Certified organic farmer talks about new perennial grain

At Turner Talks event

Staff photo by Fritz Busch Certified organic farmer Ben Penner, center, of Belle Plaine, speaks about Kernza perennial grain at the Turner Talks event on agriculture at Turner Hall Thursday. The next Turner Talks event in March will center on manufacturing.

NEW ULM — It’s a new type of grain that grows differently than traditional grain. It looks like wheat but it’s not.

Belle Plaine certified organic farmer Ben Penner spoke with enthusiasm about Kernza, a perennial grain at the first of quarterly Turner Talks events at Turner Hall Thursday.

“It tastes really good, like cinnamon,” Penner said. “It’s a good, high-protein, value-added crop with an opportunity to build a supply chain.”

The grain is advertised as having a sweet, nutty flavor good for cereals and snacks with more bran and fiber than wheat in a smaller kernel, but fewer carbohydrates.

Kernza is not a strain or species of wheat. It’s a registered trade name owned by The Land Institute for a type of intermediate wheatgrass, a wild relative of annual wheat.

Penner said Kernza offers lower production costs and environmental benefits including potential to improve water quality and soil health, reduce erosion, provide habitat, and sequester carbon.

“I grow, market and sell alfalfa, hard red winter and spring wheat, food grade soybeans and cover crops,” said Penner.

He sells Heritage Turkey Red and Hard Red Spring Wheat and rye at the St. Peter Food Cooperative.

Cannon Falls farmer Todd Churchill founded Thousand Hills Cattle Company devoted 12 years to perfecting grass-fed beef–the cattle, grasses and soils.

“I got tired of indigestion from eating grocery store beef, so I got into grass-fed beef,” said Churchill. “It was rich, juicy, and flavorful. It has the ideal ratio of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids. It is twice as costly as everything else but has no antibodies and creates an emotional response. It’s the way we feel after eating nourishing food that matters.”

Churchill said good grass-fed beef is much tougher to produce than feedlot beef.

“You have to optimize a multi-variable system. Good nutrition and genetics are needed,” he said. “American agriculture has been optimized for efficiency and sacrificed quality. Maybe it’s because we pushed efficiency a little too far.”

Christensen Farms (CF) CEO Greg Howard said CF was one of the first organizations in Minnesota to create manure management plans that balanced what the soil needed.

“Manure is a very valuable nutrient,” said Howard.

“The company flourished with a strong management team, strong supply and business partners to build the first successful packing plant owned by family farmers.

“We produce enough pork to feed 15 million people a day,” said Howard. “The U.S. is a production powerhouse. We’re concerned about food insecurity. In 30 years, the world will have another 2 billion people to feed.”

Howard said “fake meat” has more ingredients than dog food. He said CF is starting to grow into niche markets and sells products in 33 countries.

Turner Hall Executive Director Andrea Boettger said the next Turner Talks event will center in manufacturing on the first or second Thursday in March 2022.


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