Don Wyse’s winter barley field was usually empty in the spring.
Eight years ago, only a tenth of the grain survived the winter in this experimental field in Saint-Paul. But this year, after refining the plant’s genetics several times, the field was filled with pale yellow swaying ears of grain.
Winter is the first hurdle researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Forever Green Initiative must overcome as they attempt to create new crops that can cover agricultural fields year-round – and, in doing so, improve the statewide water quality.
For years, Minnesota has struggled to reduce agricultural pollution from fertilizers and other sources that flow into streams, lakes, the Mississippi River and, eventually, the Gulf of Mexico.
Wyse, a crop scientist who founded and now co-directs Forever Green, said he’s watched all the agricultural pollution research funding spent on describing the problem for years. “There hasn’t been a very big investment in solutions.”
So, Forever Green breeders work on 16 perennial and winter annual crops to suck up that nutrient pollution before it escapes. Food scientists and marketers in the program are trying to develop uses for these crops and hopefully provide new income for farmers.
Perennial crops aren’t a new idea — groups like the nonprofit Land Institute, in Salina, Kansas, have been promoting the concept for decades. It owns the trademark of Kernza, a perennial cereal that it develops in partnership with Forever Green scientists.
But challenges remain in the chicken or egg issue of developing a market for these crops. For crops to be used in large-scale products, there has to be a lot of production; but for farmers to bet on them, they must be convinced that there is a market.
Carried in water
In the fertile fields of the Midwest, corn and soybeans dominate: the two annual crops covered 63% of Minnesota’s 25 million agricultural acres in 2021, according to the US Department of Agriculture. In other states, the proportion is even higher – they cover 76% of farmland in Iowa and 80% in Illinois.
In these row-crop operations, farmers typically plow and plant seed in the spring, harvest in the fall, and leave the soil bare until the next growing season.
Falling rains easily wash nutrients out of these fallow fields and into nearby waterways. Phosphorus that runs off with the erosion of agricultural soils feeds algae in Minnesota lakes; nitrogen seeps into groundwater, clogging rural water wells.
“It’s this nasty problem that’s choking our rivers,” said Whitney Clark, executive director of Friends of the Mississippi River. There are “too many acres of leaky annual row crops”.
Nitrogen also travels down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico, where it helps fuel an annual algal bloom and kill that saps oxygen from the water, causing a massive “dead zone.” This year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration projected the dead zone to be 5,364 square miles, nearly the size of Connecticut.
The last action plan to reduce this dead zone, dating from 2008, recommended that each state bordering the river basin reduce its nitrogen and phosphorus pollution by 45%. But levels remain high.
David Wall, a researcher with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, said the state has reduced phosphorus amounts between 20 and 35 percent, mostly through upgrades to sewage treatment plants and some pollution control measures. cropland management.
But nitrogen levels stayed the same or, in some cases, increased, Wall said.
One solution is to keep plant roots in the ground longer, where they will stabilize the soil and suck up the nitrogen before it escapes.
Kernza – a thick, grass-like plant – produces well for about three years, emerging from the ground each spring and ripening for harvest in late summer or fall. By staying in place year-round, Forever Green peer-reviewed research has shown it captures 99% of the nitrogen that would otherwise escape compared to annual corn.
“The only way to keep nitrogen out of the soil is to have the roots intercept that nitrogen,” said Lee DeHaan, lead scientist for Kernza domestication at the Land Institute.
But the Kernza plants produced only 20% of what wheat plants did on the same acreage in field trials in Kansas, DeHaan said.
In the field
On the U fields in St. Paul, breeders are working to resolve this issue. Scientists painstakingly collected pollen from perennial plants and applied it to traditional annual wheat. The hybrids are growing now, and the hope is that they will have both the perennial qualities of Kernza and the higher grain counts of regular wheat.
Success or failure won’t be apparent until next spring, Wyse said. Only if they reappear will breeders know if the plants are truly perennial.
Take pennycress, a common roadside weed that biologist and breeder David Marks is trying to turn into a major winter staple crop. Marks is so optimistic about the apricot’s potential to produce edible seeds that he got the light green likeness of the plant tattooed on his left forearm.
Marks has a lot to do to get the crop ready for market. The flat, circular pods must be made more durable so that they do not break before harvest; the thick seed coats must be thinned out, so that wandering seeds do not survive in the ground longer than a farmer would like them to; and the dangerous-to-consume erucic acid should be eliminated from seed oils.
Marks said the crop’s potential as a winter annual is not just to keep fertilizers out of the water, but to widen the window of growth, at a time when the pandemic and the war in Ukraine destabilized the world.
Marks said he feared the upcoming disruption “would be a threat to our food security. I’m thinking ahead of what’s to come.”
Build the market
Of all the crops in Forever Green, Kernza is perhaps the best known – and the furthest along in the process of being transformed into consumer products.
For these crops to make a difference, they need to be widely adopted, Wyse said.
“We need to have big markets to get enough of these plants into the landscape to protect the Mississippi River,” Wyse said.
There are a few products currently on the market, such as a Kernza cereal sold at Whole Foods stores by Cascadian Farm, a General Mills brand.
But farmers said the Kernza they grow does not sell as fast as other crops.
Some state money has recently been budgeted to help with this scaling up. In addition to $763,000 in funding for crop breeding, a bipartisan group of Minnesota lawmakers this year allocated $500,000 to help fund supply chain companies that get grain from fields to shelves. some stores.
Developing the supply chain took hard work, said Christopher Abbott, president of Perennial Pantry. The startup focuses on selling foods that use perennial and cover crops, and started in 2020.
Kernza needs to go through a thorough post-harvest cleanup, and it takes about ten times longer than conventional wheat, Abbott said. After that, his company had to experiment with how to use the grain, which has a higher bran-to-starch ratio than other wheats.
One of Abbott’s favorite products is a Kernza cracker, which he describes as buttery and flaky. It took 80 iterations to succeed, he said.
Early adopters of the crop are eager to get the plantations working.
Anne Schwagerl, a farmer from western Minnesota near Beardsley, said her Kernza crop needed some tweaking. Schwagerl, who planted 40 acres of Kernza in 2020, said harvesting now takes two passes; wheatgrass must be cut to a foot off the ground and then dried in the field for a few days before it can be harvested.
Schwagerl said the new grain fits well on his organic farm, which also grows soybeans, corn, rye, oats and another Forever Green crop, winter camelina.
But because of the new market, she was only able to sell the grain she first harvested in the fall of 2021 the following spring.
“The Kernza, we had to store much longer than with our corn or soybean or oat crop,” she said.
There were also benefits. This spring, farmers struggled to get their seeds in the ground in much of the state as the cold, wet season delayed planting.
Schwagerl didn’t have to worry about planting; his Kernza grass was already there, with roots several feet deep.
This story is a product of Mississippi River Basin Bureau of Agriculture and Wateran editorially independent reporting network based in University of Missouri School of Journalism in partnership with Report for America and funded by the Walton Family Foundation.
Walton also funded The Land Institute, a source in this story.