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This article was published 2/12/2017 (1394 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
You won’t be buying Kernza bread in a Manitoba bakery or grocery store any time soon, but a small group of proponents see it as a sign of things to come.
Guests at a small reception at the Tall Grass Prairie Bakery in downtown Winnipeg recently were treated to loaves of freshly baked sourdough bread made with Kernza, the trademarked name for a perennial grain that has been developed from intermediate wheatgrass — a crop more commonly used as forage.
The flour was brought in for test baking from the U.S., where the crop is currently in small-scale commercial production and being used to make bread, crackers, designer beers and even a whiskey.
"We think it makes a marvellous bread," said Tabitha Langel, one of the bakery’s owners. "When it comes out of the oven, the smell — you feel like you are lying face-down on the prairie in summer. You can taste the grassiness, it is quite wonderful."
Truth be told, it had to be blended with other grains to produce the crusty bread loaves because its gluten quality makes it more suitable to making crackers.
But it is much more than a new trendy food.
As a perennial cereal, Kernza has potential to boost the sustainability of annual crop farming. Most of the cereals consumed in the world today are produced from annual crops, a result of decisions made by farmers thousands of years ago to select crops for their seed rather than their roots.
The researchers behind crops, such as Kernza, are revisiting that choice in recognition of the fact that annual cropping systems are hard on the environment, largely because they typically involve tillage to prepare the field, seed the crop, help control weeds and remove the vegetation that remains after harvest.
Researchers with the University of Manitoba have been carefully tending plots of perennial grains at the Ian N. Morrison Research Farm near Carman for the past several years. They are part of a global collective of researchers testing the theory that through careful selection, farmers can have annual cereals to harvest and the benefits of perennial crops too.
"Manitoba is almost a perfect place to grow this," said Doug Cattani, the plant breeder managing the Manitoba breeding program. The region gets enough moisture during the summer and winter; a healthy snow cover is needed to insulate the dormant plants through the cold Prairie winters.
Kernza has an extraordinarily long growing season, which opens up the potential for it to serve as a forage crop for livestock for months after the grain is harvested from the field.
It is widely acknowledged that the less tillage there is, the healthier the cropping system is for the soil. Perennial crops require no tillage at all for several years, until the farmer needs to restock the field with new plants.
If left intact for several years, Kernza develops roots that grow up to 12 feet deep into the soil, improving moisture infiltration and supporting a vibrant microbiological ecosystem below the surface. That rebuilds organic matter, much of which has been lost from Prairie soils since pioneer farmers first broke the land.
Nutritionally, Kernza is much higher in protein than traditional wheat. It also provides double the level of omega-3 fatty acids; more than five times the calcium and roughly 10 times the folate of annual wheats.
Small, light seed size is its biggest drawback. When researchers here first started working with it in 2014, seeds were weighing in at two grams per 1,000 seeds. They’ve since more than tripled in weight. In the field they are now harvesting about 1,200 kg/ha, which is equivalent to about 20 bushels per acre.
That still falls far short of conventional wheat yields at 50 to 80 bushels per acre, but the fact that it is a perennial compensates for the lower yields by way of lower production costs and soil improvement qualities.
"We still have a long ways to go, but we’re getting there," Cattani said.
If all goes well, the first seed for reproduction could go out to farmers as early as next year. It will be several years after that before there is enough of the grain produced to use for food and beverage ingredients.
Laura Rance is editorial director at Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at 204-792-4382 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Laura Rance is editorial director at Farm Business Communications.