Kernza grain

Local farmer Matt Starline holds Kernza wheatgrass seeds that were sown into a farm in Athens County in 2015. The wheatgrass could solve centuries-old issues relating to sustainability in agriculture.

Athens-based business Avalanche Pizza announced Tuesday that it may be the first pizza restaurant in the country to permanently include pizza with dough made from a “perennial wheatgrass” called Kernza on its menu.

Kernza is part of what Avalanche Pizza owner John Gutekanst and some professors of soil and agriculture hope will be a revolution in the American food system.

The wheatgrass has very long roots and stays alive for years, instead of needing to be re-sewn every growing season like conventional wheat. 

“This pizza is the first of its kind and one of those breakthrough moments for our business,” Gutekanst said in a news release. “We are excited to proactively promote a natural product that eliminates soil loss, stream sedimentation, pollution, over-fertilization, algae blooms and dead zones in our oceans. Every summer, you see warnings for Ohio children not to swim in our lakes and streams; that’s not right.”

Perennials’ roots go deep into the ground, with remarkable potential for building carbon in the soil. Additionally, perennials reduce soil erosion through wind and water by virtue of their deep roots. Kernza in particular rarely requires insect-control with pesticides, and the need for fertilizer reportedly is minimal.

In the release, Steve Cullman, a professor of soil fertility at Ohio State University, said that “consumer demand” is the driving force behind many farmers adopting sustainable farming practices.

“Kernza is no exception to the rule,” Cullman said. “We need folks eating Kernza to get this crop on more acres across the state.”

Kernza has a smaller seed than wheat but it’s high in gluten and bran, according to Gutekanst in the release.

“We’ve been selling this crust at the Athens Farmers Market but now we’ve got the recipe down and the taste is deep with almost minty undertones and has a great crunchy texture,” he said.

In the release, Lee DeHaan, Kansas Land Institute breeding scientist, said that while the crop is relatively new, the apparent environmental benefits are important to consider.

“The environmental benefits and ability to produce it organically without plowing for weed control has generated tremendous interest from farmers, buyers, processors and bakers,” DeHaan said. “In the years ahead, we anticipate that production will increase at least five-fold per year.”

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