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Weed being domesticated at ISU and WIU to produce biodiesel, animal feed, and jet fuel

For years, conservationists have promoted cover crops as ways to fix nitrogen in the soil and prevent soil erosion, but farmers haven't been leaping for joy because it costs money and labor to plant and then to scrape the cover crop off the field in time for spring planting. Incentives to plant cover crops through conservation grants barely offset that.

This is about to change because scientists at Illinois State University and elsewhere have tinkered with the genes of a common weed called pennycress and produced something called covercress. ISU agriculture professor John Sedbrook said it took more than $10 million in federal grants from the Agriculture Department and more than seven years to do it.

Now, a St. Louis-based company called Covercress, Inc. has turned it into a cash crop first planted last fall and harvested from a 1,000-acre planting this spring.

“They have enough seed now to be going on 10,000 acres this fall. And the goal is to be on 3 million acres in the Midwest here by 2030. That's ambitious. But certainly, we can get a portion of that assuming things go as they are going,” said Sedbrook.

Covercress currently produces about 1,500 pounds of seed per acre, he said, adding that value is close to $300 per acre.

“You can't go from producing the seeds and planting to harvesting and processing unless everybody's making money. The way the economics work out, right now, the farmers would be getting $50 an acre. That could change as this crop gets improved with higher yields,” said Sedbrook.

Economics alone might not be enough to convince farmers to widely plant Covercress. There has to be a market, and Sedbrook acknowledges farmers have had past experiences in planting a crop when the whole supply chain isn't ready. But he said there is a buyer now. Bunge is a large agriculture company that does for oil seeds what Archer Daniels Midland does for soybeans.

“Bunge just signed a long-term agreement with Covercress, Inc. to off take the seeds. Along with that deal, Bunge formed a partnership with Chevron, which is now kicking in $600 million to expand oil processing facilities in Cairo, Illinois, and then also at the end of the Mississippi River. The processing is going to be there for the grain.

"It's up to us now to be producing as much as possible,” said Sedbrook.

Covercress produces oil that can be used for food based on genetic changes made at Illinois State and at the University of Minnesota, said Sedbrook.

“You sell the oil and the meal. The protein will be used as animal feed. The oil can be used for renewable diesel. And there's a huge market for renewable diesel,” said Sedbrook.

Another emerging market, he said, is jet fuel, noting proof of that came during a recent conference in Washington, D.C.

“Basically, the who's who of commercial aviation was at this meeting and they all had the same message: They're committed to be using 3 billion gallons of alternative fuels or renewable fuel by 2030,” said Sedbrook.

Planting entails risk, though. Weather is one for farmers, no matter the crop. Sedbrook said the largest concern is getting Covercress out of the field early in the year — in time for farmers to plant their mainstay corn and soybeans.

“We'd like to have a little bit more of a cushion and be able to get this out of the field in time. But certainly, you can make it work now with the varieties they have and farmers are signing up,” said Sedbrook.

He said the Energy Department has given ISU a $13 million grant, now in year two, to get the crop to mature early enough to offer that extra time to farmers. He said further genetic research will focus on temperature tolerances to expand the range of Covercress.

“Covercress is launching in the lower Midwest, which is pretty much where we are, to south central Illinois, then going into Indiana and Missouri. With earlier maturing varieties, we can expand that zone as well,” said Sedbrook. “Heat resistance of this crop and how to improve that is a major focus of this grant as well.”

ISU and Western Illinois University have been key to domesticating pennycress and producing a usable crop. Sedbrook said the effort also has taken the help of corporations, the government, and other universities.

“You can have goals and you can work hard to reach those goals. This has been teams of people. How we've been successful is working together, not picking our own thing and trying to keep secrets. It's putting all the problems on the table and putting minds together and solving these things,” said Sedbrook. “You know, it's worked out as good as we could have imagined it would. There's still work to be done.”

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.