This interview is part of a series which highlights the work of various individuals and organizations within the Kernza® network. Through these interviews, we aim to share and celebrate that there is a large and ever-changing ecosystem that moves Kernza® perennial grain forward. If you would like your organization’s work to be featured in an interview, please email Sophia Skelly. To learn more about the Kernza® network, visit our directory.
What got you interested in your field of research?
I grew up on a farm in southwestern Minnesota. In college, I majored in Environmental Studies and Art. My interest and passion for ecological stewardship grew through learning more about agroecology, environmental science, and theology in college. I can specifically remember certain field trips that were taken in college that challenged and stimulated my imagination and worldview. I also remember learning in class about the prairie ecosystem, only to discover that over 99% of that prairie had been removed in northwest Iowa (and southwest Minnesota where I had grown up). Only small remnants of that habitat existed anymore.
After college, I worked for a company doing native prairie, wetland, and forest restoration work in Minnesota. In my work with the nursery division, I can remember walking many backyards, pastures, railroad ditches, and natural parks and preserves searching for native seed sources. I can remember tracking the ripening of 300 different native plant species for seed collection. These plant populations were difficult and challenging to find, but I developed a love for the diverse beauty of different species.
These experiences were formative to me in developing a knowledge and appreciation for the prairie (and perennial) ecosystem. I also developed a strong passion for restoring health back into residential, rural, and agricultural landscapes.
What brought you to TLI?
In Minnesota, I met my wife and we moved to Kansas where she had accepted a job. I had heard of The Land Institute before and was really interested in their work. Around 12 years ago, I attended a spring workshop hosted by the institute. I asked about a job, and I have been employed as the Kernza® technician at the Land Institute now for over 10 years.
Do you have a general timeline of your work throughout the year?
Kernza® seems to flourish through fall-planting. Through the years, we have tried spring planting as well, but weed control becomes an issue. Because Kernza® is a cool season grass, it does well with overwintering in Kansas and can survive and even grow, at times, as spring approaches.
The fall, then, could be considered the beginning of the growing year for Kernza®. We are often using the seed drill in the fall to plant our direct-seeded plots. We also transplant seedlings into the field that have been started in the greenhouse.
During the winter, we do crossing in the greenhouse and finish up our field seed cleaning for the year. The Kernza® crossing work usually features several different populations of plants selected for different purposes. Groups of plants are selected for the production of new synthetic varieties, new training and main breeding populations, as well as for the production of a new population focused on improving a specific trait.
In the spring, we clean the greenhouse-produced Kernza® seed. Data collection, weed control, and transplanting greenhouse plants into the field are also part of spring activities.
In the summer, we finish up the data collection and work on field harvest. We often harvest biomass samples, bulk seed samples, and yield per stem samples. Immediately after seed harvest, we will dry the samples to begin threshing and cleaning the seed heads. This data is used to help inform the genomic prediction model for plant selection in the next breeding cycle.
What are some of your biggest challenges?
The timetable for genomic selection needs to be exact. The most timely period usually comes in late July and carries on through August while we are working to produce accurate field data from the thousands of samples taken that year. This generally involves four to five people working in assembly line fashion to count, thresh, clean, and weigh each individual sample. This work must be done quickly to inform the prediction model, so that the next selections can take place for that same fall. At this same time, we are often planting seeds into pots in August for field transplanting that fall. Speed and accuracy are important throughout this process.
Have you/has your team made any important discoveries this year?
Over many Kernza® breeding cycles, selections have been made primarily on three different traits: increased seed size, increased seed yield per stem, and an increased percentage of naked (dehulled) seed. Good progress has been made on each of these traits. Over the last few years, we have needed to also focus on other important traits in the crop: increased shattering resistance, non-lodging plants, shortened plant heights, drought resistance, earlier anthesis, etc. The genetic work that been done with Kernza® has improved our ability to find and breed for these specific traits. These plants must be field grown and observed to carry these phenotypic traits, but once these plants are confirmed to have the traits, they can be dug up and placed into a crossing block for the production of a new population. We are discovering plants in the field that seem to lodge less, are shorter, and that demonstrate earlier pollination than other plants. These are needed and exciting discoveries to make!
What are your personal research goals for the next 5-10 years with perennial agriculture?
I have been interested, for a long time, in the progress that has been made in increasing the seed size of the Kernza® grain. Personally, I would love to see a new variety of Kernza® that could be released that might feature a non-lodging, short-statured, and large seeded population. The shape of a Kernza® seed is generally more elongated than a wheat seed. The modern dwarf wheat lines have been bred for their short stature, large seed size, and ability to stand erect. It would be great to have a Kernza® variety that steps closer to rivaling wheat in that respect.
What is something interesting you have learned this year outside of work?
I am involved in leading an effort to establish a community garden project in my hometown. We own 2/3 of acre of land in town and each year we divvy out a gardening plot to people who are interested in becoming members of the garden. We just finished our 4th year of gardening on our current site. Each year, we generally attract 12-15 members who participate in our growing season. We have hosted summer garden parties, different kinds of workshops, and pumpkin parties for the community. I have particularly enjoyed growing and harvesting from a number of perennial plots that we have established. There is nothing like eating a fresh strawberry, blackberry, or asparagus straight out of the garden!