Organic Broadcaster

Winter camelina is ready to harvest in mid-June, allowing an interseeded soybean crop to mature at the normal rate. This combination planting produces greater economic returns than mono-cropped soybean. Photo by Russ Gesch

Forever Green Initiative develops perennial, winter-hardy crops with eco-benefits

By Constance Carlson, University of Minnesota

Developing new crops and cropping systems for farmers to protect our resources, build soil health, capture carbon, and feed our communities, but also reap economic benefit is the vision of the University of Minnesota (UMN) Forever Green Initiative, a program of the UMN College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources. Forever Green is striving to keep the land in continuous cover and aims to do that through the development of new crops and cropping systems, fostering collaborative partnerships with both industry giants and rural community innovators that spur supply chains and market development.

The Forever Green Initiative (FGI) encompasses a platform of 14 different crops ranging from hybrid hazelnuts, elderberries and pulses, to winter annual oilseeds and a new perennial grain with the trademarked name Kernza. The FGI researchers work closely with a range of producers to research and pilot the new crops and systems to ensure results meet producers’ needs and can work effectively on a field-scale level. While FGI is intended for all producers who are interested in new economic opportunities built on protecting our soil, water, and natural resources, researchers recognize that organic producers have specific requirements for successful production. Many of the crops within the FGI platform include an organic research focus.

Intermediate Wheatgrass (Kernza)
No doubt, many readers have heard of Kernza, or intermediate wheatgrass, which has been in the news numerous times over the past few years. The first perennial grain to be released for commercial production, Kernza is the result of decades of research that began with the Rodale Institute in the 1980s. Research shifted to The Land Institute in Kansas in 2003, which trademarked the name Kernza and then partnered with FGI a few years later to continue improving Kernza for commercial production. This past summer, UMN launched a limited-release commercial variety of Kernza, named MN-Clearwater, and plans are underway to finalize licensing for a seed release for 2020 that will provide Minnesota growers with expanded opportunitis to grow Kernza.

Planted in late August, Kernza establishes quickly and grows significant biomass both above and below the ground. The above-ground biomass provides a high-value forage, particularly in the fall. The below-ground root structure—shown to grow upward of 15 feet in some areas—holds the soil, filters water, and captures nutrients, proving especially effective at pulling excess nitrates from groundwater. When established, the plant has shown to consistently overwinter and even survive the freeze/thaw cycle prevalent during the recent springs in the Upper Midwest. The crop is harvested the following August and will begin to regrow almost immediately. Current varieties have been shown to produce a marketable yield for three years. When combined with forage, Kernza may prove to be an important new revenue opportunity for growers.

FGI has focused its efforts not only on improving the breeding and agronomics of Kernza, but also piloting the ecological benefits of this crop. In 2017, FGI researchers partnered with rural water authorities in several areas of Minnesota to plant Kernza on well-head areas since its deep root structure and ability to capture nitrates might be an innovative solution to protecting rural water sources. Results from this work have captured the attention of policymakers and environmental advocacy groups; similar efforts to plant Kernza in vulnerable drinking water areas across Minnesota are in development.

One organic grower, Carmen Fernholz, has been growing Kernza for the University since 2011 and has been mentoring other growers. (See the related article by Fernholz on page 5.) Fernholz and the researchers are working to understand how Kernza can fit into organic rotations and how it might be used as a transition crop for growers interested in moving into organic production. Fernholz and representatives from the Forever Green team will present a workshop on Kernza production and markets at the 2020 MOSES Organic Farming Conference in La Crosse, Wisconsin, in late February.

Hybrid Hazelnuts
Hazelnuts (Corylus americana) are a native crop with a long history in the Upper Midwest. They have been an important part of the diet of Indigenous communities and can often be found in the forest understory and along trails in Minnesota. They exhibit strong resistance to diseases such as Eastern Filbert Blight and are cold-hardy, which is necessary for production in the Midwest.

Research on crossing native hazelnuts with the larger-fruiting, thinner-shelled European hazelnut (C. avellana) for commercial production has been ongoing for decades, with innovative producers such as Phil Rutter from Badgersett Farm, Linda Meschke from Rural Advantage, and Mark Shepard from Forest Agriculture Enterprises leading the way. Jason Fischbach from University of Wisconsin-Extension and Lois Braun from FGI have partnered for several years and have secured significant funding for breeding and identifying the best varieties for commercial production, developing an efficient system for propagation, and working with other researchers, growers, engineers, and even culinary professionals to improve harvesting and processing and to foster market and supply chain opportunities.

Little has been done to research organic production methods for hybrid hazelnuts, but they are a crop that requires little to no inputs to establish and maintain. As a woody perennial with a long lifespan, hazelnuts are valuable for any producer who wants to provide habitat for bird species or install a windbreak, shelterbelt and/or living snow fence. As market value and production efficiencies improve for the hybrid hazelnut in the Midwest, growers will see both economic and ecological benefits by adding hazelnuts to their production mix. American Hazelnut Company, a grower-owned company based in Gays Mills, Wisconsin, is currently selling hazelnuts, oil and flour through their website and at retail locations throughout the Upper Midwest. Both the FGI website and the Upper Midwest Hybrid Hazelnut Development Initiative website have more details on research and development of the Midwest hybrid.

Winter Annual Oilseeds
Winter camelina (Camelina sativa) has been grown as an oilseed for centuries, with records dating to pre-Roman times. Both spring and winter camelina varieties are grown in locations in the U.S. and Canada, but FGI is focused on the winter variety because of its ability to keep the soil covered through the winter and early spring. Researchers are exploring how this crop can fit into existing rotations of soy, corn and/or wheat to provide producers with a relay crop revenue stream. For example, because winter camelina can be harvested with a conventional combine in mid- to late June, it opens the canopy to allow an interseeded soybean crop to grow quickly and mature at the normal time in September. The combined production of both crops (winter oilseed and soybean) is greater in terms of overall seed weight and oil yield than a single crop of soybean. As a result, the economic returns—provided there is a market for camelina—are projected to be higher for the combined winter oilseed-summer soybean system than for the mono-cropped soybean.

For organic growers, winter camelina in field trials is showing potential for weed suppression. Because it blooms at a time when little else is in bloom, it may prove to be a beneficial crop for pollinators. The UMN West Central Research and Outreach Station in Morris, Minnesota, planted several acres of organic winter camelina in fall of 2018 that by the following May was a sea of yellow blooms and native bees. Researchers at the station have also been conducting an organic swine feeding trial using camelina meal—the byproduct that results when camelina is pressed for oil. Initial results indicate it may be an economical replacement at low levels for soybean meal in organic swine production.

Camelina has a wide-range of market opportunities—food and feed, bioplastics, biofuel, and plant-based proteins. Combine those with the crop’s ecological services, and this oilseed is an exciting and attractive new crop for growers. Agricultural production in Minnesota is just starting to develop, with growers and industry partners building relationships to develop the markets and supply chains necessary to scale up production.

Field pennycress (Thlaspi arvense) is also a new oilseed in development through Forever Green. Producers may recognize it as a weed, but because it is winter hardy, FGI researchers believe it may be another option for a winter cash cover crop and another tool for producers to protect soil and reduce nutrient runoff. Like winter camelina, pennycress is sown in autumn and then harvested with conventional combines in mid- to late June.

FGI and the USDA-Agricultural Research Service have made great strides over the last three years in domesticating pennycress and identifying the genetic markers to target breeding efforts. Researchers have identified a pennycress that may be grown for human consumption as well as plants that have reduced shatter, ensuring growers will retain more of the crop at harvest. Potential market opportunities for pennycress oil include new plant proteins, biofuels, and bioplastics. Research is still comparatively new on this crop, but researchers expect to see rapid advancements over the next 3 to 5 years.

Future Crops
The Forever Green Initiative has an active pipeline of crops under development that has the potential to span many decades of work. For example, FGI researchers are partnering with The Land Institute on another perennial, rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium), a plant related to annual sunflower and a native forb in the tallgrass prairie region of the U.S. Commonly called silphium, it was selected for research because it has relatively large seeds and an attractive nutritional profile. In addition, the plant has strong architecture that may be less susceptible to lodging. Like Kernza, silphium’s significant root system may provide both drought tolerance and carbon sequestration. As a flowering plant, silphium could also be a source of pollen and nectar to native pollinators. For organic producers who are committed to fostering pollinator habitat, this perennial oilseed may provide a multi-year pollinator benefit in addition to an economic benefit from oilseed production. Research is many years out on this crop, but the potential is exciting.

Currently, winter barley (Hordeum vulgare) is not in commercial production in Minnesota. However, FGI has been conducting research to develop barley as a winter annual crop that can produce high-quality grain for malting and brewing industries. Developing another small grain that is winter hardy and has an earlier spring harvest date would be a significant opportunity for organic growers to diversify their rotations, combat disease, and produce a high-demand crop with market value. Winter barley grown in other regions has shown to produce higher yields than spring barley. Unfortunately, at this time, winter barley is less winter hardy in the Upper Midwest than winter wheat or winter rye. Thus, a primary focus of FGI breeding and genetics research is to increase the winter hardiness of winter barley and to understand how it might fit in a double-cropping system with other crops such as soybean.

FGI is making great strides not only in developing new crops and cropping systems for growers across Minnesota, but also in its long-term vision to be a model both nationally and internationally for how agriculture innovation and industry collaboration can solve some of our most pressing ecological challenges. As research continues, organic production will be an important component and grower expertise and input will continue to inform the direction and focus of the platform.

Constance Carlson co-directs Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems for the University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships (RSDP). She facilitates market development and commercialization opportunities for the crops within the UMN Forever Green Initiative. She holds an equity interest in A Frame Farm, which is involved in Forever Green’s Kernza research. This relationship has been reviewed and managed UMN in accordance with its conflict of interest policies.

She will be involved in a workshop at the 2020 MOSES Conference on Kernza, a grain in UMN’s Forever Green Initiative. The conference takes place Feb. 27-29 in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

From the November | December 2019 Issue


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