Hot Farm
Part 3. Grain of the Future

In this episode, we consider what farmers grow—and whether that, too, can change. Producer Rachel Yang introduces us to Don Wyse, who leads a research program at the University of Minnesota that is developing 16 new or improved crops designed to thrive in a world with an unpredictable climate. Yang drills down into one of those crops, a grain called Kernza, a type of wheatgrass. Unlike corn and wheat, which are annual crops whose roots are in the ground only a short time, Kernza is a perennial. You plant it, harvest it, and next year it grows back. So Kernza develops super dense roots that can reach 10 feet into the earth, requiring less water, locking a lot of carbon into the soil, and slurping up twice as much fertilizer as annual wheat, thereby preventing runoff and nitrogen pollution. It is a climate-mitigating super plant. But for perennials like Kernza to replace annual grains, they need to be profitable for farmers to grow. Which means there needs to be a market for those grains. As Yang explains, the Land Institute in Kansas, mission control for Kernza development, received a $10 million grant from the USDA in 2020 to start scaling up Kernza from specialty crop to staple grain. That money has people building out a supply chain by experimenting with Kernza: farmers farming it, millers milling it, and bakers baking it for eaters to eat. Everyone along this supply chain is trying to figure out how to deal with the challenges of this new grain.

Show Notes

Main Characters

  • Don Wyse — Professor of Agronomy and Plant Genetics & Director of the Forever Green Initiative at the University of Minnesota. Don leads the University’s studies on crops that provide “continuous living cover.” He says these crops do three important things: They’re good for the earth, they can survive in a changing climate, and farmers can make money growing them.
  • Carmen Fernholz — Owner of A-Frame Farm in Madison, MN. Carmen is a leader in organic agriculture in Minnesota; he’s been farming organically since 1972. His 500-acre farm aims to be a model for farmers seeking practices that sustain healthier soil ecosystems. He started farming Kernza in 2011.
  • Carmen Fernholz Links: 

Perennial Pantry Links:

Perennial Pantry – YouTube 

Start-up company Perennial Pantry launches crowdfunding campaign inviting home cooks and bakers to test KernzaⓇ perennial grain and flour in their kitchens 

You also hear from…

  • Thor Oechsner — Owner of Oechsner Farms in Newfield, New York. Thor is an organic grain farmer; we hear him at the top of the episode, when he introduces Eve to the idea of this new grain: Kernza.
  • Lee DeHaan — Director of Crop Improvement/Lead Scientist, Kernza® Domestication Program at the Land Institute in Salina, KS. Lee is the world’s leading scientist in Kernza development. He’s also, in the words of Carmen Fernholz, “a Minnesota boy.”
  • Tim Crews — Chief Scientist; Director of New Roots International Initiative and Ecological Intensification at the Land Institute in Salina, KS. 
  • Silvia Secchi — Professor in the Geographical & Sustainability Sciences Department at the University of Iowa. Silvia studies water quality and agriculture in the Mississippi River Basin. She also hosts a podcast called We All Want Clean H2O.
  • Tessa Peters — Director of Crop Stewardship at the Land Institute in Salina, KS. Tessa does the work to shepherd Kernza from field to fork. She works with people all along the supply chain.

Resources I used or referenced directly:

Read a transcript of Hot Farm episode three.

Further reading:

  • Magic Bean: The Rise of Soy in America by Matthew Roth (2018, University of Kansas Press)
  • The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World by Charles C. Mann (2018, Penguin Random House)
  • Our Changing Menu: Climate Change and the Foods We Love and Need by Michael P. Hoffmann, Carrie Koplinka-Loehr, and Danielle L. Eiseman (2021, Cornell University Press)
  • Healing Grounds: Climate, Justice, and the Deep Roots of Regenerative Farming by Liz Carlisle (2022, University of British Columbia Press)
  • The Perennial Kitchen: Simple Recipes for a Healthy Future by Beth Dooley (2021, University of Minnesota Press)

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