NEW “Cash Crop” Project to Consider!
A Missouri-based company is looking to recruit members for its “100 Founding Farmers Club,” which will plant the very first crop of its new pennycress variety. CoverCress Inc., in partnership with university researchers from Illinois, Ohio, Minnesota, and Wisconsin are working to develop the plant into a viable cash crop while removing some of its less desirable characteristics.
Field Pennycress, better known as stinkweed or fanweed to some, came to North America via Europe in the 1700s and different varieties can now be found in every corner from Alaska to Florida. It’s not necessarily considered an invasive plant species but many farmers certainly call it a weed and it can have invasive tendencies under the right conditions. At the same time, Pennycress can produce nearly twice as much oil as soybeans and is a beneficial cover crop for reducing soil erosion and nitrogen runoff.
CoverCress Inc., together with researchers from Illinois State University, Western Illinois University, the University of Minnesota, the Ohio State University, and the University of Wisconsin-Platteville are combining their efforts to commercialize pennycress under the USDA-funded Integrated Pennycress Research Enabling Farm and Energy Resilience (IPREFER) program. IPREFER members aim to establish an infrastructure that will enable farmers to not only plant and harvest domesticated pennycress, but also deliver the seeds to processing plants that will convert them to fuel and feed.
One of the lead scientists working on the new pennycress variety is Illinois State University professor of genetics John Sedbrook, who compares pennycress to rapeseed. As he explains, rapeseed was little known in the 1960s until it was modified to create canola oil, a now billion-dollar-a-year crop. He envisions a similar path for pennycress, which he says could generate up to 3 billion gallons of oil annually.
Sedbrook has been working to domesticate pennycress for use in biodiesel, jet fuel, and animal feed. His research focuses on enhancing the plant’s positive traits, like protein content, while reducing or eliminating the negative, such as its pungent sulfur taste. Already, he says his lab has fixed the pod shatter problem inherent to pennycress, which typically resulted in about 20% of the seeds falling to the ground before they can be harvested. The new CoverCress variety will initially be targeted towards energy markets but research into making it a livestock feed source as well as a food-grade oil will also continue.
Researchers really like its use as a cover crop, too. In the Midwest alone, nearly 80 million acres of land devoted to corn and soybeans sit dormant in the winter months. The planting of pennycress could provide additional income beyond the typical growing season, while at the same time providing ecological benefits, such as reducing nutrient leaching.
Win Phippen, a Western Illinois University agriculture professor, has been working to develop shorter-season pennycress varieties that could fit between corn and soybean crops. In Illinois and Missouri, the crop would be planted after corn, but further north in Minnesota and Wisconsin where corn harvest is later, sequential planting may be the best option, Phippen explains.
CoverCress Inc. was actually started by former Monsanto employees back in 2013 under the name Arvegenix. They have been using a version of pennycress to search out processing and marketing options while also conducting field tests. The company says it will need about 500 farmers to plant the next crop 2021, for which they have reportedly already lined up a buyer. Cris Handel, vice president of strategy and operations, says farmers can expect to earn about $50 per acre now and up to $70 as the crop is developed. The new crop can be grown with minimal input cost and with the same number of passes across the field as farmers use now, plus an extra pass for spring fertilizer, Handel said. You can learn more about CoverCress and their Farmer Partner opportunities HERE. (Sources: NIFA, ISU, Dispatch Argus, NPR)