Growing inspiration: How the Forever Green Initiative turns smart farming into ingredient innovation

Agriculture faces myriad challenges worldwide, from soil erosion to climate change, but one program at the University of Minnesota is fighting back with rotating seasonal crops, hardy nuts and more.

Kimberly Decker, Contributing writer

July 5, 2024

6 Min Read

At a Glance

  • Crop diversification is critical to promoting healthy soil.
  • UMN collaborates with R&D teams to develop culinary applications for soil-boosting crops.
  • The Forever Green program is scaling up to commercialize perennial flax, sunflower, wheat and cereal rye, and more.

If the snapshot of America’s food system as captured at the corner quick-mart inspires dread, look to the heartland’s amber waves for a more reassuring picture of flourishing farms feeding a hungry planet.

But even our mighty Midwestern pastures are imperiled, as the team at the University of Minnesota’s (UMN) Forever Green Initiative knows all too well.

“There’s low crop diversity, lack of soil cover leading to soil erosion, nitrate leaching into rivers and wells, climate change, inadequate rural economic opportunity and declining biodiversity,” recited Katharine Chute, the organization’s product and market-development specialist.

But there’s also hope. In fact, that’s what Forever Green is all about.

Innovation platform

Though it launched 11 years ago as an “agricultural innovation platform” housed in UMN’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, the Forever Green Initiative rests on a decades-deep bedrock of agricultural diversification.

It now deploys that diversification toward developing, improving and promoting winter-hardy and perennial crops that it believes can help heal some of the ills mentioned above.

And it’s placing its bets on these crops because the ills that Midwestern farms face are largely rooted in the soil.

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Full coverage

Most of the region’s commercial crops are summer annuals that, per their name, grow during summer and take a break come winter. When they do, however, they leave the soil bare and vulnerable to erosion, runoff and worse.

Winter annuals, by contrast, start their shift in fall, survive the winter and clock out in spring — defending the otherwise defenseless ground with their cover. Perennials go a step further by growing year-round, protecting soil for seasons on end.

By rotating the latter two crop types with summer annuals — a practice known as farming with continuous living cover — farmers can improve not only the entire system’s sustainability, but its efficiency, too.

Regenerative portfolio

The whole plan aligns elegantly with regenerative agriculture’s core principles of keeping living root systems in the earth, reducing tillage, diversifying crop rotations, and protecting biodiversity and wildlife habitats.

To make those principles practicable, Forever Green’s built a portfolio of novel crops now numbering 15, each supported by experts in genomics, breeding, agronomy, natural-resource sciences, food science, sociology, economics and commercialization.

Economic engine

By doing so, Forever Green is strengthening not just the soil, but the farmers who tend it.

As Chute argued, “Forever Green crops can be new tools for farmers as they develop regenerative systems that work for their farms and communities. By adding winter-annual and perennial crops to our agricultural landscapes, we can enhance the prosperity of agriculture, support rural communities and provide major environmental benefits.”

Culinary potential

These crops can also offer the food and beverage industry sustainable, whole-food ingredients with creative culinary potential.

Attendees of the National Restaurant Show got a taste when Forever Green showcased three such ingredients — American elderberries, Kernza® perennial grain and a new variety of Midwest hazelnut — in a chef demo on the show floor.

Why these? “First and foremost,” Chute said, “they have great taste and nutrition. Second, these ingredients each provide something unique and novel to chefs. And finally, they have incredible stories of environmental and social impact.”

As foodservice professionals, the show’s attendees represented a new audience for Forever Green. Now the organization is keen to spread its message — and ingredients — to food and beverage manufacturers.

“We’d like to work with more R&D teams,” Chute said. “We welcome new partners and ideas.”

Domestic advantage

Organizations helping Forever Green market these ingredients — like the Midwest Elderberry Cooperative (MEC) — already have ideas to share, and Christopher J. Patton, a founding director and the current president of the MEC, hopes food and beverage brands take notice.

Having logged three years on Pillsbury International’s R&D team himself, he understands the challenges that bringing a novel ingredient to commercial viability entails.

“MEC is in the process of developing an expanding, dependable supply of American Sambucus nigra canadensis ingredients that meet or beat existing nutritional and performance standards,” he said.

That means selling dried berries and elderflowers, bulk frozen berries, and powders made from frozen juice, pomace and whole berries.

And they’re selling the ingredients’ backstory, too. As Patton contends, “Both American and European elderberries have higher levels of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory nutrients than cranberries and tart cherries — but American elderberries taste better. We’re looking for partners willing to explore replacing their imported ingredients with our U.S.-grown American varieties.”

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Native nuts

Forever Green also hopes food processors will go local when it comes to hazelnuts, as it’s breeding hybrid varieties of these deep-rooted plants that blend the American hazelnut’s winter-hardiness and resistance to Eastern filbert blight with the larger fruits and thinner shells of their European cousins. As Chute said, “The hybrids retain the best of both.”

These Midwest hazelnut hybrids are still a few years from commercial viability, but the American Hazelnut Company is prepping the R&D ground with its own hazelnut oil and flour, roasted hazelnuts and three flavors of hazelnut snacks called HazelSnackers.

Emma Dempsey, the company’s sales and marketing manager, compares its hazelnut oil favorably to olive, delivering a slightly higher smoke point but with half the saturated fat, four times the vitamin E and a nutty flavor.

She touts Hazelnut flour — a coproduct of oil pressing — as gluten-free, high in protein and “very flavorful,” with plenty of unexplored ingredient potential.

“Then there’re the traditional uses for hazels in confections and nutty mixes,” Dempsey continued. “But we'd like to introduce other uses to American consumers.”

Above all, Dempsey emphasizes American hazelnuts’ green pedigree. “In this region,” she explained, “our hybrids are grown with grass between the rows, maintaining a continuous living cover on the landscape. Plus: They’re so tasty.”

Super grain

Excitement runs high around Kernza, a new-to-market perennial grain with high levels of protein and fiber and a flavor that Chute described as delicious and nutty.

But Kernza’s real superpower, in Chute’s words, is “its ability to improve the world.” In addition to storing carbon and providing wildlife habitat, it can send its roots as far as 12 feet into the soil to reduce fertilizer runoff.

Chute suggests adding whole-grain Kernza to bowls and side dishes as an alternative to, say, brown rice. The flour, when blended with wheat flour at use levels up to 50%, can make the typical flatbread, pizza crust, cracker or cookie stand out. And flaked Kernza brings a whole new grain to hot-cereal mixes that already trade on trendy ingredients like amaranth, flax and chia.

No wonder brands like Perennial Pantry and Patagonia Provisions already sell Kernza-containing products, Chute said. Even the “Big G,” General Mills, is onboard with its Climate Smart Kernza Cereal.

More to come

While Kernza and its fellow Forever Green alumni are still scaling their commercialization and cost curves, Chute encourages R&D teams to give them a whirl. “We also invite conversations from brands about what they’d like to see,” she added. “Our suppliers are adaptable and focused on meeting customer needs.”

As for what brands might see next, Forever Green is scaling up winter barley in the near-term, and its sites are set on commercializing perennial flax, sunflower, wheat and cereal rye, as well as winter durum wheat and peas, over the next five to 10 years.

That’s good news for everyone: consumers looking for great taste and nutrition, brands looking for creative inspiration, farmers looking for economic opportunity, and a planet looking for a sustainable future.

About the Author(s)

Kimberly Decker

Contributing writer

Kimberly J. Decker is a Bay Area food writer who has worked in product development for the frozen sector and written about food, nutrition and the culinary arts. Reach her at [email protected].

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