St. Peter farm epicenter of newly emerging Kernza industry

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Jul. 29—Dan Coffman is bullish on a new grain that university researchers and big food companies such as General Mills believe is marketable and will improve the land, cleanse the water and help reduce climate change.

"The perennial nature of it fits our farming operation," said Coffman, who farms a 450-acre sustainable operation just west of St. Peter.

Unlike wheat, oats and other small grains that have a one year cycle, Kernza is the first perennial grain, with a field productive for three to five years.

Brad Gordon of Great River Greening, a Minnesota-based environmental nonprofit, said Kernza has roots that can reach 10 feet deep. When plants take in carbon dioxide, that CO2 goes down into the roots and is buried in the soil, helping reduce climate change.

And Kernza is efficient at cleaning water.

"It's really good at reducing nitrates because it has deep roots and is efficient with water storage and keeps nitrates from running off or getting into tile lines," Gordon said.

Early tests done by the University of Minnesota on Coffman's farm have so far found nearly undetectable amounts of nitrates in water coming out of tile lines in the field.

Great River has partnered with the U of M and a handful of farmers, processors and manufacturers to promote the perennial wheatgrass.

Dozens of area farmers, millers, bakers, beer brewers and others met at Coffman's Kernza field last week to learn more about the new grain.

While the crop is in its infancy — just 4,000 acres are being grown worldwide — backers believe it will expand rapidly as markets continue to grow. And the St. Peter area has become a hotspot for the small grain, home to one-third of the Kernza in the world grown there.

That's due in part to a high interest by St. Peter, the local Soil and Water Conservation District and others to safeguard St. Peter's drinking water and improve water quality in streams such as Seven Mile Creek.

Visitors sampled a locally made bread and beer containing Kernza and learned about the crop and marketing efforts and heard about funding available to help farmers who want to grow Kernza.

A trench more than 4 feet deep was dug in Coffman's field to show how far the roots go in the soil.

Kernza was developed about 20 years ago, and the U of M created a variety that grows well in Minnesota.

Soil health

Coffman, who just started farming a few years ago, raises corn, soybeans, Kernza and wheat. He also raises grass-fed cows.

He said Kernza can be combined directly or cut, windrowed and then combined. He said the crop grows several inches after it's harvested and he can graze his cows on it, with the Kernza still producing a crop the following year.

Coffman focuses on soil health and said Kernza helps in all of the best-practice recommendations.

"It's perennial so there's no bare soil and no disturbance of soil. It increases crop diversity. You have living roots in the soil all year. After harvest, you can bale it for forage."

While it can be baled and fed to cattle, Coffman said it doesn't have as many nutrients as alfalfa so he mixes it in to his cattle feed.

Growing markets

Constance Carlson, a marketing specialist at the U of M, said millers and agribusiness food giants are interested in Kernza.

"General Mills will be putting a cereal on the shelves this fall. Millers are all working on it."

Montana Rasmussen, of River Rock Kitchen Baking Company in St. Peter, gave out samples of bread she made using Kernza. "The taste is incredible."

Jim Parejko, of LocAle Brewing of Mankato, was offering samples of his first batch of beer containing Kernza.

"I made an American style pale ale with 15% Kernza. I'm experimenting with it."

Ben Pennar, a Scott County farmer who is growing Kernza, said interest is growing among growers and agribusiness.

"We're launching a new co-op of growers in Minnesota called Perennial Promise Growers Cooperative."

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