A decade ago, a Minneapolis cafe became the first restaurant ever to feature Kernza® by using it as an ingredient in their savory waffles. It was the first attempt at commercializing the novel, perennial grain that was still facing a heavy amount of skepticism both in terms of scientific feasibility and commercial viability.
Most scientists considered the notion that a crop could yield grain for multiple years and provide the same ecological benefits as perennial grasses as outlandish. There was also the entire question of, “How are we going to get people to eat this stuff?”
Imagine those poor cafe servers in the early days trying to explain the complex ecological story of Kernza while upselling those waffles to their table of 4.
The grain was launched into the market at a nascent stage in its development with more scientific excitement than commercial support. Although The Land Institute had spent more than a decade researching and breeding the crop for an eventual commercial debut, the organization and team were unprepared to service the initial interest. When a large restaurant chain came knocking to put Kernza in their tortillas, scientists and plant breeders became de-facto marketers and supply chain architects - an understandable short-term fix but most likely a risky long-term strategy.
🙋♀️ This changed in 2019 when The Land Institute created a research program focused on commercialization, and I was employee number one.
During the last three years, I cold-called hundreds of grocery buyers, built the system to collect production data from farmers, and helped shape communication strategies for new product launches.
Overall, a decade has passed since Kernza’s debut in the commercial market, and scientists, farmers, and food companies are still working hard to hone its value proposition.
➡️ Here are my top five takeaways from being a part of that journey:
1. Farmers want to plant Kernza
There seems to be a misconception that there is not enough Kernza to develop new products, which is perhaps a vestige from the high-demand, low-supply era of 2016-2020. Rest assured, growers want to plant Kernza, and many of them would expand their existing acreage if they had a larger and more secure market. These farmers have witnessed firsthand the ecological benefits of Kernza. A crop that combines the soil-saving qualities of cover crops and the profit of a premium small grain is a no-brainer for today’s farmers. When the media buzz turns into consistent demand, we will see growers massively expanding their Kernza acreage.
2. We need perennial grain champions at CPGs
There is simply not enough food business acumen in the Kernza research ecosystem and, simultaneously, insufficient knowledge about perennial crops within most CPG companies. Throughout the past couple of months networking, I’ve learned more about how food companies operate than I did during my entire 3 years working on Kernza. This is a problem!
The Kernza network needs to work with consumer packaged goods companies (CPGs) at all stages: early-stage, growth-stage, and mature brands. This mixture of stakeholders can provide both the consistency and flexibility needed to successfully commercialize this crop, especially if the brands can work together on product development, sourcing, and marketing. There is also benefit in continued collaboration with “market-building” entities like Mad Markets and Sustain-A-Grain who can help negotiate, broker, and operationalize the sourcing of Kernza as an ingredient.
A specific focus should be put on partnering with early-career entrepreneurs and MBA programs to educate them on the value of perennial grains. These are the young and hungry innovators who are interested in pioneering the next generation of planet-positive food. The perennial agriculture community does a phenomenal job at mentoring STEM students and stewarding them into research positions where they can improve varieties, develop agronomic best practices, and measure improvements to soil and water quality.
It’s time to funnel similar resources toward commercialization and potential advocates in the CPG world who can help spur demand.
(Farmers to academia forever... ⬇️ 😂)
3. CPG brands need to trial Kernza in more products
While Kernza’s functionality in products will continue to evolve alongside developments in food science and breeding, there are plenty of existing ways to incorporate Kernza into products without significant recipe R&D. Beer and pancake mix are two examples of mainstream products being created today. Patagonia Provisions just launched a Kernza-based beer program with more than ten breweries nationwide, and Kodiak Cakes recently won an award from KeHE for their Kernza Cakes.
We need a whole lot more Kernza-based innovation like this from brands.
Brands that want to be at the forefront of the climate-friendly food movement are missing an opportunity if they are not tapping into Kernza. While trialing new ingredients and products has a significant cost, the long-term ROI in research, marketing, and innovation could be very fruitful. It can set the stage for increasing the usage of perennial ingredients both internally with team members and externally with customers. Kernza can be a gateway to a more perennially focused and regenerative future.
While this timeline is by no means a comprehensive look at all Kernza products that have hit the market, it does show how early adopters have stuck with Kernza through many years of R&D. As the graph shows, there was a pop of new products when Kernza acreage was still in the 100-800 range. Since then, the network has built out critical supply chain infrastructure and we’ve seen another surge of products over the past few years. For a fantastic look at one Kernza product’s R&D journey, check out this timeline from Artisan Naan Bakery.
4. Specific market channels and product categories should be prioritized
In the early days, we took on any commercial interest with great energy. “Kernza can be in ANYTHING!”
We dedicated lots of resources to a buckshot approach of potential opportunities across multiple channels and product categories. This is usually the best way to learn early on, but now we know what channels and categories deserve more of our focus. The examples mentioned in the previous section serve as a great roadmap.
Like Kodiak’s Kernza Cakes, there needs to be more pantry staples created by brands with strong footholds in the natural channel of grocery retail (Whole Foods, Sprouts, Thrive Market, etc.). The shoppers at these stores should be the quintessential early adopters of Kernza-based innovations. Products like crackers, pasta, baking mixes, and finished baked goods should be prioritized. With these items, a “Kernza version” of existing SKUs can be created by replacing other sources of the main flour ingredient with Kernza.
Like Patagonia Provisions’ beer program, there needs to be more traction in the foodservice channel as well. Asking restaurants to use Kernza as an ingredient in a scratch-made dish is a tall task, so we should lean on ready-to-serve items. Things like beer and whiskey are easier to sell into restaurants and deliver to them using existing infrastructure. Plus alcohol is usually better for the restaurant’s bottom line than food.
The possibilities for Kernza inclusion are endless, and some less-proven products should also get some time and attention. I’m super intrigued by Kernza pastries and other bakery items because of Kernza’s nutty, cinnamon-like flavor. Kernza-grazed meat is also very promising. Our most successful growers were the ones who grew Kernza as a forage and a grain creating optionality for their operation. They could spring and fall graze their Kernza stands, rely solely on a grain harvest, opt to cut the Kernza for hay, or any combination of these decisions, depending on the weather and the market.
5. The price needs to go down
Right now, the price for Kernza is more than double that of wheat or rye.
The high cost of goods makes it difficult for products to reach the market at an approachable price point. Not to mention the fact that there is typically a higher operational cost for brands or restaurants to actually turn the ingredient into something sellable. These high costs are the biggest barriers for restaurants and food companies who would otherwise love to work with Kernza.
Improving farmer livelihoods is central to Kernza’s value proposition, so we do want to maintain a premium back to the farmers. Various ideas have emerged as a pathway for growers to maintain price control, one being a Kernza grower Co-Op. Additionally, federal and state incentive programs could help increase supply and decrease costs. Investment and improvement to the processing and distribution infrastructure for Kernza can also help. Lastly, growers who plant Kernza as a dual-use crop (both a grain and a forage for grazing animals) may be able to take a lower price point because of the added benefits of grazing their animals on their Kernza stands.
To date, the Kernza research and commercialization teams have worked feverishly to support businesses during the crop’s commercial infancy. However, they need to push a sharper message about how CPGs can include Kernza in their product innovation and sustainability strategies. Then operationalize that strategy with the appropriate relationships and resources to make it a reality.
To move grain on the market, the existing ecosystem needs deeper involvement from entrepreneurial individuals and CPGs. The payoff, for businesses and for the planet, is too important to ignore.
Hi, I’m Sophia Skelly 👋. I'm a writer, designer, and regenerative agriculture advocate. After three years of helping to build the Kernza supply chain, I’m now exploring roles at CPGs to help scale markets for regenerative farmers.
Kernza-related Illustrations + GIFs for this blog were created by Sophia Skelly 🎨
Non-Kernza-related GIFs for this article were curated by Anthony Corsaro 🤌
Editor's Note: The views expressed in this article are the author's alone and do not necessarily represent those of the ReGen Brands platform or team.