Skip to content

What is Kernza®?

The perennial grain revolution is here

Kernza® grain is harvested from intermediate wheatgrass (Thinopyrum intermedium). This (cousin) of annual wheat has been grown throughout the USA to provide fodder for livestock. Now intermediate wheatgrass is being domesticated as a grain for human food.

Intermediate wheatgrass can be grown as a “multi-functional” crop, yielding various commodities as well as ecosystem services. Kernza® grain is a perennial substitute for annual wheat in foods like baked goods and beer or can be used as a whole grain like barley or rice.

From Perennial Wheatgrass to the Kernza® Grain

Wheatgrass is Identified

Domestication starts by identifying a perennial species with one or more desirable attributes such as high and consistent seed yield, synchronous flowering and seed maturation, and seed retention (also called non-shattering).

Domestication

The process of domestication is undertaken when humans make selections in genetically variable populations of plants. By selecting for traits that benefit humans, the plant populations become distinct from their wild relatives.

Kernza® Grain

In 2008, The Land Institute staff began experimenting with the flour in their home kitchens. It tasted great! The trade name, Kernza® was registered in 2009 to ensure quality oversight for the emerging perennial grain crop.

Kernza® ripens in a breeding plot at the Land Institute.
Kernza® seeds from The Land Institute. Kernza®, a perennial cousin of wheat, is being developed as a cereal crop.
Comparison of intermediate wheatgrass (which produces Kernza® Perennial Grain) to annual wheat roots at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas.

The Kernza® Story

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 University of Utah.

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.