Fall 2021
A field of winter camelina near Swan Lake, Minnesota/Russ Gesch USDA-ARS
Cover Story

New green revolution

The U of M’s Forever Green Initiative is developing crops that are winter hardy, provide living soil cover, and are ready for use in foods and other products

At least once a week, Don Wyse walks the field plots on the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus in St. Paul, checking on the crops he’s had a hand in developing. As head of the Forever Green Initiative, the professor of agronomy and plant genetics oversees 16 teams or “platforms” that include basic scientists, as well as researchers who are experts in genomics, crop breeding, agronomics, food science, and commercialization. Their goal: to develop crops that are winter hardy, sustainable, profitable for farmers, and have a place in the kitchen.

The Forever Green Initiative's Don Wyse evaluates intermediate wheat grass.
David L. Hansen

“We’re unique in the United States,” he says. “We’re the only institution that has this structure in place to domesticate new crops.”

Wyse has been formulating this idea since 1974, when he came to Minnesota to work with grass seed producers in Roseau and Lake of the Woods counties who were struggling with quack grass, a perennial weed that was making their forage and turf grass seed harvests unmarketable. Those farmers also wanted more perennials in their crop rotations to reduce economic and environmental risks.

Wyse, in partnership with University of Minnesota plant breeders, developed perennial ryegrass lines that could tolerate herbicides that controlled quack grass, making Minnesota a major producer of perennial ryegrass seed in the United States.

Wyse began asking himself if it would be possible to translate this successful work to other crops. “To get more sustainable agriculture systems on the landscape, they need to have an economic pull,” he explains.

To market, to market

Don Wyse, head of the Forever Green Initiative at the University of Minnesota, says a conversation with Lukas Walton, a Walton Family Foundation board member, identified the importance of commercializing the crops being developed through the initiative. Investments from the Walton Family Foundation and the Clean Water Legacy Fund made it possible to develop a high-quality crop supply chain and marketing team.

Nick Jordan, professor of agronomy and plant genetics, has been heading up commercialization efforts. So far, four crops developed by the Forever Green Initiative are in various stages of commercialization. They include hazelnut, Kernza (a perennial wheatgrass), perennial flax, winter barley, and camelina.

That work gave rise to what became the Forever Green Initiative. Getting started wasn’t easy. “Thirty years ago, people rolled their eyes at this idea,” he says. “The University of Minnesota allowed us to take on the long and risky process of developing new crops.”

For support, Wyse turned to the State of Minnesota’s Clean Water Legacy Fund, as well as corporations and foundations such as General Mills, PepsiCo, the Walton Family Foundation, the McKnight Foundation, and others. “These companies, and the State of Minnesota, looked at this as a long-term investment,” he says. “They saw this is the right thing to do to protect the state’s soil and water resources.”

He says their generosity—and support at the Minnesota Legislature—has allowed some of the best scientists at the University of Minnesota to work on crop development in collaboration with farmers and rural community leaders throughout the state.

Their progress has since led to the federal government awarding substantial additional funding over the past two years.

“To obtain major federal funding, the ideas presented must be scientifically sound and well-developed,” he says. “What we’ve done wouldn’t have been possible if we didn’t have support from our foundation and state partners. Philanthropy helped bring our platforms along.”

Kim Kiser is editor of Legacy magazine.

Learn about some of the crops that are under development through the Forever Green Initiative: