Every fall the Land Institute draws a diverse crowd from near and far to see the perennial
cropping research under way at the privately funded research farm founded on the banks
of the Smoky Hill River near Salina, Kansas.

Every fall the Land Institute draws a diverse crowd from near and far to see the perennial
cropping research under way at the privately funded research farm founded on the banks
of the Smoky Hill River near Salina, Kansas.

The enterprise was set in motion more than four decades ago when founder Wes
Jackson, a disgruntled California State University plant geneticist, decided to move home
to central Kansas and start independently researching a more ecological and socially
minded model of agriculture. Since then, the institute has cultivated a worldwide
following for its work to develop mixed perennial cropping systems, champion reduced
dependence on petroleum-based inputs and restore a shared land ethic in the tradition of
eloquent conservationists like Aldo Leopold and Wendell Berry.

In recent months, the institute captured headlines for its progress commercializing
perennial wheat — technically, in this case, an intermediate wheatgrass — produced
under an identity-preserved system and trademarked with the name Kernza.
Agronomists at the institute are also working to perennialize other common crops,
including sorghum and sunflowers.

During a field tour in late September, held in conjunction with the annual Prairie
Festival, visitors had a chance to view several crop prototypes along with at least one
mixed planting, which represents the institute’s ultimate goal of creating productive,
sustainable perennial polycultures.

Most of the tour stops included deep soil trenching to reveal complex root systems
located underground. At the sorghum stop, research coordinator Stan Cox showed off the
longer, deeper roots and enhanced rhizomic activity of towering perennial sorghum
planted side by side with shorter annual hybrids. Researchers at the institute are crossing
sorghum with Johnsongrass to add perennial attributes.
 Some of the plants within the plot had already survived for multiple years and sported
bright clusters of rhizome nodules around the roots, indicating enhanced reproductive

Next up, visitors walked through a stand of sunflowers that are being selected for
longevity and natural resistance to pests.

The tour culminated at a field arrayed with strategically spaced clumps of Kernza
grain, which is already being grown in limited quantities for use in bread and beer. The
high protein, high fiber grain has a small germ and large hull, which makes it challenging to process.

Lead researcher Lee DeHaan explained that the goal of his breeding project is
to select for hull-less seeds with larger germ content and higher yield potential.
Currently, the hulled seeds undergo the same process used on rice or teff, a seed-
producing grass that originated in Ethiopia, he said.

The institute’s vision for the future is ultimately one of multi-purpose crops thriving
in mixed polycultures. One promising mixed planting — alfalfa interseeded with Kernza
wheatgrass — was featured during the tour.

Scientist Brandon Schlautman explained that the two crops share a relationship that is
mutually beneficial rather than competitive.

Both crops are also quite versatile. Grazing wheatgrass prior to harvest doesn’t appear
to diminish grain yields later on, he noted. Meanwhile, the alfalfa fixes nitrogen in the
soil while contributing human food (in the form of sprouts) or fodder (hay or grazing.)
“Potentially, you could get a cutting from it in the spring, let it flower after that and
go to seed, harvest the seed to sell, and then graze it through the winter,” he described.
The market for the wheatgrass component looks promising if early demand is any

The story of how Kernza is revolutionizing agriculture through sustainable production
methods has drawn interest from customers that range in size from independent
restaurants to cereal giant General Mills.

“I’m happy to say demand does outweigh production at this point,” said Brianna
Fiene, a market manager with Plovgh (pronounced PLOW) a marketing company in the
upper Midwest hired by the Land Institute to recruit farmer growers and handle
distribution to buyers.

Patagonia Provisions, an offshoot of the company best known for its outdoor apparel,
was one of the first to begin experimenting with the trademarked grain. Their initial
launch product was a craft beer, called Long Root Ale, and food oil is another possibility
they are exploring, according to sales manager James Farag.

The company is in the process of setting up its own supply chain of farmers, he said.
Jack Erisman, an organic grain farmer from Pana, Illinois, planted nine acres to the
perennial grain in 2011.

Organic farmers are often criticized for using tillage to control weeds, because
disturbing the soil releases carbon and increases erosion. Erisman said he planted the
wheatgrass in hopes of dramatically reducing his tillage requirements.
 Over time, however, the roots have become so compacted and the ground so tight that
the stand will likely need replanting.

“We think it’s becoming root bound,” he said.

Though Erisman said he had yet to make a single dime from selling the crop for
grain, he was pleased by the salvage value he had captured from it.
“It makes excellent forage,” he said.