Anne Schwagerl, her husband and his parents farm rye, oats and barley on 780 acres near Browns Valley in western Minnesota. This year they'll harvest a new crop for the first time: Kernza.
"We're in what I believe is a moderate drought, and all three of those early-season crops are way ahead of schedule — turning brown now, ripening now. We'll be harvesting rye by the end of the week," Schwagerl said. "The Kernza on the other hand is still growing. It's still green."
Schwagerl is among a small group of organic farmers who gathered Thursday in Madison, Minn., to officially incorporate the Perennial Promise Growers Cooperative. They say it's the first-ever co-op for growers of Kernza, a perennial wheat with deep roots that research has shown can help protect water supplies from nitrates, store more carbon in the soil and reduce soil erosion.
Products made with Kernza aren't widely distributed yet. But the farmers behind the new co-op aim to cultivate new customers and share information about the most effective ways to plant and cultivate, harvest, store and sell Kernza.
"The farmer who wants to grow this won't have time to focus on finding and developing markets," said Carmen Fernholz, a longtime organic farmer who helped organize the co-op and hosted Thursday's event at his Madison farm. "We said, let's put our growers together, pull together usable amounts of our crop, and find someone to market it for us."
The co-op will hire a full-time marketing agent, Fernholz said. Brewers and distillers, bakeries, restaurants and school districts around the state have started showing interest, he said.
Beer brewed from Kernza "has a really unique flavor," Fernholz said.
In 2019, the General Mills organic food brand Cascadian Farm had to vastly scale back plans for a Kernza-based cereal due to insufficient supply of the grain. But the company has continued to support research efforts, and planners of the co-op event on Thursday said a General Mills representative would be on hand.
General Mills told the Star Tribune on Thursday that Cascadian Farm would launch a new, limited-time-only Kernza cereal at Whole Foods this fall.
Organizers expect 50 to 100 growers to sign up initially for co-op membership, likely comprising most to all of the farmers who have decided to try Kernza. The group has been working with the the Forever Green Initiative, a collaboration between the University of Minnesota and the USDA that's researching crops and methods meant to make environmentally beneficial practices more economically viable for farmers.
Right now, a little over 1,000 acres in Minnesota have been planted with Kernza, according to Colin Cureton with Forever Green. That's up from 100 acres just two years ago, and Cureton thinks it's feasible that number could double in the next few years. Interest is growing in other states and nationally, he said.
Ben Penner, who raises crops on rented land in Scott and Le Sueur counties, planted 34 acres of Kernza on a farm near Belle Plaine last September. He plans to harvest 20 of those acres within the next month, and he expects they will yield 500 pounds per acre. He's motivated by the environmental benefits but said he got involved with the co-op efforts because he wants to prove to fellow farmers there's a customer base to be had.
"I am convinced that farmers can and will grow it as the market develops," he said.
Fernholz was certified as an organic farmer in 1975, decades ahead of widespread consumer interest in organic products. He started planting Kernza in 2011, and in August 2019 he said he turned 800 pounds per acre from a batch planted the previous September.
That's a fraction of the yield from more traditional crops, and "we know we'll probably never get the same yield we do with [traditional] wheat," Fernholz said. "But the big benefit is the perennial nature. It's less work and less resources, and if we can generate revenue that's competitive, all the better."