This story was produced in partnership with the Food & Environment Reporting Network
Carmen Fernholz started organic farming in 1972 – before the term “organic farming” was even really a thing. And as a lifelong organic fanatic, he’s always looking for strategies to keep his soil healthy.
Many of these strategies focus on How? ‘Or’ What He cultivates: He has never used herbicides or pesticides on his crops, for example. He does not use commercial fertilizers. He plants cover crops to sequester carbon in the soil.
Basically, when it comes to the health of his fields, Fernholz’s philosophy is to let the soil live as naturally as possible. “I cringe every time I see a ground disturbance.”
And for Fernholz, taking care of the soil is not just about How? ‘Or’ What he cultivates. It is also about what he cultivates. In 2011, he began growing a new type of grain designed to disturb the soil as little as possible. It’s called Kernza. It is a species of wheatgrass, and some scientists believe it could revolutionize grain farming.
Most of the grains we grow today, such as corn, soybeans and wheat, are annual crops. They are planted and harvested every year. And the way most farmers grow these crops – with nitrogen fertilizers and annual tillage – damages the soil, pollutes the air and contributes to climate change.
Kernza is different. It is a perennial cereal. Its roots remain in the ground for three or four years, growing up to 10 feet deep into the earth. As the plant above ground continues to produce grain each season, the roots of Kernza pull carbon from the air, build healthy soil, and make Kernza resilient to extreme weather events like droughts and floods. Plus, it produces grain that we can eat, which means farmers can sell it and make a profit.
“It’s exciting,” Fernholz said. “It’s just a great gift to our food system.”
Fernholz started with a few acres of Kernza in 2011, as part of a pilot program funded by the University of Minnesota. Today he farms around 80 acres and he says he gets phone calls all the time from conventional farmers interested in Kernza as they look for a better way to farm.
“They see soil degradation, herbicide resistance, increased production costs,” Fernholz said. “They’re kind of on a treadmill with corn and soybeans. And they’re looking for something to get out of it.
The grain of the future
“People are very excited [about] perennial cereals,” said Tim Crews. He is the chief scientist of the earth institute in Salina, Kansas. It is the agricultural research organization that has been leading the development of Kernza for 20 years.
If 20 years seems like a long time to develop a cereal, plant breeders will quickly assure you that this is not the case. Look at annual wheat for comparison – humans have been growing it for 10,000 years.
But compared to wheat, Kernza looks and behaves much more like the plants that originally grew on the prairies of the Midwest. The Land Institute’s goal is to restore soil ecosystems to the state they were in before annual agriculture dominated the landscape. In the Midwest, this happened about 200 years ago when farmers took the land and started plowing it into fields.
Eventually, Land Institute scientists want perennial crops like Kernza to completely replace the annuals we grow now. And not just in the Midwest. More than 70% of the world’s cropland is planted with annual cereals, and Crews says they’ve got those acres in sight too.
Perennial crops are the key, according to Crews, to an agricultural future that actually benefits the land instead of degrading it. “It’s just a matter of getting them to the point where they can actually start to economically replace annual crops.”
It means building a market. And, for now, this market is rather niche, as there are only about 4,000 acres of Kernza growing in the world. Most of those acres are in Minnesota, which is also home to a small but enthusiastic Kernza supply chain, as brewers, bakersand cooks experiment with Kernza products – in microbreweries, pancake mixes and dessert bars.
National brands are start paying attention: Whole Foods named Kernza among its top 10 food trends of 2022. But Silvia Secchi, an economist at the University of Iowa, says that for Kernza to actually replace the grains we grow now, we will first have to see major changes to the US Farm Bill.
“You can’t just change cultures,” she said. “It’s a whole system that we have to change.”
This system includes federal crop insurance subsidies for annual crops like corn and soybeans, which incentivize farmers to stay on the corn and bean “conveyor belt”.
And in the age of climate change, that protection is more and more expensive. Over the past 25 years, federal crop insurance payouts to farmers who have lost crops due to drought and flooding have more than tripled. And in 2020 alone, federal insurance subsidies for extreme weather events exceeded $4 billion.
Secchi says we need radical reform so that Kernza can compete with annuals. But grants are a starting point. “If you have crop insurance subsidies for maize and beans,” she said, “you should have them for Kernza.”
But Carmen Fernholz is not waiting for politics to catch up. For him, Kernza is exciting not only because it’s better for the land, but also because he hopes it can give more farmers a viable entry point to grain farming. In recent years, he has passed the reins of A-Frame Farm to a young organic farmer who shares his commitment to soil health and rural communities.
“To start seeing the next generation engage in it?” He shakes his head. “There is nothing more rewarding. Not at all.”
Follow Rachel on Twitter @rachelayang
This story comes from the new podcast hot farm of the Food and Environment Reporting Network.
This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues. Follow Harvest on Twitter: @HarvestPM
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