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business models, strategies and technologies

Rethinking age-old agricultural rhythms

Rethinking millennia-old agricultural practices seems inconceivable – but The Land Institute went to work and delivered Kernza

I live way out in the country. Transport to and from my abode/office – vehicular and otherwise – often makes me wonder about all kinds of to-me-unfamiliar processes taking place in the fields all around. I’m an avid observer, but with huge depths of agricultural ignorance.

Cycles of destruction and the unanswered question

Over the years, I have developed enormous respect for the business and management skills of the farming operations that surround my living and working life. Our forefathers have practised agriculture and crop rotation for millennia, and modern-day farmers have crafted it to a fine art, now Excel-embedded and GPS-monitored.

But I can’t help noticing that every crop and harvest (pretty much regardless of what’s being cultivated) is actually a repeating cycle of growth, “destruction” and replacement. From my ignorant outsider’s perspective, it seems somehow strange that so much engineering, effort and use of energy goes into sowing and harvesting a crop, only for it all to have to be completely cleared, again using similar amounts of complex farm machinery, fossil fuels and skilled manpower (the “destroying” part) ready for the next crop. And so on, ad infinitum.

Yes, I suppose crop rotation means each growth cycle adds to and replaces the nutrients devoured in producing the previous one, that the best modern farmers are avid practitioners of low-impact field-tending practices and there’s almost certainly some kind of overall thermodynamic accounting that I don’t understand. Who’s to question the wisdom of thousands of years of farming good practice? But there’s not much sense of “cumulative” growth (literally or figuratively), and the processes and equipment used in the traditional kinds of sequential agricultural practices involve huge expenditure, not to mention fossil fuel consumption and biotope disturbance.

The perennial alternative

Business processes don’t usually get seriously questioned until users are more or less forced to reconsider them, and until there’s at least a glimpse or hope of a viable alternative.

One of those glorious unicorns now seems to have emerged – a type of grain that’s a distant relative of wheat, developed from wheatgrass (Latin name thinopyrum intermediumby the impressively named The Land Institute, a non-profit based in Kansas, USA. The new crop type has been trademarked “Kernza” and is being hailed as a breakthrough that could also revolutionise farming at the same time as helping limit environmental impacts and climate change. Big news …

The Land Institute specialises in developing grains, pulses and oilseed-bearing plants for growing in ecologically intensified, diverse crop mixtures known as perennial polycultures. And it’s the word “perennial” that is apparently the key to the philosophy and business model behind this setup.

According to The Land Institute, Kernza roots extend over 3 metres beneath the soil – which is more than twice the depth of wheat. This is crucial, because these voluminous roots help stabilise the soil, protect the biotope, retain water and improve wildlife habitats, Kernza is apparently also good at trapping carbon in its roots, and also traps nitrogen, preventing it from reaching streams and rivers.

You can think of Kernza and other perennial crops as really like carbon pumps

Unlike wheat, barley and other cereals and grains, Kernza is a perennial plant whose roots can be left in the ground to regrow after harvesting. This form of growth does away with the need to clear fields of the old crop growth, to plough and prepare the soil, and to reseed/replant each year, as well as saving energy and reducing farmers’ carbon emissions. And – crucially for effective takeup of a new technology/approach – Kernza can (allegedly …) also be harvested using existing agricultural machinery.

Cumulative cultivation?

The thing is that humans have been producing food (and other crops) using the same basic cultivation paradigm for thousands of years. Many of these “annual” monoculture crops need replanting each year – which means you’ve got to remove the vegetation at the surface if you’re going to get your new seed to germinate. Ideally, a farmer has to clear away anything that might compete with the fragile next-crop seedlings and “baby plants”. And that’s both expensive and “destructive”.

So the “big thing” about Kenza is not really the crop itself, but the way it is cultivated – it’s a perennial polyculture whereas virtually all other crops are annual monocultures.


Grain-growing is a huge global industry (making up 45% of human calorie intake) and Kernza is therefore facing stiff competition – and lots of firmly embedded vested interests. What are the chances of a minnow like this being able to rock this agricultural supertanker?

The ® in the name is perhaps a worrying sign, a possible indicator of old-fashioned protectionism and traditional defensive ring-fencing of intellectual property. Which seems unlikely to fly when the launch of a new agricultural engineering business platform means you’re up against established practices and corporate giants the world over.

Nevertheless, the Land Institute seems to be operating with a bottom-up model, explicitly addressing the individual farmer, baker, miller, brewer, or chef. It’s still early days, and The Land Institute is naturally proud to highlight early successes with Kernza in restaurants and brewing. The giant General Mills made 6,000 boxes of the cereal and in April 2019 was passing them out to spread the word about perennial grains. However, this was actually only a give-away promotion, and not an example of a viable business model.

Responsible business heroes Patagonia are apparently also supporters, while Cascadian Farm has also launched a Kernza-based cereal product as part of its Deeply Rooted For Good mission, but the harsh realities are that there are apparently only about 500 hectares/1,200 acres of Kernza® perennial grain in production, and current yields are only about 25% of those from conventional annual wheat.  Not surprising that Cascadian Farm is talking about a 2040 time frame …

At a time when the burden of growing populations with new food expectations and the impacts of an industrial approach to farming seem to be threatening the viability of the entire agricultural enterprise, perhaps it’s time for a rethink, and for wise wizards from outside the traditional agricultural mindset to add their tuppence’ worth to the know-how mix. In the case of Kernza, it’s not really the crop itself that’s important, but the changes in the whole business model for farming that it could presage.