Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership
On Monday, July 19, MEP and Friends of the Mississippi River co-hosted a field tour of the University of Minnesota’s Forever Green Initiative, a program to develop crops and farming systems to transform agriculture in Minnesota. Joined by legislators, state agency leaders, and other key stakeholders, our team took part in presentations, hands-on demonstrations, and panels to demonstrate the incredible value of this Minnesota-grown program. MEP and many member organizations have been long time supporters of this initiative. The Land Stewardship Project has provided key leadership over the years.
The tour and presentations centered on an issue that is a key question for Minnesota to answer: How do we reshape our agricultural systems to not only be profitable, but also be designed to restore our land, water and climate?
There’s no question that this is a critical issue. The present system we have is very effective at producing vast quantities of crops like corn, soybeans, and sugar beets, and has resulted in Minnesota having the fifth-largest agricultural economy in the nation. But it’s not effective at protecting the natural resources on which we all depend. Agriculture and land use is one of the top sources of greenhouse gases in Minnesota, accounting for about a quarter of our emissions. Fertilizer-heavy corn and soybean farming has led to nitrate building up in the surface waters and groundwater that Minnesotans rely on for drinking. And the wholesale destruction of habitat and use of pesticides has decimated pollinators and other wildlife.
But in order to create durable change in the current system, we need to create a feasible and worthwhile path for farmers to do so. Farmers care about soil health and wildlife, but the current system of large-scale commodity agriculture creates headwinds against any attempt to change. Farmers need to know that they aren’t betting on a crop without an adequate market.
The Forever Green Initiative and its partners aim to thread that needle by breeding crops that produce income, while also providing water storage and filtration, soil health, habitat, and other ecosystem services, then help to establish supply chains and markets for those crops. By working on the separate components at the same time – crop development, farmer adoption, and supply chain economics – this needed transition is starting to get some real traction.
A sampling of the crops:
Intermediate Wheatgrass or Kernza is a breed originally developed by the Land Institute in Kansas. It’s a perennial crop, meaning that it will stay on the land and produce grain over multiple years, rather than needing to be reseeded each growing season. The grain has applications including use in flour, cereal, beer, and other products. In addition, it can serve as forage and can be harvested for animal feed and straw.
Kernza’s ecological benefits are significant, and mostly relate to its incredibly deep root system. Corn roots extend a few feet into the soil, while Kernza’s roots stretch closer to thirteen feet. This enables Kernza to survive drought conditions with minimal irrigation, to hold soil together, and absorb nutrients far more efficiently, reducing the need for fertilizer. By relying less on these inputs, Kernza can protect and restore soil, reduce the stress on aquifers, and reduce the load of nutrient pollution ending up in the groundwater. Recent field trials have shown that Kernza reduces nitrogen loss from soils by more than 95% compared to corn.
Oilseeds – pennycress and camelina
These oilseed plants are among the most commercially promising crops that Forever Green researchers are developing, and the process of breeding them toward market readiness has happened remarkably fast. These crops are efficient at producing plant oils and will have applications in food production, biodegradable plastics, biofuels (including jet fuel), and other areas.
A key advantage of the oilseeds is that they can be used in combination with corn or soybeans. These winter annuals and can be interseeded with these crops during the growing season and will remain on the field throughout the winter, helping prevent erosion and fertilizer infiltration of groundwater. They renew their growth early in the spring, and their flowers provide nectar for pollinators without interfering with other crops. They are harvested in early June.
European hazelnuts are a well-established crop, especially in the Mediterranean region, but are not suited for the climate of Minnesota. American hazelnuts, which grow in bushes rather than trees, have the advantage of hardiness in Midwest winters and are resistant to blight, but are less suitable for commercial use. By crossbreeding to create a new hybrid, researchers are nearing the point of developing a viable crop to help meet the massive demand for hazelnuts.
The hazelnut bush is another perennial crop that establishes deep roots in the soil, helping it to prevent erosion, efficiently use nutrients, sequester carbon, and protect water. It also provides valuable habitat for native birds and insects.
Building on science
Professor Don Wyse, the key faculty member behind Forever Green, is the first to emphasize that the program doesn’t just produce new crops – it produces scientific expertise. Forever Green researchers have gone on to spread and expand on their knowledge at other companies and institutions, growing the body of knowledge around these new crops. Through this work, the University contributes to a growing scientific community working to change the farming systems of Minnesota and the nation to be healthier for our climate, our water, and our wildlife.
The next steps
As these crops are developed, farmers are the key partners who bring them to the land and ultimately to market. Only a tiny percentage of Minnesota’s cropland is currently planted with Kernza, but that level is growing rapidly. The farmer co-op leaders who partner with Forever Green believe that they can successfully make the case for buyers to try new, regenerative crops, beyond the historic reliance on corn and soybeans, especially in the face of droughts, low prices, and consolidation of land by large companies.
For farmers and for our environment, Minnesota needs to build a new relationship with our farmland. MEP is proud to support Forever Green as it points the way.