How Kansas home bakers can be ‘citizen scientists’ and help save the planet

December 12, 2020 3:01 am

Cookies made with Kernza flour by Beth Dooley, of Minneapolis, a James Beard Award-winning food writer who focuses on the American heartland. (Beth Dooley)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Aubrey Streit Krug is director of ecosphere studies at The Land Institute in Salina.

As 2020 comes to a close, many of us are staying safely at home and finding respite in our kitchens. The loaves of sourdough and banana bread that were so popular across the United States last spring, early in this pandemic, have evolved into the sweet treats of the winter holiday season.

Kansas bakers now have a unique opportunity to help with research to make our food system more healthy for the land, without sacrificing flavor.

Here in the breadbasket state where I grew up and live today, comfort is often associated with fields of waving wheat harvested to fill truck loads and grain bins, and with a subsequent smorgasbord of warm baked goods ranging from pies, cookies and cinnamon rolls to kolaches, bierocks and empanadas.

It’s much less comfortable to contemplate the long-term sustainability of our contemporary agricultural and food systems in a warming world of accelerating uncertainty. Soil and biodiversity loss, aquifer depletion, nitrate contamination in groundwater, fossil fuel dependence, hungry children and families, deep economic and social debts, barriers for new and beginning farmers — a buffet of hurts now threatening to hollow out the future.

It takes courage to envision ecological and equitable agricultural systems and institutions, to do the hard work of repair and care together, to prioritize sharing with those who need it most, to choose what’s really nourishing.

But sometimes courage in food and agriculture research involves fun, delicious choices — and it can bring people together to share data, stories, photos and recipes from their gardens and kitchens, including some mouth-watering pancakes and tortillas.

I work at The Land Institute, a nonprofit organization based in Salina with national and global collaborators. Together we are pursuing a sustainable future for grain agriculture and human communities by developing new, deeply rooted perennial cereal grain, legume, and oilseed crops to be planted in diverse systems that provide critical ecological benefits and harvestable seeds.

We as a society have a lot to learn, both scientifically and culturally, and Kansas home bakers can help.

The Land Institute and our partners have made a baking flour from the seeds of intermediate wheatgrass, a perennial plant that grows back without needing to be replanted each year, which means it can protect soil. Lower inputs needed for perennial crops might also help future farmers by reducing costs.

The perennial grain seeds of intermediate wheatgrass are called Kernza, and as Kernza research and development grows, Kernza is being experimentally distributed, milled, cooked, baked and eaten. Over the summer, the company Perennial Pantry ran a successful pre-order campaign to support their efforts to make Kernza flour and whole grain available for the general public to purchase for the first time.

The Land Institute, Perennial Pantry, the University of Minnesota Forever Green Initiative, the Artisan Grain Collaborative and Beth Dooley’s Kitchen partnered to invite public participation in research through a culinary citizen science experiment.

So far, almost 40 people from more than 20 states have shared their experiences baking and cooking with Kernza. The majority of participants used their own recipes and many commented on Kernza’s distinctly nutty flavor.

They also expressed a motivation to contribute to the development of a climate-resilient agriculture. This motivation is shared by other pilot project participants we work with across the country, who grow and study the perennial plants silphium and sainfoin and help our research team discover questions, gather data and hear stories we didn’t know before.

Beyond engaging individual citizen scientists, I see an opportunity to continue to grow perennial civic science communities. Building on traditions of public participation in sustainable agriculture research, I am excited to help create and support an inclusive culture of civic science that empowers more people to shape our shared future.

Civic science is not the only action we as a society need to take. But it is one perennial practice that we can remember and revitalize: this practice of following our curiosity, joining digitally with people in community and bravely sticking with each other as we both unlearn and learn.

Together, we can step out of our comfort zones to make, and bake, something new that’s still deliciously rewarding.

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Aubrey Streit Krug
Aubrey Streit Krug

Aubrey Streit Krug is a writer and teacher who researches human-plant relationships. She is director of ecosphere studies at The Land Institute in Salina.