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Crops of the future developed by Forever Green Initiative becoming a reality

A legislative field event at Albert Lea Seed on July 26 highlighted the work that’s been done in the past decade by more than 50 researchers of the University of Minnesota’s Forever Green Initiative.

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Xinmin Deng, senior principal scientist at Cargill, talks about the potential for the the crop camelina — developed by the Forever Green Initiative — at a legislative field event at Albert Lea Seed on July 26, 2022. Next to Deng are Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin, Christopher Abbot and Colin Cureton.
Noah Fish / Agweek
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ALBERT LEA, Minn. — The University of Minnesota’s Forever Green Initiative has relied on bipartisan support for clean-water, market-based cropping systems and Minnesota businesses to help bring its promising crops to the fields and homes of consumers.

Don Wyse is a professor in the department of agronomy and plant genetics at the University of Minnesota, and co director of the Forever Green initiative. Wyse co-founded the Forever Green Initiative in 2012 as a way to convince farmers to keep plants in the soil year-round.

He said the idea for the initiative developed when he was brought to Minnesota by grass seed producers in northern Minnesota who wanted to put a perennial crop into their annual cropping system.

“They wanted to expand the grass seed industry, which is basically based on a series of perennial grasses that you don't have to plant every year, and you would harvest in the middle of the summer,” said Wyse at a legislative field event at Albert Lea Seed on July 26 to highlight the work of the Forever Green Initiative. “So you would avoid the early spring, wet soils and the fall wet soils.”

Wyse, who was raised on his family’s farm in Ohio and earned his doctorate in plant physiology and biochemistry from Michigan State University, said grass seed producers were also looking to expand their economic opportunities through the production of new perennial grasses.

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Riding the wings of bipartisan support for clean-water, market-based cropping systems, the Forever Green initiative — now partnered with other universities and private companies — has over 50 researchers who’ve so far developed 16 crops capable of thriving in the Upper Midwest.

“We've come a long way,” said Wyse. “If we're looking at the grass seed industry in northern Minnesota, and Roseau and Lake of the Woods counties, those perennial grasses are the most profitable crops in those two counties.”

Researchers have started developing winter annual and other perennial crops. Kernza was the first “premier crop” that's moved out onto the landscape, said Wyse.

“It’s now developed to the point where it's in the early stages of commercialization,” said Wyse of Kernza, which is produced by Albert Lea Seed House and sold to farmers to grow and process. “And market it to a wide-range of end users, including local companies like General Mills, as well as Perennial Pantry, on a smaller scale.”

Camelina and pennycress are two new oilseed crops that are being developed by the Forever Green initiative.

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Mac Ehrhardt, president of the Albert Lea Seed House, gives a tour during the legislative field event at Albert Lea Seed on July 26 to highlight the recent work by more than 50 researchers of the University of Minnesota’s Forever Green Initiative.
Noah Fish / Agweek

“Basically (camelina and pennycress) are being moved into the corn and soybean rotation, to fill the brown in the fall and the brown in the spring,” said Wyse. “But allowing for the production of a new crop that has economic value.”

He said the reason that many companies are now interested in the two crops is because of the low carbon fuel standards that are being put forward by a series of states.

“Which increases the value of the oil coming from these low carbon oilseed crops,” he said.

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A Cinderella crop

Xinmin Deng, who was at the July 26 event, is a senior principal scientist at Cargill.

Deng said that the Forever Green Initiative can help Cargill live up to its commitment to regenerative agriculture.

The most promising crop of the future to the company right now is camelina, said Deng, and he calls it a “Cinderella crop” because it can be utilized as an oilseed crop as well as a cover crop.

“In the short term, you look at camelina as a good crop for biofuel, but it does not stop there,” said Deng, who said that Cargill’s closest crushing facility to Minnesota is in West Fargo, North Dakota — accessible to camelina producers in the state. “It has the potential to be a sustainable food oil as well.”

Deng said camelina is safe to consume and has value as a salad oil.

“If you want to use camelina as a specific food application, or for ingredients, there is work that can be done to improve the oil profile and the meal after extracting the oil from the camelina seed,” said Deng. “Today you can use it for animal feed.”

He said that camelina is also being looked at by other companies to make other products, such as bioplastics.

“Forever Green has done work to establish the base, the product and its genetics,” said Deng of camelina. “There's more work that can be done with the improvement, innovation, and with breeding that can bring this crop to the next level for food use and also bioplastic use.”

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A broad partnership

It’s taken a broad partnership between lawmakers, private companies and producers for the success of the Forever Green initiative, said Wyse.

Lawmakers in attendance at the July 26 event in Albert Lea were Sen. Torrey Westrom (R-Elbow Lake), Sen. Gene Dornink (R-Brownsdale), Rep. Ginny Klevorn (DFL-Plymouth), Rep. Samantha Vang (D-Brooklyn Center) and Rep. Peggy Bennett (R-Albert Lea).

“It’s taken the resources from the taxpayers of the state of Minnesota through the Clean Water Council, putting dollars forward for an extended period of time to build the research platform that can allow the scientists and plant breeders enough time to actually develop real crops,” said Wyse, who added it takes 10 to 15 years to develop new varieties.

Then there’s the partnerships with the industrial world, which have taken the Forever Green Initiative to the next level.

“In terms of the farmers that are actually doing the production and the processing, and then building in the folks that are involved with the end use that are developing real products from these grains,” said Wyse.

A cooperative legislative group has made it possible to do the work of Forever Green in Minnesota, which Wyse said hasn’t been accomplished in other states.

Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen said it was “really great” to see Westrom, chair of the Senate ag committee — a Republican — and Vang, vice chair of the ag committee in the House — a Democrat — at the July 26 Forever Green presentation in Albert Lea.

“Building healthy soil, promoting perennial crops, it really is important for Minnesota because of all the different water quality issues we have,” said Petersen.

Petersen said even before he was commissioner, the topic of developing third crops was a big one for him.

“I think we're really getting to the point where we figured out how to grow the crops, it's just getting figured out how we sell the crops, and where we sell them,” said Petersen. “What we're trying to do is provide funding for co-ops, for value-added grants, so that farmers who want to commercialize, they may do it together or separately.”

Resources through the Clean Water Council and the Clean Water legacy funds from the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment that Minnesotans passed in 2008 have put forward the support to develop the new crops, said Wyse, which in turn has brought in resources from the federal government and various foundations in the industrial sector.

“So all the dollars that come in from the state, we basically match it five-to-one,” said Wyse. “It is a story that's unique to Minnesota because of all of the partners willing to come forward and support the work for a long enough period of time to put real options on the landscape for farmers, rural communities as well as end users."

Westrom said he’s hopeful that the “great research” being done by the Forever Green Initiative will create “more market opportunities” for Minnesota farmers.

“To make these crops positive cash flow opportunities for farmers,” said Westrom. “Because ultimately, they have to be able to make a profit from them, and there has to be markets that are developing.”

Vang said it was promising to see representatives from both sides of the aisle at the July 26 event.

“It was a very insightful discussion and I learned a lot about what the future of ag possibly will look like,” said Vang. “I look forward to seeing how the House and Senate can work together to support more farmers in this area.”

Noah Fish is a multimedia journalist who creates print, online and TV content for Agweek. He's also the host of the Agweek Podcast.

While covering agriculture he's earned awards for his localized reporting on the 2018 trade war, and breaking news coverage of a fifth-generation dairy farm that was forced to sell its herd when a barn roof collapsed in the winter of 2019. His reporting focuses on the intersection of agriculture, food and culture.

He reports out of Rochester, Minnesota, and can be reached at nfish@agweek.com
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