Perennial Grain Serves up Rich Flavour, With a Side of Sustainability

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Scott Stothers (l to r), Loic Perrot, Tabitha Langel, and Doug Cattani with bread made from Kernza. | Photo: Laura Rance

The first loaves of bread made from Kernza have been gobbled up in Manitoba

You won’t be buying Kernza bread in a Manitoba bakery or grocery store any time soon, but a small group of proponents see it as a sign of things to come.

Guests at a small reception at the Tall Grass Prairie Bakery in downtown Winnipeg Nov. 23 were treated to loaves of freshly baked sourdough bread made with Kernza, the trademarked name for a perennial grain that has been developed from intermediate wheatgrass, a crop more commonly used as forage.

Manitoba is almost a perfect place to grow this. – Doug Cattani

The flour was brought in for test baking from the U.S. where the crop is currently in small-scale commercial production and being used to make bread, crackers, designer beers and even a whiskey.

“We think it makes a marvellous bread,” said Tabitha Langel, one of the bakery’s owners. “When it comes out of the oven, the smell — you feel like you are lying face down on the prairie in summer. You can taste the grassiness, it is quite wonderful.”

The Kernza flour had to be blended with other grains to produce the crusty bread loaves because its gluten quality makes it more suitable to making crackers.

But it is much more than a new trendy food.

Kernza is a perennial cereal, which could potentially boost the sustainability of annual crop farming. As a perennial, it is left intact for up to five years, yet still provides an annual seed crop to harvest.

Researchers with the University of Manitoba have been carefully tending plots of perennial grains at the Ian N. Morrison Research Farm near Carman for the past several years. They are part of a global collective of researchers testing the theory that through careful selection, farmers can have annual cereals to harvest and the benefits of perennial crops too.

“Manitoba is almost a perfect place to grow this,” said Doug Cattani, the plant breeder managing the Manitoba breeding program. The region gets enough moisture during the summer and winter; a healthy snow cover is needed to insulate the dormant plants through the cold Prairie winters.

Kernza has an extraordinarily long growing season, which opens up the potential for it to serve as a forage crop for livestock for months after the grain is harvested from the field.

If left intact for several years, Kernza develops roots that reach up to 12 feet deep into the soil, improving moisture infiltration and supporting a vibrant microbiological ecosystem below the surface. That rebuilds organic matter, much of which has been lost from Prairie soils since pioneer farmers first broke the land.

Nutritionally, Kernza is much higher in protein than traditional wheat. It also provides double the level of omega-3 fatty acids; more than five times the calcium; and roughly 10 times the folate of annual wheats.

Small, light seed size is its biggest drawback. When researchers here first started working with it in 2014, seeds were weighing in at two grams per 1,000 seeds. They’ve since more than tripled in weight. In the field they are now harvesting about 1,200 kg/ha, which is equivalent to about 20 bushels per acre. That still falls far short of conventional wheat yields at 50 to 80 bushels per acre, but the fact that it is a perennial compensates for the lower yields by way of lower production costs and soil improvement.

“We still have a long ways to go, but we’re getting there,” Cattani said. He believes the crop has potential for use in conventional as well as organic cropping systems.

If all goes well, the first seed for reproduction could go out to farmers as early as next year. It will be several years after that before there is enough of the grain produced to use for food and beverage ingredients.

This article was originally published on the Manitoba Co-operator.