In 1983, using Wes Jackson’s vision to develop perennial grain crops as inspiration and guidance, plant breeders at the Rodale Institute selected a Eurasian forage grass called intermediate wheatgrass (scientific name Thinopyrum intermedium), a grass species related to wheat, as a promising perennial grain candidate. Beginning in 1990, researchers with the USDA and Rodale Institute undertook two cycles of selection for improved fertility, seed size, and other traits in New York state.
The Land Institute’s breeding program for intermediate wheatgrass began in 2003, guided by Dr. Lee DeHaan. Multiple rounds of selecting and inter-mating the best plants based on their yield, seed size, disease resistance, and other traits have been performed, resulting in improved populations of intermediate wheatgrass that are currently being evaluated and further selected at The Land Institute. A collaborative network of international researchers have since taken up the perennial vision and include three additional breeding programs at the University of Minnesota, University of Manitoba and Utah State University.
Today the emerging crop is growing on farms in the U.S. and abroad and is being sold as a niche crop at a small scale. As the genetics improve and agronomic understanding increases, the production scale will increase and Kernza® perennial grain will be more widely available in retail groceries and restaurants.
Experiments and on-farm trials are also underway to pair Kernza® grain production with legumes in intercropped arrangements that achieve greater ecological intensification and to utilize intermediate wheatgrass as a dual purpose forage and grain crop in diverse farming operations.