kernza group in field

ROCORI High School students planted 16 acres of Kernza in August of 2020 to learn more about the crop.

COLD SPRING, Minn. — Tamara Berger, agricultural instructor for the ROCORI consolidated school district, and her students have conducted cooking experiments with Kernza.

“I personally have baked banana bread,” Berger said. “I decided to try it with 100 percent Kernza. The result was very dense and did not rise like regular wheat flour. A 50/50 loaf rose more. Then I compared them to a 100 percent wheat flour loaf. It was interesting to see the difference. Kernza has a much more grain-like flavor. I quite enjoy it, but everyone is different.”

As a group, Berger says she and her students have tried Kernza pasta, pancakes, cookies, bread, tortillas; and she believes some doughnuts have been made.

The cooking experiments are part of a larger on-going project by Berger, her students, and a group of supportive community members to actually grow Kernza on a 16-acre field owned by the school district. 

“Kernza is the world’s first perennial grain,” Jen Wagner-Lahr, a member of the FFA Alumni and Supporters group, said. ‘It was developed by The Land Institute of Salina, Kan. Plant breeders at The Land Institute developed intermediate wheatgrass to produce a grain they now call Kernza. The Land Institute has worked very closely with the University of Minnesota’s Forever Green Program to further develop the crop — including varieties specific to Minnesota.”

The Supporters group footed the bill for the project — including providing volunteer farmers John and Aaron Willenbring and a no-till drill, according to Berger.

“The FFA Alumni and Supporters includes those who want to support the program, but might not necessarily be a ROCORI or FFA alumni,” she said. “However, they see the positive impact that students can have so they are solely supporting the agriculture and FFA program. We are a newly reestablished chapter, so this is a new avenue we are exploring with the help of community, alumni and supporters.”

Tyler Ratka, a junior and the chapter’s president, says he appreciates the educational aspects of the Kernza project. “It is great for the members to learn about crops and soil testing,” he said. “It will also be used in the future for classroom learning.”

Ratka points out the Kernza was drilled into a harvested rye field. No herbicides were used on the rye since there are no approved herbicides for the grain. The variety in the FFA plot is MN Clearwater which was developed by the University of Minnesota to thrive in Minnesota.

Ninth-grader Bethany Posch, the chapter’s reporter, says that chapter members were stretching themselves by taking on the Kernza project. “We have not planted crops in that size plot before; but we have planted a small garden and it grew well.“ 

Berger explained the chapter’s decision to learn about a novel agronomic crop in addition to their hands-on horticultural learning. “The chapter and alumni group collaborated, and decided we wanted to do something different than corn and soybeans,” she said. “Not that those are not important, but we are part of education and wanted this to be a learning opportunity for all. Cold Spring is also in a unique area where our nitrate levels in our groundwater are high, so this would not only be a new learning opportunity, but also help the community and environment. Kernza has an extremely deep root system which helps to pull those nitrates out of the water.”

“I’d also add that this decision has afforded an opportunity for ROCORI students to interact directly with UMN agronomists that are working with Kernza, as well as our local SWCD staff,” Wagner-Lahr said.

The Willenbrings planted the Kernza on Aug. 22, 2020. The students and the community attended the planting and used it as an educational event. Later, a Community Plot Day and Kernza pancake breakfast was held.

“We had speakers, Kernza products available for sale and to sample, and more educational activities to talk about soil and water health and how Kernza can impact that,” Berger said. "The pancakes were actually Kernza pancakes that Chris Pancakes cooked for us using their own pancake formula mix. It was not all Kernza, but you can tell a difference.”

The Kernza came through the winter of 2020-21 … but so did the rye. “We did not have a harvest,” Posch said. “The rye that was there before we planted the Kernza overtook the Kernza and choked it out.” 

Wagner-Lahr points out there was a drought during the 2021 growing season, so the recently-planted Kernza had to compete for water with the well-established rye.

“Our first year did not go as planned,” Berger admitted, “but we did come out with 15-and-a-half large round bales that went to supplement livestock feed.

Berger, the FFA chapter, and the community members are not giving up on Kernza — even though their first attempt didn’t go as planned. In August they were back in the field drilling oats. 

“We will harvest the oats in the spring of 2022,” Berger said. “We are hoping that with the oats we can get rid of the rye and other weeds that are there and then start fresh by replanting Kernza in late summer of 2022. We hope to see what markets are available to us at that time, and there has even been discussion about using some of the Kernza flour in recipes for students to eat at ROCORI.”

The oats were planted with five different treatments ranging from tilled to no-tilled to control plots where nothing was done to the rye. Berger says the variety of plot treatments will be educational for the community and club members.

While everyone is waiting to see what will happen with the various small grain experiments, the gardening project will continue during the 2022 growing season. Posch says the gardeners hope to grow enough to freeze some of the harvest to eat during the colder months. 

The ROCORI school district serves three Minnesota towns whose names form the acronym ROCORI: Rockville, Cold Spring and Richmond.   

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