Right now it's only grown on tiny pilot plots.

kernza grain
Credit: © The Land Institute

The health food and environmentally conscious crowd always seem to be touting the latest in hip grains. For a while, “ancient grains” seemed to be the top choice – with quinoa, spelt and sorghum appearing everywhere. But now, a major player in the food game, General Mills, is making an investment in another grain you may not have previously heard of before: Kernza.

General Mills has earmarked a half-million dollar charitable donation to support research of the emerging grain, a relative of wheat, according to Food Business News. Specifically, the donation will go to the Forever Green Initiative at the University of Minnesota in partnership with The Land Institute, a non-profit organization and creator of the “Kernza” name. Additionally, General Mill’s organic brand Cascadian Farm has agreed to make an initial purchase of the grain – though how much and what the brand plans to use it for aren’t being disclosed. Still, these moves have already given Kernza a boost, propelling the little-known grain into the news.

So what is Kernza? Kernza is a brand name for “intermediate wheatgrass,” a plant that grows wild throughout the Western United States among other places in the world. Since the 1980s, researchers have been looking to selectively breed a commercially viable version of the edible grain, which is described as sweet and nutty, because Kernza offers a number of potential environmental advantages over its cousin, regular old wheat. Unlike wheat, which has to be replanted every year, intermediate wheatgrass is a perennial plant with deeper roots – meaning less soil damage and more water retention. It’s even believed that Kernza could reduce greenhouse gases by trapping carbon. “Research has demonstrated that the ecological benefits of Kernza perennial grain for agricultural systems are remarkable,” Lee DeHaan, lead scientist at The Land Institute, a non-profit that advocates for perennial grains, was quoted as saying. “The length, size and long life of the roots enable the grain to provide measurable soil health benefits and drought resistance while preventing soil erosion and storing critical nutrients, potentially turning agriculture into a soil-forming ecosystem.”

Kernza researchers are hoping the General Mills investment will be able to get this alternative grain over the hump. At this point Kernza is grown in test-sized plots; General Mills investment will allow commercial-sized fields – as well as potentially enticing new farmers to try out the perennial. And according to the Associated Press, the food giant has already said it’s hoping to have Cascadian Farm products featuring Kernza on store shelves as early as next year. So if you happen to see Kernza at the grocery store, don’t be afraid: Just remind yourself, “Oh, that’s just intermediate wheatgrass. Duh!”