In Agriculture, a Perennial Problem with Grains

Lambert here: Substitution is not as easy as we might think.

By Ula Chrobak, a freelance science writer based in Nevada. Originally published at Undark.

In early April, a storm swept central Montana’s plains with 70-mile-per-hour winds. The gusts clawed at wheat fields, sending soil flying. Erik Engellant, who farms 6,000 acres of mostly wheat in the region, went out to his fields of Kernza, a tall and deep-rooted grain-bearing grass. While dust billowed from other nearby fields, he recalls, the Kernza just swayed in the gale. “It was like nothing was happening,” he said. “There was just so much ground cover that the land was completely protected.”

Kernza is a perennial grain, which means it grows over multiple years from the same root system. Most of the world’s calories today come from annual grains, which are seeded and harvested every year. While annuals produce vast amounts of food and livestock feed, they also fuel environmental concerns: Tilling soil each year leads to soil erosion and the loss of stored carbon, while the fertilizer applied to fields leaches into water bodies, threatening drinking water and ecosystems, and can also escape into the atmosphere as nitrous oxide gas, the third most important contributor to climate change.

Some researchers think that replacing waves of annual grains with Kernza could be an antidote to intensive agriculture. To prevent soil erosion and nitrogen loss, “it’s important to have roots growing all year,” said Priscila Pinto, an agricultural engineer studying Kernza at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Kernza advocates envision a sort of restoration of the prairie in the Midwest. Native prairie grasses also grow extensive roots that build soil carbon and water holding capacity and support a biodiverse grassland community aboveground. “It’s hard to imagine anything better than a plant that would do all the perennial stuff we want it to do, like the prairie did, and we could eat it],” said Lee DeHaan, lead scientist in the Kernza domestication program at the Land Institute, a sustainable agriculture-focused nonprofit.

Recently, federal funding has accelerated Kernza research and breeding programs, and some scientists say if large companies replace just a portion of their annual grain acreage with Kernza, it could make a substantial environmental impact. Consumers can already buy Kernza-containing cereal, pasta, pancake mix, and flour — often in boxes touting the grain’s climate-friendly and pollution-fighting properties. In 2022, the outdoor clothing and gear company Patagonia announced a new beer — made in partnership with Dogfish Head brewery — that would feature the earthy-tasting grain.

But whether Kernza’s potential can be realized on a meaningful scale hinges on one measure of agricultural productivity — yield per area — and some skeptics say that it’s time to stop counting on the perennial. In a recent review of published yield data, agronomists expressed doubt that Kernza can reach yields high enough to replace wheat without requiring more land to grow food. Following an initial surge in academic interest nearly two decades ago, “there’s no evidence at all that there’s been any progress,” said Kenneth Cassman, an agronomist with the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. He later added, “we have to have solutions to climate change ready to go in 10 to 20 years — we can’t wait.”

Kernza development has been in the works for about 40 years. The Rodale Institute, a nonprofit supporting organic farming, picked intermediate wheatgrass, Thinopyrumn intermedium, in the 1980s from a pool of almost 100 perennial grasses after deeming it to have the best traits for a future as a cereal crop, such as growing relatively fast and producing large seeds. In 2003, the Land Institute took up breeding efforts for the perennial grain. After several cycles of breeding, the MN-Clearwater variety became available as a cereal crop in 2019 to farmers under the Kernza trade name. The trademark is intended to protect its reputation, said Jacob Jungers, an agronomist studying Kernza at the University of Minnesota. That way, he said, a farmer can’t market a grain as Kernza unless its seed comes from the official breeding programs. 

Today, nearly 4,000 acres of Kernza are grown commercially by 36 active growers according to the Land Institute. Minnesota holds the largest acreage, followed by Kansas and Montana. In 2021, the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service extended its support services to farmers planting Kernza in order to improve soil health. The increased interest and acreage has been buoyed by a $10 million USDA grant toward a research project with 10 university partners as well as 24 non-profits, farms, and food organizations. The collaboration is focused on breeding, growing, marketing, supply chain, and food science research (that’s the maximum amount given for sustainable agriculture grants). Nicole Tautges, an agroecologist with the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute who is on the agronomy and on-farm knowledge team for the project, said the team hopes to increase acreage by 10 times over the next couple years.

To bring Kernza into greater production, researchers across five Kernza breeding centers are hoping to make progress on measures of yield. According to the Land Institute, Kernza grown today averages 409 pounds of grain per acre, an improvement from early generations producing 100 to 200 pounds per acre. But today’s yields are still less than a quarter of comparable wheat yields. 

Breeders say they are making consistent progress, though. To demonstrate increases in yield, DeHaan sent Undark two papers: a chapter he wrote for a 2013 FAO report and a 2020 report prepared for the Cereal & Grains Association (both non-peer reviewed publications). The former reported that in two generations of selective breeding, Kernza seed yield had grown 77 percent. At this rate, Kernza could match annual wheat yields in Kansas after 12 more generations, the team stated. The other report included a figure showing grain yield increasing 144 percent over five cycles, with the last generation having yields above 400 pounds per acre.

But Cassman was not impressed, calling some of the data “misleading.” For example, he wrote in an email to Undark that the authors compared rain-fed annual wheat yields to irrigated Kernza yields, noting that this comparison is “quite a ‘slight of hand.’” Cassman said the rates of improvement depend heavily on initial yield data. Nearly all of the 77 percent increase came from the first year of improvement, which started with a “very, very low” yield of 350 pounds per acre, he added, so claiming a steady increase is misleading. 

In Cassman’s review of peer-reviewed yield data on Kernza and other perennial grains, he found six studies published since 2005 that “provide sufficient detail about plot size and harvest methods to determine if reported yields are reasonably representative of production-scale crop stands.” In the paper, he presented data on first, second, and third year Kernza yields along comparable wheat yields — and the best yield was only 24 percent of a comparable wheat yield. The yields also tended to decline in the third year.

Cassman and his coauthor, David Connor of the University of Melbourne, concluded that they saw “little evidence that yield of Intermediate Wheatgrass or perennial wheats have improved to the point they are viable alternatives.” (DeHaan declined to comment directly on the review because, at the time, he was working on a rebuttal article.)

This is a blow for Kernza as a more sustainable crop, Cassman said, because yields must be close to annual wheat to avoid having to convert more natural land into agriculture. Compared to annual wheat, “​​if yields are only 20 percent, and you’re proposing it as a substantial solution to annual grain production, it means you need 80 percent more crop area,” he said. “And, of course, that’s not even a feasible proposition today with limited land and water resources.”

While Cassman isn’t against “Kernza as a niche crop for high-end health food markets,” he added, he doesn’t think it could be a large-scale solution to environmental problems in agriculture. 

Some experts also think that perennial grains in general are unlikely to reach the yields of annuals — even with improved breeding. Annual grains grow like weeds to “live fast, die young,” said Chris Smaje, the owner of a small farm in Somerset, England and author of a 2015 review on the trade-offs of perennial agriculture. These crops devote much energy from the sun into forming seeds for the next generation (and thus ensuring harvests for humans), but perennials invest more in roots and shoots with less attention to maximizing annual seed production, said Smaje.

Still, Kernza breeders say they are making consistent progress. The early decades of breeding were stymied by limited funds, said DeHaan. After breeding began in greater earnest in 2003, he added, new generations have improved in yield per area, shatter resistance (not dropping seeds on the ground prior to harvest), free-threshing seeds (making them easier to remove from the hull), and seed size. 

New breeding technologies, such as genomic selection, are shortening the time between Kernza generations and allowing researchers to rapidly improve traits like yield, said Jungers. DeHaan said he’s been able to shorten the breeding cycle from five years down to one year — and wants to speed it up even more. If Kernza is indeed increasing its yields with every breeding cycle, that means it can now make faster progress than before. “My extrapolation is that we could reach the current yield of wheat in Kansas within about another 17 years of breeding,” said DeHaan.

Yields have increased in the Land Institute’s breeding program over time and their scientists are optimistic that this trend will continue to improve with the right resources. “We’re not saying everyone needs to switch over to Kernza now, but to not invest in it as one of the important tools in our toolkit for improving agricultural sustainability seems unthinkable at this point,” said Tautges.

Critiques that point out the lack of peer-reviewed data are valid, she said, but Kernza breeding programs are small and researchers have limited resources to dedicate to publishing papers on yields. And while Kernza yields decline after three years, Tautges said the crop can still be profitable for both harvesting and as livestock forage. Even if farmers replant Kernza after three years, Jungers said that’s enough time to improve the soil and water quality.

Even so, Cassman said, current yields are still far too low to replace wheat. A 2010 economic analysis conducted by Australian researchers found that perennial grain yields must be around 40 to 65 percent of annuals to be profitable.

Back in Montana, Engellent said his Kernza yields, grown organically, have thus far yielded about 350 pounds per acre (though he’s added that he’s hopeful a more recent batch of seed will do better). Organic annual spring wheat yields in the area are around 1,500 pounds per acre, but Engellent said it’s better to compare the two crops on a longer timescale because annual wheat is rarely planted in back-to-back years; farmers rotate annual crops to maintain soil fertility, whereas Kernza can be harvested every year. Even so, since he can sell the grain at a premium — primarily to Patagonia — and make additional money through baling it for hay, he said he’s made a profit on his 260 Kernza acres. 

But Engellent said Kernza still won’t replace annuals at a large scale without a boost to yields. To break out of the niche market, the perennial grain needs to be competitive with annual crop yields, he said. “I certainly hope that it can become more mainstream, because it is a great tool for not only just taking care of but helping improve the land.”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
This entry was posted in Commodities, Environment, Global warming on by .

About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Chas

    As a perennial, Kernza faces a big problem right out of the gate. Seed corporations won’t be able to sell new Kernza seed every year. I’m surprised Big Ag is allowing land grant universities to conduct research into this perennial grass/grain. And it sounds like Kernza isn’t “Roundup ready.” How will Monsanto make a profit from Kernza? Otherwise, Kernza sounds like it would be much better for Mother Earth and her inhabitants than corn, soybeans and wheat. Lately, I’ve been thinking oats would be a good crop to bring back. Oats are hardy and don’t require as much fertilization as other grains. Before about 1960 oats were grown on many small farms to feed work horses.

    1. Polar Socialist

      They will license it, duh!

      I somewhat recently read about slash and burn grain crops, how the yield could be ten times bigger than with field crops. Ever since I’ve wondered if it would be possible to modernize the technique to not require so much land or so long recovery time.

      Of course, it even if it was possible, it likely wouldn’t be suitable for cash cro, so in our current world it would be a dead end.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        There is a concept called ” open source seeds”. And there is a group of small-to-tiny seed companies devoted to advancing and living out the concept, called Open Source Seed Initiative.

        In theory, nothing could stop one or more of these companies or people adjacent to these companies from doing breeding work, including kernza breeding work in cooperation with the Land Institute, to develop and release very good OSSI anti-licensed license-proof kernza varieties. If a customer base existed to make a point of buying Zero License OSSI kernza, then some growers could make a living growing and selling Zero License OSSI kernza to that customer base.

    2. Rick Shapiro

      How are no-till crops protected against invasion by weeds. Don’t they require herbicides? That said, the crop could be an insurance policy for dryland areas that are subject to periodic droughts. Not to use them is equivalent to managers earning bonuses by instituting just-in-time with complex supply chains.

      1. Amfortas the hippie

        it depends, re: weeds.
        ive never seen kernza in the flesh, but from pics, etc, it appears to resemble a clump grass…like big bluestem or wilman love.
        if so, and if planted closely, it would choke out a lot of the competition.
        decades ago, i snagged by hand buckets of wilman love seed from neighbors pasture, and planted it for erosion control and soil building(20′ roots, very drought tolerant and moderately palatable to sheep, etc)
        worked wonders where mom wasn’t able to have it mown(i strung barbed wire through my part of the place, so tractor guy wouldnt come near it)
        eventually gives way to other grasses ive planted(succession)
        …and if you must replant every 3 years, weeds would be even more manageable.

        ive wanted to try up to a half acre of Kernza for a long time, but i don’t qualify…last i looked.

        however, in my 1/2 acre of raised beds, ive tried a lot of grains as cover crops…ad hoc and chaotically, so far.
        millet works well in late summer, into fall…chokes out weeds, and produces lots of biomass.
        buckwheat grows well in the heat, too..but doesn’t have enough gluten for anything but pancakes, hoecakes and in cornbread.(i mix it with mesquite flour for all 3)
        winter wheat(from that same neighbor) for after that…naturally aleleopathic(prevents germination), so the biomass must be either killed and rotted early, or moved if you want to direct seed in early spring(like radishes, carrots & salad stuff, etc)
        i add vetch throughout this rotation..also edible(see:Romans)…and the flowers are pretty…tons of biomass, extra choking action on competition

      2. drumlin woodchuckles

        They don’t require herbicides IF the cover-crop is roller-crimper smashdowned at the pest point in its growth cycle and then the cash crop is planted right through the soil-covering weed-smothering layer of roll-flattened smashdowned cover crop biomass with special narrow slit opening cutter-planter technologies.

        That is what Gabe Brown uses on his farm to do no-till without any herbicides. And apparently enough other farmers are beginning to use roller-crimper smashdown no-till that whole companies are staying in business by selling roller-crimpers to production farmers.

        Here is a bunch of images of roller-crimpers.;_ylt=AwrNYPi5YdRiJ7ojY7BXNyoA;_ylu=Y29sbwNiZjEEcG9zAzEEdnRpZANMT0NVSTA0NV8xBHNlYwNzYw–?p=roller+crimper+image&fr=sfp

        The Rodale Institute, who may have invented the Roller Crimper ( I am not sure about that) has been kind enough to put on line a whole bunch of charts and pictures and diagrams of the whole Roller Crimper tool-assembly for people who want to try making their own roller-crimper.

        (Rodale Institute has already also published two books written by its resident roller-crimper no-till inventor-developer, but if I include the links I will probably choke this comment into moderation. Surely these books can be found out about on line by those who are interested . . . )

        And from a different angle of approach, Mark Shepard is making smaller-acreage no-herbicide silviculture-cash cropping pay and helping other people to adopt it on other smaller acreages.

        Gary Zimmer has a thousand-acre operation which is certified organic and he controls weeds with zero herbicides with among other things ” optiminimum tillage” because he doesn’t believe in no-till at the level of faith and belief. He is also spreading his knowledge to others.

        It looks like a lot of farmers are deciding that the Land Institute’s concept of perennial grain crops has a bright future and always will. And they are tired of waiting around.

    3. barefoot charley

      I recently spent hours in a combine criss-crossing a quarter-section with my cousin in western Kansas, harvesting ‘regenerative agriculture’ triticale. He operates 5000 acres and represents no-till restorative practices across the continent. The land-grant universities are dead set against such nonsense, both because their research is largely funded by seed companies, and also because they’ve barely learned about organic ag (which like conventional ag requires huge annual inputs of ‘organic’ fertilizer, with plowing that wrecks soil ecosystems), and we’ll have to expect those ag departments to advance, like science itself, one death at a time.

      About Roundup, the restorative movement doesn’t fetishize organic purity but rather nitrogen and carbon fixing, so glyphosate has its role in knocking back weeds in early phases of building up soils with rotating crops. (He insists it breaks down quickly, so there.)

      Soil is what’s really being restored, the natural fertility of the soil biome, so that less and less need be added for good yields. My cousin’s hardest argument is that reduced fertilizer expense can compensate for smaller yields. (Because in the farm belt, yield doesn’t mean tons per acre, it’s dollars per acre.) That’s far from proven, and of course no corporation will pay for such blasphemous research, the dead zones caused by over-fertilization be damned. (Those ghastly growing dead zones in the Mississippi valley and the Gulf of Mexico represent growing corporate profits every quarter, after all.)

      It was great to have such meaningful conversation in the middle of flyover, with a guy in a (restorative agriculture) crop hat.

      1. Tom Pfotzer

        Barefoot: Tks for the report!

        Got a question: what are you using for fertilizer? If you’re harvesting crops and selling them off-farm, you’re exporting nutrients, and those nutrients need to be replenished from somewhere.

        How are you guys doing that? Do you have any stories to share about changes in fertilizer quantity and type as you move from conventional to restorative?

        And how are you guys managing weeds? Round-up, or mechanical till, or what?

      2. rjs

        unless it’s a misprint, this struck me as evidence Kernza isn’t going anywhere:

        Today, nearly 4,000 acres of Kernza are grown commercially by 36 active growers according to the Land Institute.

        4000 acres is almost nothing in US ag…as you see in barefoot charley’s note above, his cousin alone operates 5000 acres…if Kernza showed any promise, there’d be a lot more penetration than a few experimental plots

      3. drumlin woodchuckles

        About fetishizing organic purity, I fetishize an absence of toxic chemical residue in my food. I can’t totally achieve it but I pursue it. So I buy food from growers who fetishize organic purity when I can in order to get food with least possible contaminants in it.

        I fetishize an absence of Roundup and any other brand of glyphosate in my food, and I pay a higher food price in order to feed my fetish. If my fetish remains a minority niche fetish, then Roundup-users can disregard my fetish. If my fetish becomes a majority fetish, then it isn’t just my fetish anymore, and Roundup-users may pay a loss-of-market-share price for their Roundup fetish. Your cousin can say that glyphosate breaks down in his soil. Others say different.
        I maintain my precautionary principle fetish on the matter.

  2. ambrit

    Great Googly Moogly, Lambert pulls off a Tom Stoppard with that headline.
    Kernza might not “make the grade” as a commercial grain crop, but it does raise the question of what other usable and more eco-friendly food crops are hiding in some remote fastness.
    As an ‘is it also possible’ question is, why not back breed presently used grain crops to perennial grains?
    Secondly, considering the coming crisis in groundwater supplies, (used for irrigation purposes,) the fact that Kernza requires irrigation is a significant negative factor. Dry farming varieties should be a prime concern for breeders and gene splicers. Perennials, with their soil saving root systems would be a “natural” for this.
    In the back of my mind is the nagging question; hasn’t this problem already been addressed by the ongoing Jackpot Program? If I were a sociopathic Neoliberal, (an oxymoron?) if there is a shortage of food available, then the obvious solution is to decrease the demand for food. We all know how that is done.

    1. John Zelnicker

      ambrit – “sociopathic Neoliberal” isn’t an oxymoron, its redundant. ;-)

      Hope all is well up there. Be safe.

    2. drumlin woodchuckles

      I believe that back-breeding annual grain crops to perennial most-similar species is what The Land Institute has been doing for the last few decades. Imagine if corn could be back-bred to perennial teosinte for perennial cornteosinte. But it may not be possible, given the extreme difference in reproductive strategy between annuals and non-woody perennials.

  3. Bruce F

    I’m an organic row crop farmer, 300 acres, in NW WI. In about a month, for the first time, I’ll drill (plant) 24 acres to Kernza. For me this crop offers some interesting possibilities, but as the article states, there are a lot of obstacles. That said I think its important to try as many different things as possible, as what is going on right now isn’t working.
    I’m a member of a small group of Kernza growers who have started a co-op to sell what we produce, collectively –
    Thanks for putting this story on Naked Capitalism!

    1. Tom Pfotzer


      Thanks for being one of the people that Try New Things. Innovation is hard, expensive, often disappointing, and the folks that take it on, IMHO, are way cool people.

      I note that you’ve formed a sales co-op – another smart technique for managing risk and sharing startup burdens.

      Sure do hope you’re successful, Bruce.

      ==== Separately…

      I’ve been aware of the Land Institute’s programs for a few decades, and have always been impressed with them. I think they are a highly worthwhile organization. If they don’t have enough resources to conduct peer-reviewed research, then they need more resources, _not_ more criticism. Don’t throw your heroes a boat anchor.

      And to Mr. Cassman’s remarks, quoted here:

      “there’s no evidence at all that there’s been any progress,” said Kenneth Cassman, an agronomist with the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. He later added, “we have to have solutions to climate change ready to go in 10 to 20 years — we can’t wait.”

      I agree: we need solutions now, and kernza may be a “later” solution. Kernza may ultimately be a great addition to the toolbox, and its development process is certainly a good learning / doing environment that ought to get rewarded and resourced. If Mr. Cassman doesn’t agree that Land Institute’s operational processes are worthwhile, I’d like to hear his assessment.

      In addition, I’d like – and I mean this in the most positive and supporting manner – I’d like to hear Mr. Cassman detail some faster better tracks we could also apply resources to.

      It’s about resource allocation, folks. Allocation: where do you apply society’s resources for maximum impact.

      Co-op? That’s communism, right? The people own the productive cpy? Seems like a fine idea.

      Socialism? Land-grant schools, partly public funded, doing research? That’s where Mr. Cassman works, I believe. Great stuff, right?

      Capitalism. Bruce F, a private farm operator, investing time and effort to advance a public interest product (kernza – it’s basically a public service, open-collaboration process, knowledge, and product).

      A great carpenter has a box full of well-maintained and highly valued tools, and picks the right one for job at hand.

      So it’s not the “ism” – capitalism, or socialism or communism that makes the big difference.

      The difference-maker is the fact that somebodies made good decisions to allocate resources to a useful activity that holds long-term promise for the public good.

      Great article, btw, another excellent NC selection about people doing R & D to solve the Big Problems, and doing it just because they’re smart and know it needs to get done.

      Them’s mah kinda peeps.

    2. redleg

      Track how much less fuel you use.
      I’ve had farmers tell me that switching to no- till saved them enough fuel to make up the yield difference and then some (depending on the farmer, 50-75% reduction).
      This is no-till, one-plant, so fuel savings should be even better.

  4. Lex

    More land devoted to agriculture isn’t necessarily bad if it’s not being tilled and fertilized once or more per year. I’d be interested to know about Kernza’s ability to meet those (relatively) low yields in relatively poor soil which might make it an excellent candidate for marginal land. Does it have potential for a triple use crop? Let’s say seed and hay one year, grazing one year, back to seed and hay. How does it respond to grazing? Some perennial grasses are sort of reinvigorated by being grazed since they’re damaged almost to the crown. Even if over damaged, reseeding after grazing would limit the third year decline.

    It’s amazing that we haven’t really added much to the original basket of grains. We can read about the difficulties of making a grain successful today, but that just leads me to imagine our ancestors selecting for shatter resistance, free threshing and yield without any grant money. The Jomo did it with rice and then decided agriculture wasn’t worth the effort and went back to cultivation! Our ancestors were amazing people.

    1. flora

      Before chemical fertilzers became the standard in commercial farming, farmers would replenish the soils’ nitrogen by growing alfalfa in a field for a year in crop rotation. Great nitrogen fixer in the soil. The alfalfa could be harvested for livestock feed – alfalfa hay – or plowed under for composting in the field, further enriching the soil.

      Home gardeners can do the same by planting clover in the garden spots. It takes that area out of production for a year but pays off in following years of regular gardening. One ” can even practice crop rotation by simply planting 1 or 2 garden rows in clover each year, changing the rows each year. A tip from my grandmother. / :)

      1. Samuel Conner

        Is there a good reason to not have clover as a permanent ground cover, and plant taller things in the midst of it?

        Here’s an interesting perennial spinach substitute that I saw mentioned recently in a permaculture/food forest video (I hope the link to a seed seller is not objectionable; they’re a good one):

        I will try this in 2023; annual salads are getting to be a chore. I wonder how well the ground hog will like it.

        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          I have linked to seed sellers, I think links to seed sellers are a good thing if they are good seed sellers.

  5. Clark Landwehr

    Annual grains are essential to state formation and state control of its citizens. The powers that be will never let Kernza happen on any scale.

    1. Tom Pfotzer

      Don’t ask the PTB for permission. What are we, a bunch of potted plants?

      I agree that PTB will attempt to get in the way, and I assert that it’s our rightful duty and honorable privilege to do it anyway.

    2. Hickory

      How are annuals crucial to state formation? I get how any kind of ag leads to community immobility, which puts people at risk of being conquered or developing states. How are annuals relevant?

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        I think the theory is that it is annual plants who spend all their surplus energy making one big flush of seeds to reproduce with . . . and then they die. So if those seeds are storable for a year and still good to eat or plant at the end of it, they are worth defending and protecting. And if bred-selected right and grown right, they could produce a feeds-many-people surplus which could support some of those many-people being the kind of specialized persons that a state emerges from.

  6. Jeremy Grimm

    I thought the fungus for “takes-it-all” was a problem for wheat — which is handled by crop rotation. Is this Kernza wheat immune to takes-it-all?

  7. Dave in Austin

    Perennials are probably better for the land. But the yield is lower- much lower. The article says “A 2010 economic analysis conducted by Australian researchers found that perennial grain yields must be around 40 to 65 percent of annuals to be profitable.” To meet the laudable conservation goal we will have to use an (experimental) crop that presently yields less than half what annuals like wheat give us.

    If you think the Ukraine War and a 10-15% reduction in wheat available causes a hunger crisis just wait until the 50%+ reduction when we go to perennials.

    Pounds of grain produced divided by population = pounds of grain per/person. The “obvious” solutions range from mass murder to a crash program to breed smaller people. I await developments.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      At least within the confines of the US itself, banning CAFOs for livestock would free up enough grain to keep all Americans grain-fed. Limiting livestock to pasture-and-range would allow for some meat still.

      And abolishing the ethanol-in-gasoline mandate and subsidies would also free a lot of land and grain for genuine human use within the borders of the US.

  8. Sub-Boreal

    A few years ago, on my brother’s suggestion, I read a fascinating book, Darwinian Agriculture, by agronomy researcher R. Ford Dennison. It examines the evolutionary tradeoffs that plants have made among various traits, and it left me with rather modest hopes for the potential of perennial grain crops. Details here: publisher’s description

    Links to Ford’s presentations and publications: personal website

  9. garden breads

    I’ve followed perennial grain developments for decades and have become skeptical.

    Some alternative agriculture experts (e.g. Martin Crawford) identify chestnuts as the only perennial crop with comparable or greater yields and nutritional value to annual grains that one can grow in a temperate climate with low inputs. My personal experience confirms this. The biggest downside is it takes a four years to produce 400 lbs per acre and 10 years to yield a grain equivalent crop.

    On a small scale I grow nuts, fruits, perennial vegetables plus intensive potatoes, leeks, garlic, Jerusalem artichokes, greens, grains, etc.

    1. playon

      I only recently found out that prior to 1900 the eastern US was once home to a huge chestnut forest containing billions of trees, which stretched from Alabama to Michigan. For commercial purposes it was the perfect tree, the wood is ideal for furniture and the nut has a lot of protein. The forest was wiped out by blight after the introduction of a Chinese species of chestnut.

      1. flora

        Chestnut tree in US 19th century poetry: So common were chestnut trees then that they figured in US poetry as a commonplace. From H. W. Longfellow (1842?):

        The Village Blacksmith

        Under a spreading chestnut-tree
        The village smithy stands;
        The smith, a mighty man is he,
        With large and sinewy hands;
        And the muscles of his brawny arms
        Are strong as iron bands.

      2. drumlin woodchuckles

        The occasional big surviving chestnut trees live on here and there beyond the natural range of the historic forest. So few that people are keeping track of every one.

        Within the range of the historic forest itself, there are still live root-systems here and there with young sapling sprouts coming up and growing till the blight kills them. Then the not-dead-yet root systems send up more sapling sprouts. Sometimes they live long enough to bear a few nuts.

        There are people working on trying to backbreed blight resistant chestnut species to the American chestnut to get a blight tolerant semi-large tree with semi-sweet semi-small nuts, a sort of Amercan chestnut, if you will. The hope is to cross back and back and back and get something very nearly as tall as the historic American chestnut, almost as productive, nuts almost as good, and still be blight-tolerant enough to be a presence in the forest even if not a forest dominant again.

        At a lecture once I heard Akiva Silver claim that while the Korean chestnut is usually thought of as a smallish shrub or mini-tree, that some Korean chestnuts were discovered in the mountain forests of North Korea which were naturally 80 feet tall or so. If political developments ever allow for the hybridizing of American chestnut with those Korean real-tree chestnuts ( if they still exist) one could easily imagine a tree able to reach a height exactly between the two species. Which would mean Koreamerican chestnuts naturally capable of 120 feet tall or so.

        Also, here is something for people living within the Saratoga Springs New York area to run down if they feel like it. Many years ago, at an event at Cafe Lena’s in Saratoga Springs, I was introduced to someone who was described as a “storyteller” who claimed to own and live on a small acreage south of Saratoga Springs. He also claimed Abenaki ancestry. He also said there were several 80 foot tall American chestnut trees on his property which produced lots of nuts. He thought that at that height, they must have been already alive at the time of the blight and so might not just be “lucky” but might really be blight-resistant.

        In case anyone reading this wants to try chasing that lead.

    2. Tom Pfotzer

      I’m experimenting with hazelnuts. I got them from Badgersett Research in MN. They are bush-like, are crosses between Chinese, native American and European hazelnuts.

      There is a great deal more breeding necessary to produce a genetically stable cultivar that will produce large, easily-harvestable nuts. But mine are in-ground about 8 years, are about 12′ tall, 7-8′ wide, loaded with nuts. They are drought tolerant, and put down a robust root system – thru almost any type soil – up to 15′ down into the soil column.

      These hazels need to be fertilized to be productive; they are heavy nitrogen feeders. Before I put mine in I dug 3′ trenches 6′ wide, and backfilled with 50% soil and 50% compost so they’d have a major leg up getting started. (Soil food web got a major head-start). My planting regimen isn’t necessary, but it sure did help.

      Deer are big problems for me. I don’t currently eat venison, but if I did, then the deer would not be a problem.

      BTW, Lambert, there’s another article idea for the hopper. Some suburban and rural counties are getting over-run with deer, and deer aplenty is bad for forest (small trees never get out of the starting gate, plant diversity drops to just those plants deer don’t like). Venison is good food, and we’ve wiped out deer predators wherever people live. That subject needs a re-think.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        There are some other outlets as well now for woody perennial nut, fruit, and seed-bearing plants for perennial food yields.

        For hazelnuts and also other things there is Mark Shepard’s ” Forest Agriculture Nursery” which will sell mail-order edible-yielding woody perennials.

        There is also Akiva Silver’s ” Twisted Tree Farm” .

        There is also ” Oikos Tree Crops” for various things, especially non-bitter-acorn oak selections I have not seen listed elsewhere.

        And there are probably others which further searching would discover.

  10. HotFlash

    Stumbled on this fascinating map/graph of US land use in, of all places, Golf Week.. Surely there are a few acres that could be spared for growing Kernza?

    Cuba during the Special Period (collapse of Russia, the new mgmt ‘advised’ by Andrei Shleifer and his Harvard gang reneged on oil contracts to Cuba, so no fertilizer, diesel for tractors, etc. Fidel said fine, keep your oil, and here I quote, “We are not waiting for fuel to fall from the sky, because we have discovered, fortunately, something much more important: energy conservation, which is like finding a great oil deposit.” All kinds of urban spaces were used to grow food, coop and community organic market gardens were planted and tended, life was rearranged to use less fossil fuels.

    Thank you, Bruce F, amfortas, and all the pioneers.

  11. Displaced Platitudes

    A major benefit of Kernza is that it’s deep roots are great at reducing nitrate pollution of over-fertilized soil.
    In some studies , it would seem that planting it in part of a field will benefit the entire field, to say nothing of the improvements to runoff pollution and the water table.

  12. PlutoniumKun

    The obvious problem with comparing yields per acre is that modern crops have an impact far greater than the field – most obviously in producing the synthetic fertilisers and chemicals needed to keep them growing. I’m always a little suspicious when either advocates or opponents of a particular technology keep focusing on specific narrow metrics rather than the bigger picture.

    And its not a simple case of crop value either – the choice a farmer makes isn’t about growing the most valuable or productive crop, but in balancing costs, risks and potential yields.

    And I’m not convinced either by arguments that we have to increase the amount of land under cultivation if we want to grow perennials. This first of all assumes that we need all the grain we grow – we don’t, because we use lots of it to feed animals for meat and dairy, which is nice, but not essential (and probably grossly unsustainable anyway). And much land is simply unsuitable for high input agriculture and may be find for perennial crops.

  13. digi_owl

    Likely the problem is that these grains can return year upon year because it has dedicated more of the growth mass to the roots and support structure, thus leaving less to the seeds that we feed off.

    By contrast the traditional grains can dedicate more to the seeds, because we tend to their continued existence. Thus any new grain will develop the same problem as the old given time.

    After all, there are only so many hours in the day to collect sun and thus run photosynthesis.

    1. Tom Pfotzer


      I expect that ultimately the perennials will produce more food than the annuals.

      My understanding is that native prairie grasses tend to produce big and deep roots, so they have greater surface area and more of the soil column to withdraw nutrients from, including and maybe especially water.

      Perennials don’t have to completely re-establish their root systems each year; they just incrementally add to them. Root systems are a lot of biomass, so that’s plant-energy-and-time expensive.

      In healthy soil there a great number of symbiotic interactions among soil organisms, like fungus, which establishes thread-like cilia (conduits) through (e.g. penetrates the roots) of multiple plants and plant-types; those cilia are conduits for nutrient exchange among participating plants.

      Then there’s the gradual evolution of the rest of the soil food web…all those other bacteria, fungus, worms, bugs, etc. that “build soil” ..establishing air and water pathways (worms and bugs), convert inaccessible fertilizer molecules into forms more easily assimilated by plants (fungus and bacteria), and that plant-matter breakdown creates carbon-based nutrient-parking sites where fertilizer or water-borne nutrients attach themselves until the plant’s ready for uptake. (Carbon bonds with almost everything). This reduces the leach-thru of fertilizer into the ground water (e.g. out of reach of the typical plant’s root system).

      That food web takes years to build out, and every time you wipe out the surface plants and put in a new (monocrop) set of plants, you set back that food-web building process some, or even many squares (esp. if you plow or disk the soil).

      So, I always expected the perennials to ultimately produce more harvestable food, particularly if those plants are fed some chem or organic fertilizer. That doesn’t seem to be (currently) the case for kernza, and I’m puzzled by that.

      And I’m also puzzled by the “by the third year, yields attenuate” statements in the article, and confirmed by the Land Institute .

      I would love to hear more about why these two phenomena occur, if anyone’s up to speed on this.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        @Tom Pfotzer, Why does kernza flame out and die after 3 or so years?

        I have no referrences. But I remember reading/hearing that non-woody perennials and non-woody annuals are considered to have two very different reproduction strategies.

        Nonwoody perennials prioritise allocation of the food they produce into root-system survival and strengthening and only put the small remaining food-fraction into seed. Whereas annuals put their entire food-surplus above short term survival into a huge seed crop which is their only hope of staying species-alive till the next spring. They allocate zero food to root system survival over winter because their plan is to put all food into a seed crop and then die.

        These are two anti-compatible approaches. The Land Institute is trying to force non-woody perennials to adopt as much of the annual approach as possible without dying. In the case of kernza, my amateur speculation is that breeding some annual reproductive strategy approach into the perennial plant platform causes the kernza to deduct enough food from root enhancement towards seed-crop increase that the roots are shortagized of enough food needed to enhance their survival all the way up to perennials. So the kernza lives on into year two with wounded roots. It again over-allocates food to seed production, starving and wounding its roots forther. By year three, it doesn’t have enough roots to make a crop and stay perennially alive. It tries to do both and it half-does both and thereby fails at both.

        I don’t know how The Land Institute plans to square that circle. Perhaps they could back-breed kernza to its perennial platform base enough to where it produces only just enough grain to make a barely break-even level of profit to the grower. But in that case, why bother?

        1. Tom Pfotzer


          Thanks for taking time to spell that out. Your theory makes a lot of sense.

          I took umbrage at Mr. Cassman’s criticism of the Land Institute, maybe I over-reacted. I’ll have to do a little research, too, and see where the Land Institute is headed with their breeding program.

          Innovation. Hard knocks, thin gruel for lunch, and early to bed so we can do it again tomorrow.


          But, on my own little farm, things are still moving ahead. Blackberries are ripe (Triple Crown, IMHO the best ones), tomatoes and cukes cranking out, and yesterday I did the Pickle Permutation Project.

          Four variants on sweet, crunchy, hot (pepper flakes) pickles…using real pickles, _not_ “cucumbers” (not the same thing!).

          I made 4 quarts, and 1.5 days later there’s 1.5 qts left. No wonder I’m so grouchy, what with all that vinegar!

          1. drumlin woodchuckles

            Intellectuals . . . even the genuinely smart ones who go into plant breeding and agricultural engineering and fields like that . . . like to argue with eachother and accuse eachother of being a blind alley and a black hole misleading people off the path to the One True Way.

            And so some agronomic intellectuals will condemn The Land Institute for this, that, and another thing.

            My own feeling is that everyone does their best work in the field and the approach they believe in the most, so different groups of “agrillectuals” should respect eachothers’ separate choices of separate fields to labor in, and spend minimal energy trying to condemn, poach, recruit, from eachothers’ fields of dreams. ( I will make an exception for the agronomic intellectuals who work for the Dark Lord Monsanto. They deserve utter and total condemnation at every level).

            I myself think that The Land Institute’s quest for a mixed culture of non-woody perennials yielding near-annual levels of seeds and beans for one-pass harvest without any tillage at all for years at a time . . . . is a vain errand. But even if it is, they will learn many interesting things along the way.

            And I am just an amateur and a layman anyway. I could be way wrong about all of this.

            1. Tom Pfotzer

              ” they will learn many interesting things along the way.”.

              DW, somehow you got a lot of wisdom drummed (get it?) into you, way ahead of schedule. More than your share.

              May I use a Get Out Of Jail Free card?

              (ducks under the umbrella of said card….)

              Get thee to writing, DW. Find something to sharpen your claws on…and start writing 1-pagers. Just barely long enough to get a good point across, and short enough to not cry if it doesn’t get published….the first 20-30 times you try.

              You’ve got all the cards, if you feel like playing them.

              1. drumlin woodchuckles

                Thank you for the kind words of encouragement. Once I have retired ( if I am still viably healthy and able to do stuff) I may try doing what you suggest.

                For now, I try writing my best attempts at valuable useful comments in hopes that they really are such, and that some of the information I sometimes offer may be taken up and put to actionable use by someone reading it.

  14. MT_Wild

    On converting new land. One of our biggest issues in sagebrush ecosystem conservation in the American West is figuring out what to do with the portions of the landscape that are already to far gone to restore or protect. You don’t want to leave it as a fire-prone, ungrazable annual grass wasteland, but what can you use to outcompete and replace the cheatgrass?

    Maybe Kernza or other “tame” perrenial or annual grasses could be the answer if they are agressive enough. And there’s millions of acres of what once was sagebrush rangeland that have already been impacted past the point of restoration that could be used for new ag crops if they are adapted to the climate.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      Is there no way to restore the sagebrush itself? Does the cheatgrass burn it to death in annual dry-cheat fires or something like that?

Comments are closed.