Perennial Pantry is bringing perennial grain into kitchens in a delicious way. Pictured: products from their monthly CSA offering from November 2022
Perennial Pantry is a Burnsville, Minnesota-based company on a mission to bring the perennial grain Kernza® into people’s kitchens, hearts, and minds. Launched in 2020 by Christopher Abbott, Joe Kaplan, and Nick Gardner, their goal is to accelerate the transition to perennial agriculture through the use of Kernza. [This venture evolved from their previous business, Sprowt Labs, which we wrote about in March 2020.]
Developed by The Land Institute (TLI) in partnership with the University of Minnesota and others, Kernza is a small-seeded edible grain developed from a forage crop called intermediate wheatgrass. The key benefit of Kernza is its perenniality, meaning it can be planted once and live for several years, reducing the need for tillage and other types of soil disturbance during that time. Kernza’s roots can grow to as deep as 12 feet! That’s good news for soil and water, in addition to exciting new culinary opportunities. [Read our profiles on TLI and U of M’s Forever Green Institute for more about Kernza.]
The initial challenges for Perennial Pantry were the same encountered by many entrepreneurs introducing specialty grains at a small scale: handling systems for cleaning, de-hulling, and milling were lacking. “It can take upwards of 10 times as long to clean Kernza as some other grains,” says Christopher. Because of Kernza’s size, and the needs of a scrappy business, they built their own fanning mill, aspirator, gravity table, and impact dehuller for their facility in Burnsville, run by Nick. Then they got creative with the R&D, Joe’s department.
With a high protein to calorie ratio as well as a lot of bran, Kernza is a great addition to flour blends, contributing its nutty flavor. Perennial Pantry launched flour and whole grain berry products in 2020, a pancake and waffle mix in late 2021, and in 2022 shipped test crackers and tortillas out to customers for voting, along with a playlist and party planning guide of things to eat with them.
Involving consumers in the process of product development is key to Perennial Pantry’s introduction of novel grain crops, so they started a CSA, and are shipping about 125 boxes a month to subscribers in 30 different states. For now, most of their products, like the tortillas, are only available through the CSA, though hopefully not for long! “We’re particularly excited about the crackers, and are working to increase processing capacity,” says Christopher. ”We hope that opens the door for broader interest in what Kernza is.”
For 2023, Perennial Pantry has expanded into a bigger space, in nearby Northfield, MN, where they’re installing new processing equipment: a bigger pasta extruder, a bulk pasta dryer; and for the crackers, a dough sheeter and a couple of very long tables with conveyor belts and mechanisms for cutting and salting. “We’ve spent a lot of time at auction sites,” Christopher says.
Kernza is still at the beginning of its life as a food crop and is experiencing rapid improvements thanks to collaborative efforts by breeders and researchers. As the market grows there will be new varieties of Kernza, developed in communication with farmers, processors, and end users like Perennial Pantry. In order to maintain its integrity and intended purpose to be an ecologically, economically, and socially beneficial addition to agriculture and food systems, TLI requires farms and businesses growing and creating products with Kernza to be licensed. The first variety, Minnesota Clearwater, was released in 2019 and researchers are working to make it easier to grow, easier to process, and more affordable. TLI has a goal of Kernza matching the yields of wheat in 17-20 years.
Perennial Pantry currently sources its Kernza from about five different Kernza growers in the Upper Midwest and blends it for their products with wheat from AGC members Meadowlark Organics, Ben Penner Farms, and Janie’s Mill. Their Kernza is specifically sourced from ‘drinking water plantings’—the U of M and Minnesota Pollution Agencies have specifically sought to plant Kernza in areas that will improve water quality for wells that rural cities own and operate. “The carbon sequestration story is complicated, but water protection is clear,” Christopher explains. One southwest Minnesota city growing Kernza measured a 40% reduction in nitrates over a three-year period.
Christopher says he’s glad to be working in Minnesota, where there has been good investment from the state, including a research grant on using Kernza for malting. Perennial Pantry testified last year for the creation of a new CLC (Continuous Living Cover) Development Fund, which MN’s governor signed over the summer and will provide grants to companies standing up supply chains for various crops that contribute to keeping living roots in the soil year-round, starting this year.
On being a part of AGC, he says that “It’s easier to build a business like this within a community—to help share the why and the opportunities. That lift would be harder if there wasn’t already some effort to explain how local supply chains work and their value.”
Perennial Pantry's social feed is full of videos that take you further into their work, and you can find great recipes on their website to experiment with once you get your hands on some flour or whole grain. And yes—just in case you forgot, you can make good use of whole grain Kernza in a wide variety of salad recipes. See the enticing photo below!
Learn more about Kernza in this recent article from Grist.