Minnesota high school breaks ground with Kernza test plot
Kernza has been getting some buzz in recent years for its multiple uses as a forage, a grain that can be used in the kitchen, and a plant beneficial to water quality and the environment. Alexandria High School in Minnesota is planting test plots to help its ag students learn more.
ALEXANDRIA, Minn. — The academy model of learning at Alexandria High School is about authentic learning experiences.
For its ag program, that includes a test plot of the perennial grain, Kernza.
Kernza has been getting some buzz in recent years for its multiple uses as a forage, a grain that can be used in the kitchen, and a plant beneficial to water quality and the environment.
Lars Dropik just finished up his sophomore year at Alexandria and says he could see incorporating it into his family’s Black Angus cattle operation at Carlos, a few miles north of Alexandria.
Alexandria doesn’t have any livestock to graze on the test plot, but being a grass that can be grazed early in the growing season is one of the advantages of planting Kernza.
“You can graze it early in the year and it will grow back enough that you can harvest it in August or September,” Dropik said.
Kernza could be grazed in April with the right growing conditions. “Our pastures would usually be ready about the middle of June,” Dropik said.
The school planted a 2 acre test plot in late August 2021 and the grain has been getting established this year.
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Alan Ziethamer is an Alexandria School Board member who brought up the idea of Kernza research.
"We have always been looking for opportunities to find partnerships that are more authentic and more real world," Zeithamer said.
In the real world, Zeithamer works with his son's landscape firm, Exterior Designs of Alexandria, and had access to a small drill seeder to plant the Kernza into the turf near the school, where it's now growing.
“The first year, it mainly spends its time establishing roots that can go down about 10 feet in the ground,” Dropik said.
Dropik said the kernels from the first year won’t be as nice as the years two and three. Kernza will keep growing after those first few years, but it won’t produce as good a crop after the third year.
The kernels that are harvested can be ground up and substituted for whole wheat flour. Alexandria High School has done just that in some of its cooking classes, using Kernza to make muffins.
Kernza’s extensive root system contributes to other benefits.
“It’s very good for growing in dry conditions,” Dropik said.
The deep roots also are promoted for its ability to store carbon and improve soil health also makes it a good buffer crop along waterways, helping prevent erosion.
Minnesota law requires farmers to have vegetative buffers along waterways. Alexandria is in the heart of lakes country with sandy soils that can drain quickly.
“This is really talked about as a perennial grass that can help clean up our waterways — eliminate phosphorus and nitrogen leaching into our water system,” said Jeff Pokorney an ag teacher at Alexandria High School. “It fits in very well with Minnesota.”
According to kernza.org , the grain does better in well-drained soils than heavy soil but it does need moisture to get established.
Other considerations for Kernza include:
- Planting can be done in the spring or fall.
- Germination rate can vary greatly.
- A field cannot be sprayed with a herbicide and harvested for grain.
- Grazing too long into the summer, past the elongation stage, will result in grain loss.
- Fields can be grazed after harvest into the winter.
Part of the goal of Kernza research is to find ways to make it profitable as a grain and not just be a buffer or as forage.
Connie Carlson, with the University of Minnesota’s Forever Green Initiative, said the brewing industry has been one of the first adopters of Kernza.
Patagonia Provisions, in partnership with Dogfish Head Brewery in Delaware, and Bang Brewing out of St. Paul, Minnesota, have been brewing beer with Kernza.
But Carlson said the milling industry has learned a lot in recent years about how to use Kernza.
After some delays, Minneapolis-based General Mills is marketing a breakfast cereal using Kernza under its Cascadian Farm.
And while Kernza may not produce the same kind of light fluffy loaf of a traditional baking flour bread, bakers are seeing how it fits in with products like flatbread and pitas.
“We’re working with companies of all sizes,” Carlson said.
A co-op of farmers has even formed around the crop: the Perennial Promise Growers Co-op with about 30 members scattered around Minnesota and members from neighboring states.
The name Kernza is a trademark owned by The Land Institute, based in Kansas, developed from a plant native to Eurasia.
The Land Institute has been developing a curriculum around Kernza for high schools and college undergraduates called Kernza in Context.
The curriculum is part of KernzaCAP, with the CAP standing for Coordinated Agricultural Program. The program was awarded $10 million in funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and includes the University of Minnesota and other partners.
ROCORI, in the St. Cloud area, is another Minnesota high school incorporating Kernza into its lesson plans.
“As word gets out about those, other people are interested in the curriculum,” said Aubrey Streit Krug of the Land Institute.
The curriculum hits on topics such as a plant health and environmental science but also topics such as supply chain issues.
The hope is to raise awareness of Kernza and perhaps more test plots like the one in Alexandria with students like Dropik.
“Our hope is to incorporate into some of our ag classes and show the future of perennial grains and show all their uses,” Dropik said.