Wheatgrass ‘superfood’ is gaining ground

University of Minnesota Kernza researcher Prabin Bajgain evaluates intermediate wheatgrass in selection nursery at St. Paul, Minn., ahead of harvest.  |  Prabin Bajgain photo

MN-Clearwater is the first food-grade wheatgrass and is already being used in some food and drink products

Farmers in Minnesota are growing some of the first intermediate wheatgrass developed specifically for human consumption.

Plant scientists are calling the food grade MN-Clearwater “a superfood with environmental and health benefits.”

Wheatgrass has traditionally been used to feed cattle. However, the potential to unleash locked-in nutrition prompted University of Minnesota researchers to embark on a breeding program in hopes of producing food grade wheatgrass. The idea was to have enough farmers growing MN-Clearwater that buyers would be attracted. That goal was reached last fall when the variety was released to the public.

Plant breeder James Anderson told The Western Producer that the Minnesota Land Institute started a wheatgrass breeding program in 2002. In 2011 the university obtained the germplasm and concentrated on turning it into a commercial grain variety.

“We think we can get three or maybe four years out of a planting. Farmers can get one grain harvest per summer or two forage harvests,” said Anderson, adding that so far they’re getting just two good grain harvests. As they work with the plants, he expects to push that up to three or four years of good grain production. Researchers in Kansas are able to get three or four good grain years out of one planting.

“The small number of farmers who already have planted Clearwater are harvesting with cattle. They’re doing very intensive mob grazing. They’re particularly interested in fall grazing.

“It has some potential I think for rehabilitating eroded land. It has good root mass and top growth biomass. It’s a perennial, known to be a soil builder and it provides soil cover throughout the year. The deep, dense roots capture nutrients before they get into groundwater,” said Anderson.

The new variety was produced by crossing seven wheatgrass parents with positive qualities, including high grain yield and seed size.

Wheatgrass has a number of benefits compared to field crops like corn or soybeans:

  • less soil loss from the field
  • fewer chemicals and fertilizers entering the groundwater system
  • improved carbon storage
  • less machinery required than annual crops
  • combats weeds

The farmer isn’t the only one who benefits, explains Anderson.

MN-Clearwater is the first wheatgrass to be approved for human consumption. Each planting can last three or four years and can support two grain harvests and double forage harvests. It is relatively short, at about 45 inches, and has minimal lodging with trace disease levels. MN-Clearwater is expected to perform well in the upper Midwest and grain growing regions of Canada, as well as the American northeastern states. | Prabin Bajgain photo

“As the first food-grade wheatgrass, food processors and consumers can see benefits. End-users are always searching for new items. MN-Clearwater provides new flavours and nutritional properties that can be added to food products.”

Wheatgrass goes well with wheat-based products. It can be used as a replacement for wheat, but is best used with it. By using both wheat and wheatgrass as ingredients, the product can maintain its baking and functional properties while offering new flavors.

The first registered food product using the MN-Clearwater was a beer from Patagonia Provisions. Other products include several locally brewed beers and a limited-edition cereal from Cascadian Farm.

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