UW-Madison Partakes in Colation to Advance Adoption of Kernza, First U.S. Perennial Grain Crop

A multi-state coalition of researchers, farmers, educators, industry leaders, policy experts, and climate scientists—including researchers from the University of Wisconsin–Madison—was recently awarded a competitive 5-year, $10 million grant through USDA NIFA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative’s (AFRI) Sustainable Agricultural Systems program to scale the research, production, awareness and commercialization of KernzaⓇ, the first commercial perennial grain in the United States.

KernzaⓇ is the trademark name for the perennial grain harvested from new varieties of intermediate wheatgrass (Thinopyrum intermedium), a forage grass that has been used by farmers across the United States for decades. As a perennial, KernzaⓇ is planted once and provides several years of harvestable grain. KernzaⓇ has a deep root system that provides multiple environmental benefits, including improving water and soil quality and reducing soil erosion. Additionally, research has shown that this new perennial grain can increase farm income due to decreased inputs and costs from reduced tilling, pesticide requirements and nutrient runoff.

“Developing agroecosystems that provide healthy food while reducing environmental impacts in the face of climate change is a top global priority for agricultural research,” says Valentín Picasso, an assistant professor in the UW–Madison Department of Agronomy and a co-PI on the grant. “Cropping systems that include perennial forages and grain crops—such as KernzaⓇ—can contribute to food for humans and feed for livestock while reducing environmental impacts and increasing resilience to climate change relative to annual cropping systems.”

Picasso has years of KernzaⓇ research experience as part of his efforts to assess the management of perennial dual-purpose crops in sustainable forage and grazing systems. Since graduate school, he has been an active collaborator with The Land Institute, the non-profit agricultural research organization that developed KernzaⓇ. As leader of the new AFRI project’s agronomy-focused objectives, Picasso will oversee efforts to explore KernzaⓇ variety evaluation, fertilizer optimization, and on-farm research to develop best management practices.

Other members of the UW–Madison team include Michael Bell, professor of community and environmental sociology; Julie Dawson, associate professor and extension specialist in the horticulture department; Carrie Labowski, professor and extension specialist in the soil science department; Diane Mayerfeld, outreach specialist in the UW–Madison Division of Extension (Extension); Samuel Pratsch, researcher with Extension; Gene Schriefer, outreach specialist with Extension; Dave Stoltenberg, professor of agronomy. Beef farmers John and Dorothy Priske, owners of Fountain Prairie Farm, are partners on the project.

The long-term goal of the AFRI project, formally titled Developing and Deploying a Perennial Grain Crop Enterprise to Improve Environmental Quality and Rural Prosperity, is to develop a blueprint for US agricultural systems to shift from annual row crop production that requires tilling and planting every year to perennial production. By building the support system necessary to successfully increase KernzaⓇ acres, this project aims to improve the environmental sustainability of food production and demonstrate the viability of new perennial crops as real economic opportunities for farmers and rural communities.

“The Land Institute [Kansas] launched the research and development of KernzaⓇ nearly two decades ago with the vision of transforming agriculture to a just, diverse and perennial system,” explains Rachel Stroer, Acting President of The Land Institute, a partner in the project. “This grant is built on years of active collaboration among the stakeholders and is an exciting step toward our vision for KernzaⓇ and other future perennial grains being developed at The Land Institute and partner institutions globally.”

This project, informally called the KernzaⓇCap project, brings together partners from multiple states to form teams that will lead research and activities focused on breeding, agronomics, environmental quality, supply chains, and education. Each team is composed of academic and non-academic experts, including researchers, industry leaders, farmers, educators, and policy makers representing 10 universities and 24 non-profit and farm and food organizations. A sixth team focused on integration will be charged with ensuring that the project’s many partners are communicating and cross-collaborating effectively and efficiently.

Dr. Jacob Jungers, Assistant Professor in the Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics at the University of Minnesota and leading coordinator of the project, explains, “A critical part of the KernzaⓇCap is integration. The project will align research, education, commercialization and implementation efforts to operate in concert on a local to national scale. This project will simultaneously advance the genetics of KernzaⓇ, guide farmers on how to grow it, and partner with companies on how to use and market it. We envision this collaborative approach will ensure that KernzaⓇ is agronomically sound, economically viable and environmentally sustainable.”

Results from the KernzaⓇCap will include new cultivars that yield more grain and enhance critical ecosystem services, a better understanding of those ecosystem services, best agronomic management practices for KernzaⓇ production, as well as multiple operating regional supply chains and increased national market demand for KernzaⓇ. Additional goals of the project include developing a wide range of educational materials for teaching perennial agriculture concepts in K-12, higher education, and adult learning contexts, as well as piloting opportunities and approaches for state and federal policies that support increased KernzaⓇproduction.

The KernzaⓇCap project officially launched on September 1st. More information on KernzaⓇ, the project partners, updates and reports on research findings, additional press materials, and field day demonstration information can be found on kerna.org/kernacap. The project progress will also be shared regularly through Twitter: @MKernza, IG: umn_sustainable_crops and the hashtag #KernzaCAP.

This work is supported by AFRI Sustainable Agricultural Systems Coordinated Agricultural Program (SAS-CAP) grant no. 2020-68012-31934 from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.