Oct. 14 2016 10:32 AM

Pennycress finds value as biofuel source

LANSING — A new crop could add a harvesting season for farmers in Michigan and elsewhere in the Midwest, a spring harvest rather than the traditional fall.

Commercial pennycress field in April.
Photo courtesy Jerry Steiner, Arvegenix
Pennycress is planted in August or September, toward the end of the corn season. It continues until May. Because of this unique characteristic, this member of the mustard family could benefit both the environment and farming, according to agricultural researchers. The plant is valued for the oil produced from the seeds which can be used as a raw material for biodiesel. And pennycress helps meet federal and state goals to reduce the production of carbon that contributes to climate change.

The plant may see its rise in Michigan soon.

Metro Ag Services, located in Detroit, plans to build a 30 million gallon oil processing facility in Flint, said Lance Stokes, a research specialist at the company. It will serve nearby farms and cut the distance that farmers must send harvested pennycress. Stokes said farmers are interested in growing pennycress because of the money they can make without purchasing more land. He’s trying to get Michigan farmers to grow a total of 400 square miles of pennycress on the corn and soybean fields.

“We pay the farmers to grow it,” Stokes said. “And it adds to their income stream, around a 20-30 percent increase in their revenue depending on the acreage they have.”

Pennycress naturally grows in disturbed areas with little competition, such as harvested corn fields lying bare and unproductive, said Steven Vaughn, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s functional food researcher in Peoria, Ill. Farmers initially perceived the plant as a hassle.

“During the 1990s, the weed was popping up in early spring because there was nothing else occupying the fields,” Vaughn said.

While considered a weed then, pennycress’s image is getting recreated as the next cash crop, and researchers are trying to add it into the traditional crop rotation of corn and soybeans.

Growing pennycress has environmental benefits said Winthrop Phippen, a professor of plant breeding and genetics at Western Illinois University.

“I am using ground that farmers leave totally empty over the winter months,” he said. “And I am squeezing in another crop. I’m not having to clear wetlands. I’m not having to disturb watersheds or anything. I’m actually improving the watershed, because now I’ve got green cover during the winter months, and that helps absorb any leftover nitrogen that may be in the field.That also keeps excess nitrogen from running off into streams and waterways.”

Although harmless to eat, pennycress is not palatable for most people. As a crop grown mainly for biodiesel fuel, it doesn’t take away land that could be used to grow food, said Jerry Steiner, the CEO of Arvegenix Inc., a pennycress development company based in St. Louis.

“The biodiesel industry and the renewable jet fuel industry are looking for new feedstocks, the raw material needed to produce biodiesel,” Steiner said. “But they want feedstocks that don’t compete with food.”

Arvegenix estimates that there could be $200 to $300 made from each acre of pennycress. Considering there are 35 million acres that farmers could put into pennycress, the crop could become a huge economic and environmental boost, Steiner said.

— BECKY WILDT, Capital News Service

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