New wheat developed by U could help ecosystems

A more environmentally friendly wheat variety doesn’t need to be planted each year.

Olivia Johnson

In the face of harsh Minnesota winters, University of Minnesota researchers are working on a type of wheat that can bounce back year after year.
 
The crop, called Kernza, is a perennial wheatgrass that researchers have been working on for the past 15 years. The project received $700,000 in 2012 from the University’s
Institute on the Environment and is beginning to be distributed to northern Minnesota farmers and some Twin Cities restaurants for use in their menus.
 
In conjunction with scientists from the Land Institute in Salina, Kan., students and faculty members from the University helped develop the new crop, which 
researchers hope will benefit ecosystems and the famers growing the plant.
 
The Birchwood Cafe in Minneapolis’ Seward Neighborhood has been incorporating the wheat into some of its dishes, such as its tortillas. The items don’t cost more and have been a hit with the customers, said Marshall Paulsen, a chef at the cafe.
 
“They think the dishes we make with it are delicious,” he said. 
 
He said the grain has a complex, sweet-and-sour taste and has a more attractive appearance than other kinds of wheat.
 
Green Lands, Blue Waters, an organization that supports the development of new agricultural systems, has also been helping to distribute the wheat variety to Minnesota farmers.
 
The organization asked Common Roots Catering executive chef Andy Comeaux  to use Kernza in some of the foods it served at one of the group’s conferences. He created some new foods for the event, including a custom dessert that’s not on their menu. 
 
“One of the things that I found with the Kernza flour is that it’s a little different to work with, so it’s not something that’s easily replaceable if we couldn’t get it,” Comeaux said, referring to the current limited distribution of the grain.
 
As a chef, Comeaux said he appreciates the benefits of Kernza not only in the kitchen but also for the ecosystem.
 
“It saves a lot of farming labor. … It just comes back every year,” Comeaux said. 
 
Richard Warner, director of Green Lands, Blue Waters, said the organization has been working with northern Minnesota famers to produce small amounts of the wheatgrass. 
 
Kernza is planted in the fall, grows throughout the winter and early spring, is harvested in early August and comes back again in the fall. Parts of the plant that aren’t harvested can be recycled for feeding livestock, said Don Wyse, a professor of agronomy and plant genetics who works on the project.
 
Wyse is also a co-director of the Forever Green initiative, a movement started by the College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences to encourage the development of efficient agriculture for farmers in rural communities.
 
Once a perennial grain is planted, the soil doesn’t need to be tilled. This prevents the soil from being blown across the landscape and going through a process called mineralization, which can result in “dead zones” in bodies of water, Wyse said. 
 
Soil from tilling can go into Mississippi River and flow to the Gulf of Mexico. Ultimately, microbes in the soil die in the water, which reduces the amount of oxygen in the water and can harm shrimp production and fisheries in the Gulf, Wyse said.
 
“By putting these perennial grains in the landscape, it is providing a way of enhancing water quality for the state of Minnesota and the Mississippi basin,” Wyse said.
 
He said the new grain also provides a new set of economic opportunities for rural Minnesotan communities, allowing them to grow the wheat and make it available across the market.
 
“We’re trying to develop the next generation of crops,” Wyse said.