An Interview with Wes Olmschenk, the Director of Products at Minnesota Native Landscapes
How did you first hear about Kernza® and how does the grain fit in with the overall mission of Minnesota Native Landscapes?
We had a little bit of a relationship with University of Minnesota in the past; we had done a few trial things on the native seed side. And, a couple years ago, Jake Jungers with the University had approached us about seed cleaning and our ability to custom clean some Kernza® seed. And, to back up a little more, Minnesota Native Landscapes is a wholesale grower of native grass, wildflower, and sedge seed here in the central part of Minnesota. So, we produce well over a hundred different species, mostly for the restoration market, so roadsides/landowner sites/larger scale DNR Fish and Wildlife type work. We have a pretty extensive cleaning operation already because we’re cleaning native seed that varies in size from large sunflower scale to almost specks of dust in terms of size. We have a variety of cleaning equipment and experience so the Kernza® cleaning was a pretty good fit. We did some trials with Jake at the U and figured out that we had the ability to help out on that front. That’s where our starting point was. Last year, we had an arrangement with the Forever Green Initiative to clean all of their new MN‐Clearwater variety for various growers throughout the state. We had around 20,000 pounds that we cleaned for them. We’ve done both: we’ve cleaned for seed quality and for grain markets (fully dehulled, clean kernels).
Then, as Colin mentioned, we recently became one of a couple companies in the upper midwest to be licensed to distribute the new Clearwater variety. At this point, our involvement with Kernza® I foresee as being two-fold: one being the custom cleaning operation. We’ve had a lot of farmers and end-users, even, contact us to see if we can clean product for them – anyone from farmers growing it to distilleries/breweries that want to use it. And then secondly, helping provide seed for the expansion of Kernza® acres out in the market and in the fields: buying, cleaning, producing, and bagging more of that MN‐Clearwater variety for sale for farmers to grow in years to come.
Even though Kernza® is not strictly a native plant, it fits our organization because our mission is to “heal the earth” and so we see this as a great fit in that it’s perennial, deep-rooted, and has a myriad of environmental benefits, from carbon sequestration to water filtration and decreased erosion….it really is a good fit.
What did it look like for you to tweak your existing operations to fit with Kernza®?
I think, at this point in the Kernza® market, there’s a lot of variability in the product so that’s where especially I think we can bring some value because we have the equipment but we also have the expertise of looking at the seed and knowing that we need to run this lot through a debearder and a fanning mill but also through an indent cylinder or maybe we need to run it through a color sorter because there’s an ergot issue or something like that going on. We have not really seen two lots of Kernza® that are the same. They vary so much in quality, in terms of weed content or chaff or how much they’re dehulled from the field and that’s just because of where we’re at in the market right now and because a lot of the growers are inexperienced and no two growers are doing it the same way. It leads to a lot of variability in the product in terms of what we see coming our way. So, having both a variety of equipment and pretty good expertise and experience on the cleaning side is important. Right now the process for cleaning Kernza® is a little bit different every time at this point. I think we’ll get to a point where that’s the case and I know that there’s other folks working on that end goal of having a more cut-and-dry process. But at this point, we’re not there and so, I think we can be of value because of that range of equipment and range of knowledge that we have. But in terms of equipment specifically, it’s anything from debearder, fanning mills, indent cylinders, color sorter, other equipment as necessary. I think that’s been it so far. And the process with that equipment has varied too.
What were some key lessons or takeaways from that experience?
I think, again because of the variability, we saw some test results of the largest lot we cleaned last year that were lower germination than we would hope for and it’s hard to have anybody learn anything because all the lots were aggregated together before they came to us. So it’s hard to know: Was that seed harvested too early? Was it not dried fully? Was it something we did in the cleaning process, or a combination of those things, that affected the germination? In general, trying to improve the product and the process for everyone involved in Kernza® is kind of crucial to keep moving it forward. This year, we’re going to be treating that very differently. We’ll be keeping every lot separate so we know where it came from and what their process was. I think that’s going to go a long way towards improving the quality of what we do on our end and of the end-market product. Being able to trace what went wrong and how we can improve that is pretty key for us.
Looking into the future, do you all have any specific plans or exciting new ideas related to Kernza® and perennial agriculture?
One definite improvement we’re planning on our end is a new seed cleaning and storage facility at our main production farm. It was planned anyway for the native seed–which is our primary crop and business–but, Kernza® coming on board is something we’re thinking about pretty heavily in the design of that building and how we would also incorporate Kernza® cleaning as part of that. Also, we want to work toward making it a food-grade facility so that we can clean Kernza® for both the food market and the seed market. So that’s a pretty heavy consideration at this point – something we’re dealing with almost daily – about how to best lay that out so we can handle both native seed and Kernza®, and potentially other Forever Green Initiative crops down the road that might come up. We think it’s a good fit and we’re a big believer in the perennial crop options that U of M, TLI, and others are working on right now.
Like everyone, we’re new and we’re trying to find our best route in the Kernza® world but we’re excited about it and excited to have it be a part of what we’re already doing with our native seeds. I think we have some of the best capabilities and staff to do the cleaning of almost any product that comes our way and that’s a pretty rare, unique skillset and capability.
You can find more about Minnesota Native Landscapes on their website: https://mnnativelandscapes.com/
Interview by Sophia Skelly