University of MN, MEP, and others share story of crops that help keep water clean

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Professor Don Wyse demonstrates the environmental challenge of uncovered cropland in the Midwest

By Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Over 40 people from around the country went on a field tour of the University of Minnesota’s  innovative cover and perennial crops as part of the US Water Alliance’s annual One Water Summit held in Minneapolis last week. Researchers, regulators, policymakers, and other water experts saw firsthand the fruits of the UMN Forever Green Initiative, which develops valuable new crops that are both profitable for farmers and highly beneficial for the health of soil and water.

MEP Executive Director Steve Morse explained that nutrient runoff – especially nitrogen – was worsening water quality around the state and region. Efforts to increase the efficiency of nitrogen fertilizer use will only address one small slice of the problem. “We have focused heavily on managing the use of nitrogen,” Morse said, “but if we want to get to our water quality goals, we have to include continuous living cover on our agricultural lands as part of the solution.” Perennials and cover crops establish ongoing and extensive root structures that foster important microbes, absorb and supply nutrients to the plants and soil, and increase the soil’s water holding capacity.

UMN Professor Don Wyse, co-leader of the Forever Green Initiative, explained how their work is focused on developing crops to meet both economic and environmental sustainability. One major problem, Wyse said, was that “We only have green cover, capturing water and carbon pollution, in the Midwest for two and a half months out of the year.” (Shown in above photo.) Forever Green, he added, is developing cover crops like pennycress and perennials like intermediate wheatgrass that will provide year-round cover for the soil and be a new source of economic growth for farmers and businesses.

The tour took attendees from the Cargill Building to the campus crop fields, where they were able to view these developing crops in person. Professor Jake Jungers showed fields where intermediate wheatgrass – trade named Kernza™ – was growing successfully. Jungers detailed the agronomics and genome research from various partners that was continually developing Kernza into a successful perennial crop that would provide ecosystem services – like filtering water, fertilizing soil, and capturing water – all year round. At a second site, researcher Katherine Frels introduced the attendees to the University’s pennycress program. The program has made enormous progress on breeding a cover crop that would augment existing row crops and be highly usable for food and fuel.

The final stop on the tour brought the visitors to Bang Brewing, a local St. Paul business that makes use of Kernza in multiple brews. After sampling Kernza-based beer as well as dessert bars from Birchwood Café, the attendees heard Bang Brewing co-owner Sandy Boss Febbo share the brewery’s story of success implementing sustainable, water-friendly ingredients and inspiring other businesses to do the same.

Underscoring the financial potential of these crops, Shannon Shlecht, head of the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute, shared how his organization worked with researchers and businesses to develop pathways for these new crops to find success at every economic level, from farm to consumer. And Laura Hansen, a senior research scientist at General Mills, explained how companies like hers are preparing to release consumer products using Kernza, and working with partners to increase the overall Kernza supply. “It’s easy with Kernza,” she said, “because fortunately, it tastes really good!”

Minnesota has work ahead to reach our water quality goals, but if we help cutting edge crops like Kernza and pennycress enter the mainstream and integrate with our farming system, we can make rapid, lasting progress toward keeping our water clean for every Minnesota.

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