Lawmakers push funding boost for U of M research on alternative crops

A field of Kernza, a perennial wheatgrass, in November 2016. (Elizabeth Dunbar | MPR News file 2016)

A group of state lawmakers wants to give a University of Minnesota research program dedicated to developing alternatives to corn and soybeans an additional $5 million a year.

The Forever Green program has been developing a dozen crop varieties, including Kernza and pennycress, that researchers hope could be deployed on Minnesota's farm fields as more environmentally-friendly alternatives to corn and soybeans.

While some Minnesota farmers have been growing Kernza, the perennial wheatgrass has a long way to go before it competes with the likes of regular wheat, corn and soybeans. Yet its ability to help improve soil health and water quality is unmatched by the crops that currently dominate Minnesota’s landscape, professor Don Wyse, Forever Green’s lead scientist, said last week at the Capitol.

Don Wyse, UMN professor
Don Wyse, a professor in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics, stands in a field of a perennial wheatgrass called Kernza, on Nov. 5, 2016. Wyse is the lead scientist for the Forever Green Initiative, a university program developing new perennial crops that could replace annual row crops in some places. “What we’re trying to do is produce a set of crops that produce high levels of grain and forage but also produce a high level of ecosystem services,” he said. Those services include storing more carbon in the soil and helping retain water. Kernza was developed by The Land Institute in Kansas and has been getting a lot of buzz in sustainable agriculture circles as a possible alternative. General Mills is one of the companies invested in the research of Kernza.

Unlike annuals that dry up and wither away, perennials continue to build up their root systems year after year. They cover the landscape, helping keep soil and nutrients in place. In contrast, corn and soybeans have only a limited ability to prevent soil erosion after the harvest and before spring planting.

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The challenge for crops like Kernza and pennycress is creating markets for them — and then scaling up production.

"We’re getting to the point where they’re starting to move into the commercial realm," Wyse said. Companies including General Mills and Pepsico have invested in them, and that’s important, he said, because it gives farmers a reason to grow them.

The state has been investing $1 million to $2 million a year in Forever Green for the past several years. But the university’s research into alternative crops goes back even earlier. Carmen Fernholz, a farmer from Madison, Minn., said he’s been experimenting with Kernza ever since Wyse gave him some seeds to plant 10 years ago. Fernholz said his crop has since grown to 15 acres.

"That Kernza field right now is sitting under 2 feet of snow. But I know full well in the spring, when that snow melts, the soil isn’t going to run away," he said.

The bill has bipartisan support and is supported by the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, the coalition that represents environmental groups at the Capitol. It received its first hearing last week before the House Agriculture and Food Finance and Policy Division.

"Now is the time to invest in the research necessary to redefine the future for agriculture," said the bill’s author, Rep. Jeff Brand, DFL-St. Peter. "Our choice now is to ramp up and invest in the work or risk seeing the leadership of these systems develop elsewhere."