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Kernza, a climate-friendly grain, gets the attention of brewers, distillers

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Now an update on efforts to make food more climate friendly. KUNC's Rae Solomon reports on why it's been hard to get that food onto store shelves.

RAE SOLOMON, BYLINE: Todd Olander grows familiar grains on his 2,000-acre farm in Loveland, Colo., mostly barley, wheat and rye. But this one little field with the short tufts of broad, green blades is different.

TODD OLANDER: All of this low growth plants that are spreading out, that's all Kernza.

SOLOMON: It's all Kernza, an alternative grain being developed with sustainability in mind. And Olander is one of the first farmers to experiment with it in Colorado.

OLANDER: It's 11 acres out of 2,000. I mean, it's worth a trial.

SOLOMON: Kernza is a cousin of wheat. But University of Minnesota agronomist Jake Jungers says it's better for the environment.

JAKE JUNGERS: It's a perennial grain. It's a completely different paradigm of a perennial grain crop versus an annual.

SOLOMON: That means farmers like Olander don't need to replant Kernza every year, and that improves soil health, prevents erosion, and helps on the biodiversity front. Breeders have spent decades improving Kernza, making it more appealing for growers.

JUNGERS: The goal is more yield, more seeds per acre.

SOLOMON: And those ongoing efforts have been successful. Since 2019, Kernza fields quadrupled to about 4,000 acres and expanded from the Upper Midwest into new regions like Colorado, Washington State and Montana. But Jungers wants to see Kernza and other perennial crops grown on a scale that would revolutionize agriculture. Only problem - building market demand for those revolutionary crops.

JUNGERS: A lot of good could be done if Kernza could be integrated into a lot of different products in a way that required much more acreage - hundreds of thousands to a million acres.

SOLOMON: Tessa Peters is with the Land Institute, a nonprofit research group that breeds Kernza. She says demand for Kernza was just starting to take off in 2019.

TESSA PETERS: The market was pretty strong. We had a lot of commercial partners who were looking for Kernza.

SOLOMON: That included General Mills, which released a limited edition Kernza breakfast cereal in 2019. But then a global pandemic crashed right into the Kernza supply chain.

PETERS: When COVID happened, there were cancellations of pretty large contracts as restaurants and bakeries and other businesses went out of business.

SOLOMON: Market disruptions from the war in Ukraine didn't help. It all put a huge dent in the burgeoning Kernza trade. The Land Institute says a big surplus - up to 1 million pounds of Kernza grain - is now just sitting in storage. Dawn Thilmany is an agricultural economist at Colorado State University. She says building a new market for grains can be tricky.

DAWN THILMANY: They're never something we tend to consume directly.

SOLOMON: They don't usually attract devoted followings because they end up just one ingredient among many in a product. But under the right conditions, even an oddball grain like Kernza can become a rock star.

THILMANY: Sometimes that's just going to be some cool food entrepreneur figuring out how to integrate it into the products that people really, really like.

(SOUNDBITE OF MECHANICAL DRUM TURNING)

SOLOMON: Chris Anderson-Tarver might be the cool food entrepreneur Kernza needs. Right now, he's got a pilot batch of Kernza whiskey aging in the cellar of his distillery in Denver, Colo.

CHRIS ANDERSON-TARVER: The Kernza whiskey has this great aroma. There's a little bit of a fruit note. There's some - a little bit of nuttiness.

SOLOMON: Nipping a taste from the barrel, he says Kernza adds a striking flavor. It's a little spicy, like Fig Newton with a touch of cinnamon.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIQUID SLOSHING)

ANDERSON-TARVER: Oh, yeah. This is going to be so good.

SOLOMON: Anderson-Tarver says this first batch has to keep aging at least another year, but he's already convinced Kernza whiskey will be a hit. For NPR News, I'm Rae Solomon in Denver.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ONEUPS' "ICE, ICE CAVEY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Rae Solomon
As newscast reporter I keep Northern Coloradans up to date on all the things they need to know NOW. Whatever’s floating through the zeitgeist at the moment, I’m on it.