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Colorado farmers experiment with drought-tolerant wheatgrass

A close up shot of a golden wheat field.
Melissa Askew

With the flashlight shining out of the back of his cellphone, Perry Cabot, a water resources specialist at Colorado State University’s Western Colorado Research Center in Fruita, hunched behind a grain drill, a piece of equipment farmers use to plant seeds in a field. The research center’s operations manager, Jim Fry, piloted a tractor that slowly dragged the equipment through the dirt. Cabot followed along, pointing the light toward the bottom of the machine.

“I’m just trying to make sure the seed is dropping out,” Cabot said. He hadn’t necessarily seen anything wrong with the equipment; it’s just that, well, it never hurts to double or triple check.

Cabot seemed particularly excited about what was going into the ground at the CSU facility on a sunny morning last week in Fruita, a strain of intermediate wheatgrass that produces a grain most commonly referred to by its trade name Kernza. Cabot thinks Kernza has potential as both a forage and a grain crop in different parts of Colorado, and the research center is attempting to plant it for the first time in the Grand Valley. “It feels like we’re charting uncharted territory,” Cabot said. “You don’t get that as often in this line of work. So, that’s exciting.”

One of the reasons for Cabot’s excitement is that Kernza, a perennial, possesses something of a superpower in a Western region experiencing the driest 22-year stretch of the past 1,200 years, a climate pattern that has zapped stream flows and led to water managers drawing down the nation’s two largest reservoirs to critically low levels: This wheatgrass is especially drought tolerant.

Cabot estimates Kernza could consume about 30% less water than, say, alfalfa hay, a dominant forage crop in Colorado and elsewhere in the West.

“That would be a conservative estimate,” Cabot said. “I suspect it will be even more.”

After three passes in the field with the grain drill, Fry, the farm manager, offered a slightly different view on the whole experiment. “The farmer never gets excited until he sees something growing,” Fry said with a smile. “I’ll get excited when this is a nice green mat of Kernza.”

“Jimmy is the grounded farmer,” Cabot said. “I’m just the wild-eyed optimist.”

More with less

Cabot and the team at the Fruita research center are planting the perennial grain as part of a collaborative effort with The Land Institute, a nonprofit agricultural research organization based in Kansas that developed and named the wheatgrass. The idea is to evaluate the viability of Kernza in the Grand Valley and other parts of the Western Slope.

Farmers in the central Plains states have been growing Kernza for decades, primarily as a high-quality forage, said Tessa Peters, director of crop stewardship at The Land Institute. The conditions in Fruita are of course different — different soil, different elevation, different growing season. Still, it’s no wonder there’s interest, Peters said.

“We all know the Colorado River Basin is experiencing significant reductions in the amount of water that is available for both agriculture and for human populations downstream,” she said. “And so one thing that is of interest for these crops in Colorado is that there’s the potential that they will need less irrigation.” She added, “It’s not magic, but it’s pretty drought tolerant and produces high-quality forage and hay for cattle.”

Kernza’s potential to grow in low-water scenarios caught the attention of Kremmling rancher Paul Bruchez, who is also preparing to plant a few test plots this fall on his family ranch in Grand County. “We have wheatgrasses growing on our ranch, most places do, that’s not necessarily anything groundbreaking,” Bruchez said. “But the root system depth is bonkers — 12 to 15 feet.”

If Bruchez can get those deep root systems established on a meadow in Kremmling, he thinks Kernza might be able to provide him with some flexibility over how he uses his water supply for irrigation.

“If you had a sprinkler or drip and were applying the perfect amount of water to this plant, I do not think it will save water,” Bruchez said. “But if you’re going through periods where you are short, if the roots are established, you would have a crop whether you irrigated or not.”

The Nature Conservancy is partnering with Bruchez on research regarding potential alternative crops, ones that might be better suited to a Western U.S. that doesn’t have as much water to go around. “We are interested in pursuing any and all methods that can help ag adapt to a future with less water in a way that allows them to continue to be economically successful,” said Aaron Derwingson, water projects director at The Nature Conservancy’s Colorado River Program.

Derwingson said he’s felt a shift even in just the past six months in the sense of urgency for big ideas that might help with the water crisis on the Colorado River.

“We’re going to need more permanent types of solutions and permanently taking land out of production makes all of us a little nervous,” Derwingson said. Having an option for a farmer to plant a crop that uses less water and thus allows that farmer to keep ag land intact and productive is promising, he said.

In Colorado, irrigated agriculture accounts for about 72% of the state’s Colorado River water use, according to provisional Bureau of Reclamation numbers.

For Bruchez, the plan this first year is to try to get some of this wheatgrass to germinate. No one has tried to grow this stuff at 8,000 feet in as short of a growing season as exists up by Kremmling, he said. “It’s very exciting, but we’ll start with some baby steps.”

There could also be some potential upsides to the growing conditions around Grand County, Peters said. “In Kansas, it probably needs a lot more water than somewhere like Kremmling, where it’s nice and cool,” she said. “What we really want to understand is how those two things are related.”

Bread and booze

One of the other aspects of Kernza that has Cabot excited is its potential as a perennial cover crop that could have an added benefit of being marketed as a grain. The Land Institute, Cabot said, has already shown there’s a market for Kernza grain — from artisan bread makers to brewers and whiskey distillers. Earlier this year, Patagonia and the brewery Dogfish Head partnered to produce a German-style pilsner beer brewed with Kernza called Kernza Pils.

Typically, the benefit of a cover crop is that it helps nourish the soil, but figuring out how to make some money on that crop can be a challenge, Cabot said. “They know that they’re investing in their soil health,” he said, “but sometimes it’s hard to ask farmers to take a field out of production just to do this cover cropping.”

With Kernza, both could be possible, Cabot said. “I’m always concerned about alternative crops,” he said, “because the next question is where the hell am I going to sell this.” Cabot said there’s a bakery in Fruita that’s already expressed interest in buying Kernza.

But even if it doesn’t work out as a grain long-term, there’s still the potential as a drought-tolerant crop that could be used as forage, Cabot said.

Kernza is not going to replace the high yields of alfalfa, Cabot said. But he thinks the crop could pair well with the types of water conservation programs being discussed around the Colorado River Basin — programs that would pay farmers to use less water. Instead of taking a field completely out of production, perhaps a farmer could use less water by planting Kernza, get credit for the water savings and then still have a crop to show for it.

“If we can lock in a lower-water use, decent protein, marketable crop — I’m not saying that’s a unicorn, but it’s another tool in the toolkit,” Cabot said.

Research scientist Katie Russell manages a sister CSU ag research station near Cortez in southwestern Colorado, a region that has been hit hard by drought in recent years. Russell is already in the process of testing Kernza in that area, trying out different planting dates and seeding rates. Looking at what happens if it’s a dry or wet winter. She said some farmers have started to express interest in the crop. A lot of folks are understanding that it’s not business as usual anymore, she said.

“We’re really trying to think outside the box and figure out alternative crops,” Russell said. “This whole area has been very dependent on alfalfa, and for good reason. It’s a lucrative crop and it made sense for a long time. But there are so many conflicting issues with that.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is also in the process of getting started on Kernza research. The department is looking at seven spots around the country, including three in the West, one of which is located on Colorado’s Eastern Plains in Akron. Grace Miner, a Fort Collins-based USDA ag researcher who is part of the project, said there’s clearly a need for alternative crops, particularly on marginal lands where water supplies for irrigation might be more and more limited.

“There’s a lot of energy and enthusiasm around Kernza as a forage and a grain,” Miner said.

At the research center in Fruita, Cabot and the rest of the team will know more about the Kernza they planted last week come spring.

“We get to try something that farmers might be a little bit hesitant to try, and if it works it could be a contribution,” Cabot said. “If it’s something that makes their farms more profitable or able to withstand what’s coming, then, you know, you can kind of hang your hat on having done something for somebody else.”

Associated Press
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