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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Wisconsin scientist among growing movement to cultivate perennial grain, Kernza

Nicole Tautges in a Kernza field in rural Walworth county. She sees the perennial grain as an important element of environmentally sustainable agriculture.
Susan Bence
Nicole Tautges in a Kernza field in rural Walworth county. She sees the perennial grain as an important element of environmentally sustainable agriculture.

Researchers and farmers have been putting their heads together, especially in the Midwest, to consider the benefits of growing perennial grains.

Those are grains that grow back for more than one season. Proponents say the practice could pay off both for the farmer’s bottom line and the environment.

WUWM environmental reporter Susan Bence met a scientist, Nicole Tautges, who is immersed in growing one particular perennial in rural Walworth County, 40 miles southwest of Milwaukee.

Extended conversation with scientist, Nicole Tautges.

She is growing one particular perennial. “We’re looking at a field of Kernza,” Tautges says.

All that can be seen is a golden stubble from last season’s harvest. Tautges is thinking ahead to the next harvest of the grain described to have a slightly spicy flavor.

“It will be quite green in April, in July it heads out, the grains spike and we harvest in mid-August,” Tautges says.

Kernza field (left) in mid April. Tautges points out the difference in  the winter rye cover crop on the right.
Nicole Tautges
Kernza field (left) in mid April. Tautges points out the difference in land cover of the winter rye crop on the right.

Kernza, she says, is the name given to what’s called an intermediate wheatgrass that grows to be up to six feet tall. “It’s not a native to North America. It came first in the 20th century and has become widespread in the west,” Tautges says.

She says it’s mostly used as a popular forage for livestock and cattle.

Researchers like Tautges are out to prove that “perennializing” farm systems —meaning growing crops that don’t have to be replanted every year— will become a fundamental component of climate-smart agriculture of the future.

Tautges says there’s no time to lose. Her research of Kernza began when she did her post doctoral work at the University of Minnesota. She eventually joined the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute located in East Troy, Wisconsin as its agroecologist.

Tautges says her new boss was particularly interested in testing the merits of Kernza in the institute’s fields. “Because the field we’re looking at has this considerable slope. And a few springs ago, during a very rainy stretch, he saw water rush down this hill," she says.

Tautges explains what her boss witnessed happens in countless farm fields across Wisconsin when there’s heavy rain. “[The rain] took with it soil that ended up in sedimentation and pollution down the watershed,” Tautges says.

Kernza helps mitigate runoff. It's ground cover, even the winter stubble we see right now, it helps keep soils in place.

Tautges says the perennial's deep roots system makes Kernza even more enticing as a pollution mitigator. "Any perennial plant, they keep living roots in the soil throughout the year even when they're not growing, like right now. Those roots are sort of girders holding the soil in place," Tautges says.

Kernza’s deep roots come with even more benefits.

Nitrate is a chemical compound found in most fertilizers and is the most pervasive contaminant found in groundwater in Wisconsin, according to the DNR.

“You can go online and look at maps of where wells are exceeding safe nitrate drinking thresholds all over the state. Studies show that Kernza reduces nitrate leeching to groundwater by over 90% compared to soybean,” Tautges notes.“And 99% compared to corn.”

Tautges says Wisconsin's neighbor, Minnesota, is strategically planting Kernza to take advantage of its roots' pollutant-fixing ability. “They’re actually planting it over municipal drinking water sources,” Tautges says.

Kernza harvest in motion.
Christine Johnson
Kernza harvest in motion.

Tautges says the circle of farmers and researchers interested in Kernza is growing, but there’s more work to be done, including increasing and prolonging the plant’s yield.

"After about three years, we start to see yield declines. I just read an article about anti-aging for humans and all of that research. So we're trying to figure the same thing with these perennial grain stands: can we do anti-aging treatments or management techniques to prolong the amount of time these guys will give us decent grain yields," Tautges says.

Kernza grain dehulled and ready for milling or cooking.
Nicole Tautges
Kernza grain dehulled and ready for milling or cooking.

And while she found a market for her grain, a brewer uses it to enhance his beer's flavor. Tautges says more buyers will be needed to entice more farms to consider Kernza.

“And so that’s what we’re working on right now a lot and this gets more to the business side. We need to figure out how to sell enough Kernza to convert more acreage,” Tautges says.

Kernza is where this scientist says she’ll be funneling a lot of her energy in 2023.

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Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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