forevergreenlogosm.jpgThe Forever Green Initiative (FGI) brings together researchers, local groups, private-sector partners, and non-profits to advance and commercialize new high value commodity crops for conservation purposes. This effort brings the disciplines of plant breeding, agronomy, food science and economics together.
 

Many of these new crops will be able to fit into a corn and soybean rotation by providing ground cover after harvest and before next spring’s emergence. Winter annuals and cover crops grow between the time when annual crops are harvested in the fall and a new planting is established in the spring. This is the time when fields are bare, and most vulnerable to erosion and nutrient loss.

The MDA receives Clean Water Funds to support the Forever Green Initiative at the University of Minnesota (UMN). There are three components to this effort: new crop research, implementation of new crops, and the formation of the Steering Council and Ag Diversification Network.

 

Research projects are selected through a request for proposal process administered by the University of Minnesota. The MDA oversees the distribution of funds and coordinates reporting on progress results and outcomes.

Additional information for funded projects is included below. A list of projects, the principal investigator, project status, and funds awarded is included by year.

2020-2021 Forever Green Projects

2018-2019 Forever Green Projects

2017 Forever Green Projects

2016 Forever Green Projects

The FGI is working on a variety of perennial crops, winter annual crops, and native  woody species. Examples include intermediate wheatgrass (Kernza®), pennycress, camelina, and winter barley. Many of these crops are now ready for a focused effort to accelerate their commercialization and wide adoption through a concerted and strategic public-private effort.
 

KernzaSide by side plants of Kernza and wheat. Kernza roots are three times as long, and the Kernza plant is two times as tall. illustrating plant above ground and roots below ground.

Kernza is the first crop to reach the implementation phase and the first commercially-viable perennial grain in the United States. The University of Minnesota released its first Kernza variety, MN-Clearwater, in 2019.

The MDA worked with FGI staff to target and prioritize three regions of the state for Kernza planting based on vulnerability to groundwater contamination. These focus areas are known as Economic and Environmental Clusters of Opportunity, or EECOs. They are shown on the map below (Figure 2). The underlying purple and green shaded areas are listed as vulnerable groundwater areas under the Groundwater Protection Rule. The MDA is working with farmers in these areas to minimize potential sources of nitrate pollution to the state's groundwater.

Kernza has been planted in some environmentally sensitive areas to protect groundwater (drinking water) and surface water quality. Research has shown that the long, dense root structure of Kernza can prevent soil erosion and store nutrients, such as nitrogen (Figure 1). Monitoring the water quality benefits of Kernza is supported with a different funding source and is occurring in southwest Minnesota.

Producers interested in growing Kernza can enroll in the Forever Green EECO Pilot Program.

As of January 2021:

  • 1,172 acres of Kernza has been planted in Minnesota by 33 new growers
  • 378 acres (32%) was planted in a Drinking Water Supply Management Area (DWSMA). DWSMAs surround public wells. They encompass Wellhead Protection Areas and have boundaries that align with roads, landmarks, and administrative boundaries for ease of identification. They are managed by the Minnesota Department of Health to ensure a safe and reliable source of drinking water.
  • 1,600 pounds of UMN Kernza was distributed to 25 business and partners for market development
    • 4 Consumer Packaged Goods companies
    • 6 bakers
    • 3 culinary professionals
    • 3 distillers
    • 2 brewers
    • 1 maltster
    • 3 restaurants
    • 3 researchers
  • 2,800 pounds of Kernza was sold through 850 purchases to 46 states from early Kernza-focused businesses in Minnesota
  • For additional information on the Kernza drinking water protection projects view the following University of Minnesota websites:

 

Figure 2: Economic and Environmental Clusters of Opportunity (EECO) are targeted regions for Kernza plantings

Map of Minnesota illustrating the three EECO regions in the central, southwest, and southeast regions of the state.

The Minnesota Agricultural Diversification Steering Council and the Minnesota Agricultural Diversification Network have been formed. The goal of this activity is to create and support working relationships between partners and coordinate and enhance the investments made in the FGI. The expected outcome of this coordination is greater support for new markets and supply chains and extensive production of these crops in targeted areas where they will have the largest water quality benefit.

The steering council has 16 active members drawn from the public, private, and advocacy sectors. They have developed a council charter and a 12-month workplan and hold regularly scheduled meeting to discuss strategies and opportunities to further FGI crops. More information is available by contacting Dr. Nick Jordan (jorda020@umn.edu) at the University of Minnesota.

Pennycress, woodland sunflower, intermediate wheatgrass, and American hazelnut
Images of pennycress, woodland sunflower, intermediate wheatgrass, and American hazelnut courtesy of the Forever Green Initiative.