Pennycress Gets In The Middle

06:13AM Oct 25, 2014
( Matt Lavin )

Between corn harvest and soybean planting, this oilseed plant might be a cover option

The road to incremental farmer revenue, renewable fuel and reduced nitrogen runoff is lined with acres of field pennycress, according to Vijay Chauhan, CEO of Arvegenix.

Planted between corn harvest and soybean planting, Chauhan says the oilseed plant won’t compete with current food crops. “We are looking to use idle land. We are not asking to replace a current crop with pennycress. We can provide another revenue crop on acreage that is not being used over the winter.”

Currently, Arvegenix is looking to market pennycress in the upper Corn Belt from Ohio to Nebraska—from I-70 to I-80. Comprised of 80 million acres of cropland, about 34 million acres in that area is in a corn–soybean rotation. Pennycress is planted in mid-September and harvested from late May to early June. Planting is done aerially over standing corn and the tiny seeds (about the size of clover or alfalfa) drop in the row valleys, germinating with soil contact and moisture. When combines harvest the corn, pennycress handles the pressure without issue. 

Once pennycress is flown onto fields, the crop is on its own until May. “The next time a grower deals with it is at harvest,” Chauhan says. “That’s part of the appeal: Between planting and harvesting a farmer does nothing with the crop. Essentially, there is no maintenance of field pennycress.”

As a winter annual, pennycress isn’t subject to bug or weed pressure, says Mark Lawson, Arvegenix research and development lead. “It escapes weed pressure by producing a crop before broadleaf weeds become a problem,” he adds. “Pennycress doesn’t grow well in high temperatures and therefore isn’t subject to the weed and insect competition that other crops face.” 

As an extremely low-input crop, pennycress uses fertilizer already in the soil. It can even scavenge 
remaining nitrogen from previous crops, which would otherwise run off. 

“The Illinois Soybean Association sanctioned a multiyear study at Western Illinois University to understand the impact pennycress could have on the soybean crop that follows penny- cress. We found the study quite encouraging on the timing of maturity along with a 3 bu. to 5 bu. per acre boost in soybeans following pennycress, in a series of comparisons versus fallow ground,” Chauhan says.

A new winter crop that slides between corn and soybeans raises eyebrows, but Chauhan is confident pennycress will fit into that window with research and development. 

It might be tricky to get pennycress harvested before soybean planting. Chauhan advises planting pennycress on no more than 20% to 25% of a farm to ensure timely soybean planting. 

“Our current model is a contract farming operation where we ask a given grower to give us access to his land. We then plant the seed and harvest the crop. All the farmer must do is deliver the seed to our crush plant and get paid for delivery. We want to achieve between 1,000 lb. to 1,100 lb. per acre as our first target, and we are paying about 6¢ per pound,” he says.

Pennycress oil has excellent chemistry for biodiesel, aviation fuel and several industrial oil products. The meal serves as a quality ingredient for cattle feed with a high protein content and good amino acid profile.

Pennycress dangles the treble promise of a revenue-generating crop, renewable fuels from a non-food crop and a cover crop that reduces nitrogen runoff. “It’s exciting to be involved in an opportunity to create new income streams for farmers that don’t interfere with their other crops,” Lawson says.

Arvegenix is two to three years away from developing commercial varieties of field pennycress. “With pennycress, environmental stewardship brings economic compensation.”