Entrepreneurs and researchers say farmers, fuel producers could have new gains from old plant •
It’s called pennycress because it’s shaped like pennies. As Illinois farmer Brad Glenn finishes harvesting it from his farm this week, pennies are exactly what he hopes he will earn from turning this old plant into a new cash crop.
Glenn is an early adopter in the movement to bring pennycress into the corn and soybean rotation as a promising biodiesel feedstock. It has been on the fast track to becoming a sustainable biodiesel resource since 2008, and this year, he’s one of a group of entrepreneurs that believes it has hit the right combination. It could mean another viable, sustainable source of oil for our nation’s energy supply while adding income to farm operations.
"What excites me the most is that the effort to grow pennycress for biodiesel is really still in its infancy, and yet it’s essentially ready to go commercial," Glenn said from his farm in Stanford, Ill.
A member of the mustard family, pennycress grows wild in the Midwest, and its seed packets contain oilseeds that yield 36 percent oil when crushed. An acre would yield the equivalent of about 80 gallons of oil.
Glenn and his partners are contracting with other farmers to grow and harvest the plants. They plan on crushing the seeds and selling the oil to biodiesel producers. This year the pennycress oil is priced similarly to soybean oil.
"I saw an opportunity to produce an energy crop here-and-now on underutilized assets with no negative impact to the environment or the farm," said Peter Johnsen, who has been instrumental in commercialization of the crop. Johnsen is a retired director of the USDA’s National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research in Peoria, Ill.
"A great benefit is that we can grow pennycress during the winter on existing farms that would otherwise just sit dormant. It has no impact on existing crops, conservation grounds, or critical wildlife habitat," he said.
As a winter crop, pennycress also provides a valuable service as sustainable ground cover, which helps prevent erosion and nutrient runoff. It also takes very little energy and no inputs to grow in Midwestern states that run roughly between I-70 and I-80. Johnsen estimates there are potentially 40 million existing farm acres for it.
"The diversity of fats and oils from which biodiesel can be made has always been one of its greatest strengths, and pennycress is a perfect example of how our industry is innovative and sustainable," said Alan Weber, who runs the National Biodiesel Board’s feedstock development program.
Biodiesel’s greenhouse gas reductions make it the nation’s first commercially available, domestically produced advanced biofuel. It can be made from any fat or vegetable oil, such as soybean and canola oil or recycled grease.
For growing pennycress, the best approach the team found is to drop the seeds from an airplane into standing corn in the fall. It germinates under the corn, and is harvested in early spring using a soybean combine, before soybeans are planted. It’s then crushed with conventional crushing equipment, and the meal has potential value as livestock feed.
"This could not be easier, and has the potential to generate extra income while helping farmers make an even greater contribution to energy production," Glenn said.
For Glenn and Johnsen, the goal is for farmers to plant 10,000 acres of pennycress next fall in Central Illinois, with "serious growth" in the coming years. Farmer education is likely to be one of the biggest hurdles, they said. Although many consider pennycress a weed, it dies off in the spring and does not compete with corn or soybeans. In other words, it is planted in-between the corn and soybean crops on land that would otherwise sit empty. It is also easy to get rid of with routine herbicides if necessary.
"For this to succeed, it’s going to take a desire for innovation among farmers, and a shift in their thinking to grow a crop in the winter," Johnsen said. "But it’s a phenomenally promising win-win."
Peter Johnsen harvests pennycress in Illinois. Researchers and entrepreneurs think they’ve found the key to commercialization as a biodiesel feedstock.