Farmers look to new crops in the face of new challenges

Perennial crops like Kernza are enabling farmers to build resilience against climate change

A field of Kernza, a wheatgrass variety. It is one of 16 perennial crops developed by the Forever Green Initiative.
Elizabeth Dunbar | MPR News 2016

With dry conditions and more intense weather events due to climate change ahead, farmers are working to find ways to adapt their farms.

The University of Minnesota’s Forever Green Initiative is helping farmers do just that through perennial crops.

Luke Peterson works with farmers to add these crops to their rotation. He spoke with MPR News host Nina Moini about how this can help farmers build climate-resilient farms.

Hear the full conversation by using the audio player above or reading the transcript below. It has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

What are perennial crops?

A perennial crop is a crop that you can leave in the ground and it'll keep coming back year after year.

In Minnesota, corn and soybean have long been some of the primary annual crops that we're known for. What are the benefits of perennial crops?

They make a really good companion and a really good third crop to the rotation. The role that they play in our current system is that they have the ability to build soil structure and they do that by their dense root systems.

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They have the ability to increase water infiltration because it busts up the hard pan that's created by these annual crops. Another benefit is that they have the ability to store carbon in the soil.

Can you describe how long Kernza has been on the market and how prevalent it is so far in our state?

I worked with a farmer, Carmen Fernholz, and he planted a field in the fall of 2018. He got his first harvest in 2019 and was able to market that crop — so I would say the variety in Minnesota started going into market around 2019.

What are some of the challenges of introducing Kernza into the supply chain?

It is a new crop so when a company wants to source more sustainable ingredients, some of the challenges that they run into is supply.

It's the chicken or the egg thing: are the farmers going to take on the risk and plant it to create that supply? And if they do, can the farmers maintain enough control where they won't over produce it and then the value of Kernza will be so low that it won't be able to compete with other crops like corn and soybeans so then the farmers won't plant it again.

So I think the main thing is having a good steady, consistent quality supply that they can depend on so when they invest in putting a new product into their line it is going to be worth their investment long-term.

What else do you think is needed to ensure farms in Minnesota and our food supply are able to endure the effects of climate change?

I think the farmers are, with these new crops, taking on all of the risks when they plant them because they're developing the markets. They're taking on the risk as far as — if you have a crop failure, there's no crop insurance for it. So, if there's a way that we could offset the risks that the farmers are taking, I think that would really help.

And I think with a crop like Kernza, or moving into more sustainable crops that take less inputs, I think our goal overall is to build soil health. If we can build our soil health then our farms will become more resistant to the changing weather patterns.