ALEXANDRIA, Minn. — Alexandria High School’s learning academy model focuses on authentic learning experiences.
For its agricultural program, this includes a perennial grain test plot, Kernza.
Kernza has been talked about in recent years for its many uses as fodder, a cereal that can be used in the kitchen and a plant that is beneficial for water quality and the environment.
Lars Dropik has just completed his second year in Alexandria and says he might consider integrating him into his family’s Black Angus cattle operation in Carlos, a few miles north of Alexandria.
Alexandria has no cattle to graze on the trial 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 for you to 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 around mid-June,” Dropik said.
The school planted a 2-acre test plot in late August 2021 and the grain has established itself this year.
Alan Ziethamer is a member of the Alexandria school board who brought up the idea of Kernza research.
“We have always looked for opportunities to find more authentic and real partnerships,” Zeithamer said.
In the real world, Zeithamer works with his son’s landscaping company, Exterior Designs of Alexandria, and gained access to a small seeder to plant the Kernza in the lawn near the school, where it now grows.
“The first year it mainly spends its time establishing roots that can go down about 10 feet into the ground,” Dropik said.
Dropik said the beans from year one won’t look as good as years two and three. Kernza will continue to grow after these first years, but it will not produce as good a crop after the third year.
Harvested grains can be ground and replaced with 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.
Deep roots are also promoted for their ability to store carbon and improve soil health, which also makes them a good buffer crop along waterways, helping to prevent erosion.
Minnesota law requires farmers to have vegetative buffer zones along waterways. Alexandria is in the heart of lake country with sandy soils that can drain quickly.
“It’s really being talked about as a perennial herb that can help clean up our waterways — eliminating the leaching of phosphorus and nitrogen into our water system,” said Jeff Pokorney, a high school agriculture teacher. Alexandria. “It fits very well with Minnesota.”
the grain does better in well-drained soils than in heavy soils, but it needs moisture to establish.
Other considerations for Kernza include:
- Planting can be done in spring or fall.
- The germination rate can vary considerably.
- A field cannot be sprayed with herbicide and harvested for grain.
- Grazing too long in the summer, beyond the elongation stage, will result in grain loss.
- Fields can be grazed after harvest in winter.
Part of the goal of Kernza research is to find ways to make it profitable as a grain and not just as a buffer or forage.
Connie Carlson of the Forever Green Initiative at the University of Minnesota said the brewing industry was an early adopter of Kernza.
Patagonia Provisions, in partnership with Dogfish Head Brewery in Delaware, and Bang Brewing in St. Paul, Minnesota, brew beer with Kernza.
But Carlson said the milling industry has learned a lot in recent years about using Kernza.
After some delays, Minneapolis-based General Mills is marketing a breakfast cereal using Kernza as part of its Cascadian farm.
And while Kernza doesn’t produce the same type of light, fluffy bread as a traditional flour loaf, bakers are seeing how it fits in with products like flatbread and pitas.
“We work with businesses of all sizes,” Carlson said.
A farmers’ cooperative has even formed around the crop: the Perennial Promise Growers Co-op with about 30 members scattered throughout Minnesota and members from neighboring states.
The name Kernza is a registered trademark of The Land Institute, based in Kansas, developed from a plant native to Eurasia.
The Land Institute has developed a program around Kernza for high school and undergraduate students called Kernza in Context.
The program is part of KernzaCAP, where CAP stands for Coordinated Agricultural Programme. The program received $10 million in funding for the US 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 spreads, more people are interested in the program,” said Aubrey Streit Krug of the Land Institute.
The program covers topics such as plant health and environmental science, but also topics such as supply chain issues.
The hope is to bring awareness to Kernza and perhaps more test plots like Alexandria with students like Dropik.
“Our hope is to integrate into some of our agricultural classes and show the future of perennial grains and show all of their uses,” Dropik said.