Illinois farmers testing new wheatgrass crop

MODESTO, Ill. — A small group of farmers, including some in Illinois, is pioneering a new crop that is in great demand already, but still has a way to go before it is farmed on a larger scale. Companies like General Mills are ready when farmers are.

So far, about a half dozen Illinoisans are the go-to experts here on the new wheatgrass variety Kernza, a trademark name belonging to the Kansas-based Land Institute.

Woody Woodruff, a Morgan County, Ill., farmer, has been growing the new crop for five years now. He has learned some things not to do: It doesn’t grow well in 15-inch rows, he noted, because the weed pressure is too great and there are no approved herbicides yet. The weeds made the crop difficult to harvest.


“Tighter rows smother the weeds,” he said.

Woodruff is confident the Kernza variety he is testing now will be obsolete in five years as Land Institute researchers continue to improve on seed.

When a call for Illinois growers came, Woodruff volunteered with an interest in seeing the crop developed.

“I feel like a pioneer helping to develop a new food,” he said.

As far as he is aware, there are only about 20 farmers growing it in total, including some in Minnesota and Wisconsin. He expects the number of growers to increase in coming years as universities and others experiment with the crop.

“Large companies are interested, but it still needs to be developed with possibilities and problems studied,” Woodruff said.

To be more effective, the seed must be bigger. But as it gets bigger, it gets less nutritious, he said.

Woodruff farms 160 acres with corn, soybeans, cover crops, pastureland and conservation areas. He has had cattle, sheep and goats in the past. His “day job” is as a conservation associate with the Illinois Stewardship Alliance, which aims to cultivate “a local food and farm system that is economically viable, socially just and environmentally sustainable.”

With that background, Woodruff is interested in the new wheat grass variety’s massive root system that is good for the soil. Its huge root mass is comparable to prairie grass — with some roots going 10 feet deep. It is a perennial that can double as forage for livestock and a grain crop. It also uses all the nutrients available, not leaving anything behind, he said.

Kernza’s perennial nature could be beneficial on livestock farms, which are the best candidate for growing the crop, Woodruff said. It can be hayed or grazed in the spring, rested into the summer, harvested for seed in late August, and then grazed or hayed in the fall, he said.

History lesson

“It was 25 years in the making, starting as a forage plant,” said Bill Davison, Extension educator for the University of Illinois’ local food systems and small farms programs.

When Kernza was first bred, the seed was too small and it was not a viable crop. The crop really only started developing quickly about 10 years ago, and it often takes 20 to 30 years of experiments to develop a new crop, Woodruff said.

The kernels are still smaller than wheat, but are larger and more useable than in its early years of development. When it is growing it looks more like a prairie than a field, Davison said.

He expects the number of growers to increase in coming years, but right now, Kernza is grown in “relative obscurity.” More growers are being sought in Illinois for the crop, he said.


Jack Erisman, who was growing 2,000 acres of organic crops 25 years ago, is another farmer growing and contributing to the development of Kernza. A newly developed University of Illinois wheat variety was also recently named after the organic pioneer, who farms in Christian and Shelby counties in central Illinois.

Such a super wheat was first envisioned by Wes Jackson in 1983 as a perennial grain crop that would be part of a whole system of crops.

“His vision is a farming system closer to a prairie than to the monocrops of corn or soybeans,” Woodruff said.

The Rodale Institute helped develop the idea to create the intermediate crop, and the Land Institute, which Jackson founded, began breeding that wheatgrass in the early 2000s. The institute is aiming for a Kernza variety to be more widely available to farmers by 2019. Its goal in the next 10 years is to have the crop grown in the northern states with a seed about 50 percent of the size of the wheat seed, according to the institute’s website.

New uses

And now there is genuine interest in the crop from General Mills, Davison said.

Alone it doesn’t appeal to the palates of most people, but its nutty flavor can be blended with other flour to make bread consumers will eat, he said.

Patagonia Provisions, a food company, is the first company to develop a commercial product for the wheat with its Long Root Ale, Woodruff said.

As products are being tested, so is processing. Harold Wilken, an Iroquois County farmer and miller, is also growing the crop and will be milling it as part of the trials.

“Harold is key — he is linked into Chicago bakers,” Woodruff said. “He can be part of getting the crop cleaned, hulled, milled and into Chicago.”


By Phyllis Coulter, Iowa Farmer Today,