Kernza on Kimber Contours Farm near Northfield, MN
Kimber Contours Farm grows climate-positive Kernza® grain in Farmington, MN

Protecting Our Water Legacy: Climate-Resilient Agriculture

Water defines life for many Minnesotans. We tout our many lakes and the mighty Mississippi River as cultural highlights, using water recreationally in all seasons. Minnesotans have worked over the decades to secure funding for our water, and with that investment, it has become part of our state’s legacy.

The Clean Water Fund receives 33% of the sales tax revenue from the Clean Water, Land & Legacy Amendment, which was constitutionally dedicated by a majority of Minnesota voters in 2008. In part, the Legacy Amendment works to protect water—including lakes, rivers, groundwater, and drinking water—and the Clean Water Fund has so far invested over one million dollars into statewide water projects.

The Forever Green Initiative (FGI) at the University of Minnesota is one of the important research institutions that benefits from Clean Water Funds administered by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. They support initiatives such as new crop research and implementation, perennial and winter annual crop projects, and efforts to “commercialize new high value commodity crops for conservation purposes.” 

Incorporating climate-smart farming and crops will be vital to stemming the tide of climate impacts on the agricultural system. The Forever Green Initiative studies and promotes innovative crops like Kernza® and winter barley to enhance Minnesota’s water and soil resources. A study conducted by the U of M and NASA—including research from a Small Grains Specialist involved in Forever Green—showed that climate variability has negative impacts on barley yield, particularly at warmer sites. Their results further suggest that “observed climate changes have contributed to the relative decrease in barley and oat yields in the region” and that observed changes have already had an impact on crops in the Northern Plains.

Research on climate-resilient cropping systems and innovative uses of new crops will be an important part of Minnesota’s future. Kernza®, a perennial wheatgrass—meaning it grows back each year—is an emerging crop being hailed as a climate-positive grain. The nature of the perennial crop’s large root system (over 10 feet deep) keeps water and nutrients in the soil, acting as a carbon sink which holds more carbon from the atmosphere in the ground than it releases. Minnesota breweries like Beaver Island, Fair State Brewing Cooperative, and Bang Brewing have commercialized Kernza®, and the Environmental and Natural Resources Trust Fund, which provides funding for the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute, partnered with Beaver Island to produce their Kernza® beer.

As the seasons pass and the climate changes, access to clean water will become more urgent. By investing in perennial cropping systems and continuous living cover we can reduce the agriculture industry’s climate footprint and create more resilience. As some of the original conservationists, land stewards like farmers understand their unique role in water quality and preservation of our most vital natural resources. Minnesota’s Legacy and Clean Water Fund dollars and investment by the state legislature in supply chains, research, and support for farmers will continue our state’s water legacy for the future enjoyment and health of Minnesotans.