animals to eat.

The Land Institute explains on its website:

“Perennial grains, legumes and oilseed varieties represent a paradigm shift in modern agriculture and hold great potential for truly sustainable production systems.”

There are a variety of perennial grains being studied and used to experiment. One of the more well-known locally is Kernza perennial grain.

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Alan Kraus, a conservation program manager with the Cannon River Watershed Partnership, explained that Kernza “is just a brand name, a trade name, that the Land Institute has given to this intermediate wheatgrass that they developed.”

The value of Kernza perennial grain is that it only has to be planted once and then will continue to grow back each year. Kraus explained the timeline for the crop:

The seed is planted in August and comes up and turns green that fall. Then, the grain grows again in the spring.

By August it is waist high and is cut and harvested. The portion of the plant that is not grain can be used as feed and/or bedding for animals.

By October the crop will begin to grow back and farmers can either harvest it for feed/bedding or have cattle graze on the crop.

This process begins again the following year.

Kernza® perennial grain is planted in August of one year and is then ready for harvest in the August of the following year. Here, the perennial is close to waist-high in July. Photo provided by The Land Institute.
Kernza® perennial grain is planted in August of one year and is then ready for harvest in the August of the following year. Here, the perennial is close to waist-high in July. Photo provided by The Land Institute.

Kernza perennial grain is very new in farming. According to Colin Cureton with University of Minnesota, there are just over 500 acres of the crop being grown in Minnesota. Kraus shared that one farmer is in Goodhue and another is in Dundas. Worldwide there are 2,000 acres.

Other perennial wheat grasses are being tested in and around Minnesota, including one that the University of Minnesota named Minnesota Clear Water.

Research has shown that planting perennials has numerous benefits for the environment and farmers. An MIT article laid out some of the reasons to switch to perennial grains, including:

  • A reduction in chemical runoff because perennial roots are deeper and more complex than annual roots so they can absorb more of the chemicals used on farm land.

  • Perennials reduce water usage as annuals lose up to five times more water than perennial substitutes.

  • Less fossil fuel is required because fields are not tilled and replanted annually.

Now, it should be noted that perennials are useless if there is no market for them. Luckily, there are already companies and individuals using grains like Kernza perennial grain in consumer goods.

“The grain that’s harvested can be used in both brewing and distilling as well as in baking, just like lots of other grains that we have,” Kraus explained.