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Growing alternative crops in Iowa can bring risks and rewards

What's the market for hemp, intermediate wheatgrass, hybrid rye and oats?

Oct 8, 2020 at 12:01 am
    Tom Frantzen is seen on his farm in rural New Hampton on Tuesday, March 17, 2020. Frantzen is an organic farmer who has started growing hybrid rye on his fallow fields for weed control, as a cover crop and as food for his cattle. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

    Many Iowa farmers are seeking alternatives to just corn and soybeans as a way to reduce risk, replenish the soil and improve water quality.

    But before considering a new crop, farmers want to know there is a market for it on the other end.

    For Tom Frantzen, his market is himself. The hybrid rye he’s been growing in New Hampton gets fed to his organic hogs and cattle, saving him money on more expensive corn feed.

    “It’s about $200 per acre less cost than an acre of corn,” Frantzen said. “The seed is less expensive, there’s no need for federal crop insurance and no grain drying. And in an organic environment, there’s no need for weed control. They (farmers) need to figure out a way to put it into the rotation and the (livestock) diet.”

    In this report, we’ll explore four alternative crops — hemp, hybrid rye, Kernza and oats — focusing on each crop’s advantages, disadvantages, producers and potential markets.


    Last year, Gov. Kim Reynolds signed the Iowa Hemp Act into law, allowing the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship to develop a state plan for licensed farmers to grow up to 40 acres of industrial hemp. The U.S. Department of Agriculture approved the plan in late March.

    Advantages: Hemp plants can be made into a multitude of products, including paper, fabric and rope from the stalks; salad oil, solvents and beauty products from the hempseed oil; and granola, birdseed or protein flour from the seeds.

    But what has been driving interest in growing hemp these days is cannabidiol, or CBD, a non-intoxicating compound believed to have health benefits, including relieving anxiety, depression and inflammation, as well as improving sleep. CBD is in products ranging from oils and lotions to energy drinks and gummies.

    Plants with more than 0.3 percent Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC — the compound that creates the “high” feeling — are considered marijuana and are illegal to grow in Iowa.

    Disadvantages: More than 30 countries around the world already grow hemp, according to a 2018 report by the Congressional Research Service, so the United States is playing catch-up.

    The 2014 Farm Bill allowed pilot programs in the United States, but the laws over agricultural hemp production still are murky. For example, while industrial hemp is legal to grow in Iowa, producers may have to transport the hemp outside the state to make products people want to buy, said Robin Pruisner, state entomologist and agriculture security coordinator.

    Producer: Ethan Vorhes, a Nashua farmer and cattle producer, already is working with hemp production in Wisconsin and wants to grow a crop in Iowa.

    “Once we figure out what we have to work with, it will show us the way,” he said about Iowa’s program. “We do plan on growing some hemp, but probably not a lot of CBD. More of the grain and hopefully do some research with the cattle or livestock.”

    Potential markets: Vorhes is part of the Hemp Feed Coalition, which is pushing for more research into whether hemp grain can safely be added to chicken and livestock feed without having any negative effects on humans consuming beef, chicken or eggs.

    “If they are eating a lot of cannabinoids, it could come through in the meat or milk,” Vorhes said. “There are plenty of reasons for doing the testing. We just need to get it underway and get it started.”

    Victory Hemp in Kentucky uses hemp grain and seeds grown in the United States to create vegetarian and vegan foods, including roasted hemp seeds, cold-pressed hemp seed oil and protein powder, according to its website. So far, there are no similar plants in the Midwest.

    Many would-be hemp farmers see potential in CBD, but there are reports many producers already have too much hemp for their needs, the state’s Pruisner said.

    “Just between 2018 and 2019, we grew somewhere between 350 to 550 percent more hemp” nationwide, she said. “The cannabidiol producers are sitting on a big stock already.”

    Pruisner recommends farmers have a contract with a buyer before growing hemp, but she hopes it will be a viable alternative crop in the future. “I don’t think it will unseat our corn and soybean production in any major way, but if we could have some producers be successful, it would be great for Iowa.”


    A relative newcomer on the alternative crops scene in Iowa is intermediate wheatgrass, trademarked as Kernza, which can be used for beer, bread or other grain products.

    Advantages: Kernza is a perennial — it doesn’t have to be planted every year — and has really long roots that are good for absorbing nutrients that can pollute rivers and lakes.

    “It’s hard to find that combination of a perennial plant that produces consumable seeds,” said Jacob Jungers, an assistant professor in agronomy and plant genetics at the University of Minnesota. “Of all our other perennial crops, none of them are grains. Alfalfa and others are forage grasses. Here we are creating a new crop that is producing products that are directly consumed by humans.”

    Kernza was developed and trademarked by the Land Institute, a not-for-profit research institute in Kansas. To grow Kernza, farmers pay a small license royalty that goes back to research on perennial grain crops, Jungers said.

    Kernza is planted in late summer and grows throughout the fall and winter, creating a cover crop that reduces erosion and serves as wildlife habitat. The grass continues to grow through spring and summer until it is harvested in mid-August, Jungers said.

    “There is a lot of interest, especially because a farmer doesn’t have to worry about getting out in the farms to plant in the spring,” he said.

    Disadvantages: The primary drawback right now for Kernza is that although it’s a perennial, grain production seems to taper off after the third year and the plant must be reseeded, Jungers said. Researchers are experimenting with fertilizer rates, grazing and harvesting of biomass to see if they can improve long-term productivity.

    Producer: Frantzen grew Kernza near New Hampton from 2016 to 2018, but noticed the drop-off in grain production.

    “It did not come back real strong the second year and didn’t come back at all the third year,” he said.

    Frantzen fed the Kernza grain to his livestock, but he thought it was difficult to harvest because of the bulk of the crop.

    Potential markets: Major food companies, including General Mills and Patagonia Provisions, have committed to buying the grain as a way to promote sustainable agriculture.

    With a sweet, nutty flavor, but weaker gluten than wheat, Kernza works best in baked goods that don’t need a rise and in beer or malted products, said Tessa Peters, commercialization manager for the Land Institute.

    There also are opportunities for growers to find their own buyers, such as local bakeries, breweries or distilleries, Peters said. Growers still would need a distributor that could clean and dehull the grain, but the Land Institute can help make those connections.

    “We try to do as much as we can to move the grain through the supply chain, which is still really new,” she said. “If growers have local markets that are interested, those are good pairings. I would try my best to help them fill that supply chain to get the grain cleaned and processed.”


    Iowa was a leader in oat production back in the 1940s, when most farms had cattle, horses and swine. The state harvested 4.6 million acres of oats in 1945, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Census of Agriculture, compared to 130,000 acres in 2018.

    Now, most oats are grown on smaller family farms or as part of rotation designed to rest the soil between corn rounds.

    Oats are used in a variety of food products, including oatmeal, oat flour, granola bars, cookies and bread.

    Colloidal oatmeal, which is finely ground oatmeal suspended in liquid, is used in lotions and other beauty products because it can reduce skin inflammation and has antioxidants, according to the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology.

    Advantages: Oats are some of the first plants in the ground in the spring, with planting in Iowa usually happening in March. That means farmers can get oat planting out of the way early, before corn and beans are planted in April and May.

    Growing oats in a rotation can spread out the risk and allow a farmer to bring in income from multiple crops during the same season, Practical Farmers of Iowa reported.

    Disadvantages: Food companies are looking for heavy oats for cereals and other products, and it can be tough to produce food-grade quality oats in variable weather conditions.

    “A nice, cool early summer is usually good for heavy oats,” said Aaron Heley Lehman, who grows oats in Polk County. “The yields will be better, too. If we get a really hot June with hot nights, our oats get light.”

    Producer: Lehman has been growing between 40 and 80 acres of oats a year for the past several years as part of an organic rotation with corn, soybeans and alfalfa or clover. He grows oats and alfalfa in the same field, where the oats provide cover and structure for the more vulnerable alfalfa crop.

    “It’s very important to have a good small grain that is easy to grow and provides some amount of income,” Lehman said.

    He’d like to see more university research into how small grains can help spread out a farmer’s risk and absorb nutrients when nothing else is planted. It also would be helpful if state or federal subsidies to get farmers to try small grains, including oats, could last longer to encourage longer rotations, Lehman said.

    Potential markets: Lehman has a contract to sell his oats to Grain Millers, a multinational grain processor with plants in Iowa and Minnesota, among other states. Grain Millers opened its St. Ansgar plant in 1988 and now is the largest employer in town and is known for being the most technically advanced oat mill in North America, according to the company’s website.

    Quaker Oats processes oats into about 50 oatmeal varieties, as well as other products, in Cedar Rapids, but the company, owned by PepsiCo, buys most of its oats from Canada.

    “Environmental conditions in Canada are ideal for growing oats and producing high yields, so many farmers grow oats as part of their rotation,” said Brianna Swan, PepsiCo spokeswoman.

    Hybrid rye

    Hybrid rye is a winter-hardy grain planted in the fall. Unlike cereal rye planted as a winter cover crop and killed off in the spring before planting corn or soybeans, hybrid rye continues to grow all summer and is harvested in the fall.

    Advantages: The timeline is one of the perks of hybrid rye because it doesn’t need attention in the spring. Hybrid rye suppresses most weeds, protects the soil from erosion in the winter and is a cost-effective animal feed.

    Hybrid rye sheds its pollen in a short period of time, reducing occurrence of ergot, a fungal disease that has plagued rye in past centuries. Some historians think ergot poisoning from eating contaminated grain may have been responsible for strange behavior that caused some people to be prosecuted at the Salem witch trials in the 1690s. The poisoning can cause hallucinations, muscle spasms and a crawling sensation on the skin.

    Disadvantages: Hybrid rye seed is more expensive than some other small grains, such as oats, and the crop will need fertilizer to reach maximum growth levels.

    Producer: Tom and Irene Frantzen have been doing on-farm research for years, but in 2017 they embarked on a study of how hybrid rye would work as a food source for organic hogs and cattle. They partnered with Practical Farmers of Iowa, international seed supplier KWS and Albert Lee Seed in Minnesota.

    Over three years, the Frantzens fed some groups of hogs the standard mix of corn and soybean grains, while other hogs got 37 percent hybrid rye, replacing half the corn. The goal was to see if the hogs would gain weight at the same rate even while eating the cheaper grain.

    “We weighed these pigs every month individually and as groups every 30 days,” Tom Frantzen said. “It was done in some of the coldest weather, and yet we saw good gains. You have to have a good diet to make gains in severe conditions.”

    Raising about 400 hogs a year, the Frantzens were able to replicate the trial numerous times, increasing the value of the findings.

    Potential markets: The Frantzens are sold on hybrid rye as a high-quality animal feed that costs less to grow than corn. Grain Millers in St. Ansgar offers contracts for hybrid rye, Practical Farmers reported.

    The Mississippi River Distilling Co. in LeClaire buys rye from an Illinois farmer to use in production of their whiskeys, and some bakeries, including Union Loafers, in St. Louis, have developed partnerships with local rye growers to get rye for their breads.

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