There’s no crying over spilled milk, but nobody ever said anything about lost cereal.
Cascadian Farm, an organic foods brand of General Mills Inc., in the midst of developing a new cereal around a grain called Kernza, last fall hit a risk known by many farmers: crop failure. The company scaled back a plan for a product rollout.
“Many tears were shed in my office,” said Maria Carolina Comings, marketing director for Cascadian Farm. “It’s a crazy ambitious goal to try and commercialize this.”
Kernza is an intermediate wheatgrass with ancient origins that many believe holds huge potential for environmental and economic benefits. Kernza is a perennial with a massive root system that stays in the ground year-round. Wheat, its cousin, is an annual with smaller roots.
Early research, including some conducted by the University of Minnesota, suggests Kernza can reduce soil erosion, hold in more carbon and minimize nitrogen inputs and groundwater seepage.
The small harvest General Mills salvaged from its 2018 Kernza crop has been milled and turned into 6,000 boxes of Honey Toasted Kernza Cereal.
The company announced Wednesday that it will offer the limited run to consumers who make a donation of at least $25 to the Land Institute’s Kernza project.
The Land Institute, a nonprofit agricultural research organization, has been breeding the wild wheatgrass for 15 years, resulting in the domesticated variety called Kernza, a word it trademarked. The problem is no one has figured out how to grow it on a large scale.
In 2017, General Mills became one of the nation’s first companies to throw support and resources — including a $500,000 grant to the U’s Kernza project — behind the research and field tests of the perennial wheat in hopes it could use the grain in its cereal products.
This year was supposed to be the start of a Kernza-based cereal that would be sold at natural-food stores. When weather and mistimed planting and harvesting decisions sabotaged the season’s output, marketers at Cascadian Farm decided to turn what little grain they did have into a fundraising campaign, called Deeply Rooted For Good, for the Land Institute’s research.
“What we are doing is going back and re-imagining, ‘What if our ancestors had commercialized perennials rather than annuals?’ ” said Fred Iutzi, president of the Land Institute. “Before we had a wild grain and a dream of a perennial grain crop. Now we have a perennial grain crop.”
It’s taken years to get Kernza ready for commercialization, he said, which is a “huge achievement.” But, in many ways, it has come to a crossroad.
“The decisions we make in 2019 will add or subtract decades to that process,” Iutzi said. “At this point, the research needs to scale up.”
The Kernza yield is smaller than annual wheat, meaning farmers harvest less per acre. In 2018, the yield was even smaller than a typical Kernza harvest.
The University of Minnesota research, supported through the Forever Green Initiative that focuses on building a more resilient food system, is looking at Kernza from all sides, like agronomic, environmental and economic — like a commercial supply chain.
“The major question now: How can you optimize the yield and [positive] environmental impacts?” said Jake Jungers, a researcher and assistant professor of agronomy and plant genetics at the U.
They have learned there’s a very low probability of success if the seed is planted too late in the fall. Ideally, the Kernza seed, which does best in the Upper Midwest, needs to be in the ground by Sept. 1 for the root to have a enough time to establish before winter.
Right now, Jungers said, their breeding priority is bigger seeds and more of them per plant.
“In Minnesota, specifically, we are really excited for the possibility of growing these in the protection areas to prevent nitrate from leaking into water sources,” he said. “We’ve done the basic science to show there’s less nitrate leaving Kernza then typical [annual] crops.”
The economic benefits for the farmer, he said, will be less time tilling and planting a field because the plant comes back every year on its own.
About 1,250 acres are growing Kernza this year.
Other companies offering commercial markets for Kernza include Patagonia Provisions, the food unit of the outdoor-clothing company, and St. Paul’s Bang Brewing, which have both made beer using the grain.
Wheat is most commonly known as the base of breads and cereals. A few small bakeries and restaurants around the U.S., including the Birchwood Cafe in Minneapolis, are using Kernza in foods.
The 6,000 boxes of Honey Toasted Kernza Cereal that will be sent to contributors won’t show up on Cascadian Farm’s profit-and-loss statement for the year, Comings said. But for the brand’s employees, this effort feels like something that reflects the experimental vision of the company’s founder, Gene Kahn.
“If you think about what organic used to be, it used to be knockoffs of your favorite products,” Comings said. “The mission [of Cascadian Farm] was to change the way we grow food, and Kernza fits into that so beautifully.”