By Elizabeth Foy Larsen
As a teenager growing up on a corn and soybean farm on the outskirts of Albert Lea, Minnesota, Lee DeHaan (M.S. ’00, Ph.D. ‘01) remembers having plenty of opportunities to contemplate what he would eventually view as the shortcomings of traditional agriculture. “I spent hundreds of hours on a tractor tilling fields and burning fuel,” he says in a wry tone that makes it clear he’s understating matters. “I realized what we were doing wasn’t good for the soil.”
It was the 1980s—the height of the farm crisis—and many of the farmers in DeHaan’s community were losing their land. Some urged their children not to go into a profession that had been passed down for generations. DeHaan’s father sold their farm to an investor and then farmed it for the rest of his career as a manager under contract.
Photo by Bill Wadman That painful time started DeHaan on a lifelong journey to make farming more environmentally and economically sustainable. Today, he’s the lead scientist for the Kernza Domestication Program at the Land Institute, a Kansas-based agriculture research organization that develops food production methods—including perennial grain and seed crops—that support the land and soil.
An earth-friendly grain that’s getting attention from climate scientists, cereal makers, and sustainable farmers, Kernza is a new domesticated crop bred from an ancient strain of wheatgrass. It grows like grass, but tastes like wheat. Today, thanks largely to DeHaan, it’s the breakout star in an expanding lineup of perennial grains and cover crops that plant geneticists are developing to capture carbon, enrich soils, prevent erosion, and improve both water quality and the economics of farming. More Kernza is grown in Minnesota than in any other state in the country.
“A perennial crop doesn’t need to be replanted every year and that conserves the soil’s health,” DeHaan explains. “And when you have the potential for increased productivity with less input, that can also give farmers a greater share of the agricultural revenue, which in turn can help alleviate the extreme swings in the farm economy.”
After studying biology and plant science at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, DeHaan attended graduate school at the University of Minnesota, focusing on agronomy and applied plant science. For his master’s degree, DeHaan studied feed options for livestock. He moved on to perennial grains for his doctorate, research that eventually led to a full-time job at the Land Institute and his work with Kernza. Today, DeHaan’s research is partly backed by a partnership between the Institute and the U’s Forever Green initiative, which develops new crops and high-efficiency cropping systems. DeHaan is also a member of the U’s adjunct faculty and sits on graduate student committees.
With a spicy, earthy undertone that intrigues foodies—chefs and bakers insist that, like wine, the grain has its own “terroir,” which varies from soil to soil—Kernza serves up a host of environmental benefits that include a deep root system, resistance to drought, and the continuous living cover agronomists say can lower pesticide use, reduce soil erosion, and improve water quality.
Kernza is not available yet in grocery stores; it has only recently been milled commercially and quantities are limited. But there are both large and small-scale businesses, including California-based Patagonia Provisions and Minnesota-based General Mills, which are working to incorporate it into their products. When it’s available, the Birchwood Cafe in Minneapolis mixes the grain into its waffles, crackers, and tortillas. Their Kernza sweet corn blueberry eclair made the StarTribune’s 2017 new food roundup when it was served at the Farmers Union coffee shop at the Minnesota State Fair. “It’s a big honor to be a part of this paradigm shift,” says Tracy Singleton (B.A. ‘94), the Birchwood’s owner, who adds that DeHaan’s humble demeanor belies his outsized contribution to sustainable agriculture.
Likewise, as part of its Keep the North Cold initiative to combat climate change, Minneapolis clothing brand Askov Finlayson has partnered with Fair State Brewing Cooperative in Northeast Minneapolis to produce a beer—also called Keep the North Cold— using local ingredients, including Kernza. The company views the beer as an investment in the future of farming practices that are easier on the environment. “Making Kernza more widely available is a long-term journey,” says Adam Fetcher, Askov Finlayson’s vice president of environmental impact and policy. “Lee is on the front lines. He owns this work day in and day out.”
In fact, DeHaan’s job marries hands-on science with public relations evangelizing. He not only spends days in the field planting and collecting plant tissue for DNA samples; he also writes papers, gives talks, and travels to international meetings, all to improve and promote Kernza’s chances for success. It’s a lot of work, but he and his colleagues at the Land Institute and the U are grounded in a practical strategy for success. “We hope that once Kernza is available, someone shopping in the grocery store won’t notice a big change,” DeHaan says. “We want to provide a solution for environmental concerns without having to revolutionize the human diet.”
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