Kernza pancakes, served with butter and maple syrup, were the main course for breakfast during the Prairie Festival Saturday at The Land Institute.

Jack Erisman, of Pana, Ill., who said he does not usually eat pancakes, enjoyed the Kernza cakes.

He has been a Kernza grower since 2011 and is part of the Kernza perennial grain commercialized panel discussion, starting at 10 a.m. today, which is part of the festival.

Kernza, a cousin to wheat, can be milled and used in baking and the brewing of beer.

Land Institute President Fred Iutzi said a crowd of 500 attended the event Saturday.

Erisman and Iutzi are involved with the Agriculture Watershed Institute in Decatur, Ill. When The Land Institute was looking for someone in the Midwest to grow and harvest Kernza, a perennial developed by the Land Institute that doesn’t need to be replanted each growing season, Erisman planted nine acres.

Many outcomes

Erisman operates an organic food grain farm in a latitude similar to that of Kansas, even though Kernza is best grown in more northern and cooler climates.

“They sent me the seed and I planted it,” he said. “Pretty simple.”

He said he's had a different outcome every season since 2011.

“The first year we had the drought of 2012. We had some leftover volunteer red clover in the Kernza and it had a lot more promise as a forage crop for hay so we just mowed it and made hay,” he said. 

The second and third years the crop produced grain that was harvested with a combine and donated to the University of Minnesota to be used for research.

Erisman said Kernza is still in the research and testing stage.

Different uses

Kernza is most frequently blended with annual wheat flour to make bread. It can make up 100 percent of the flour in quick breads (muffins, pancakes, etc.) or served as a pilaf like rice.

He said in 2015 rain damaged the crop and it was again harvested as forage.

“It’s turned out to be excellent cattle feed,” he said.

Erisman called Kernza a dual purpose crop.

“You may have to utilize the dual purposes to make it economically viable,” he said. 

The crop produced grain in 2016 and this year.

Newer variety

Erisman said he planted 18 acres of a newer version of Kernza in 2016.

“We harvested most of it for hay this year. In the first year it seemed like Kernza, at our latitude, didn’t compete very well with weeds,” he said. “It takes about a year for it to be really competitive.”

Herbicides and pesticides are not used on Erisman’s feed grain crops and the ground is tilled as little as possible. He said tilling tools are used on the farm only to control weeds.

“What we are learning is that it is becoming root bound,” he said. “It spreads not only by its own seed but by its own rhizomes. It’s become very, very thick rooted. It’s almost impossible to put a spade in the ground by normal human force.”

At some point, Erisman said, the land will need to be tilled and Kernza replanted.

“It looks like we are going to have to go through some type of disturbance in order to get it to maintain a certain yield level,” he said. “Or possibly get into some kind of system of a combination of a seed-forage balance that will be economically viable.”