Agriculture Professor Win Phippen announced this morning the $10 million federal grant for Pennycress research at WIU.

Macomb, IL (September 17, 2019) – The Western Illinois University School of Agriculture announced that Agriculture Professor Win Phippen is the recipient of a $10 million federal grant to investigate the use of the alternative crop, Pennycress, as a new cash cover crop in the Midwest.

The USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) grant will allow Phippen to further refine Pennycress as a new winter-annual cash cover crop for use by the biofuel industry. Researchers from Illinois State University, the Ohio State University, the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, and the University of Minnesota will join Phippen's team to refine this high-yield oilseed crop. Phippen, who has been with the School of Agriculture and the director of the School's Alternative Crops Program since 2000, has been growing Pennycress, and investigating its uses as a biofuel alternative, for 10 years.

"Pennycress is unique among cover crops as it can generate income, which incentivizes farmer participation. Integration of Pennycress into existing corn-soybean rotations extends the growing season on established cropland and avoids food crop displacement, all while yielding up to two billion gallons of oil annually," Phippen explains.

The goal is to produce 50 billion gallons of biofuel in the next 25 years. The integrated Pennycress crop program will work toward commercializing the crop within five years, according to Phippen. Research will focus on improving Pennycress genetics (germplasm) for plant breeding and preservation, agronomic management, ecosystems and supply chain management for post-harvest seed control.

"The integration of Pennycress as a cash cover crop will positively impact producers' profits, decrease soil erosion and nutrient runoff, which protects water systems, support pollinating species (bees and other pollinators), suppress weeds, diversify the nation's energy sources and contribute to rural economies," Phippen said. "We're very excited to further refine this powerhouse crop as an alternative for our Midwest farmers. I am most appreciative of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's faith in my research, and I look forward to leading a team of researchers with a solid background in alternative crop research."

Phippen's integrated program optimizes off-season Pennycress oilseed production by overcoming production and supply chain bottlenecks, with the goal of commercially launching Pennycress as a cash cover crop in 2021. CoverCress, Inc., of St. Louis, MO, is working closely with Phippen and his team for some of the breeding and post-production side of the research. Trial Pennycress planting in Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin and Minnesota will begin this month, with the first harvest anticipated in May 2020. The alternative crop is planted immediately following a corn harvest. After harvest, Pennycress storage will be tested, along with the quantity and quality of oil extracted, and the shelf life of Pennycress oil. The oil and meal will be further studied to determine uses for fuel, feed and food applications.

"This grant is a phenomenal coup for Dr. Phippen and the School of Agriculture. We were lucky to hire Win 19 years ago to lead an alternative crops program, which at the time was still relatively new," said School of Agriculture Director Andy Baker. "His work and dedication to alternative crops is most deserving of this grant. Not only does this grant and research put our School and his program further on the map, it provides learning opportunities for our students that they will not find anywhere else."

USDA Deputy Under Secretary Scott Hutchins said the $77.8 million in NIFA research grants, which have been awarded to eight U.S. universities, are aimed at integrating sustainable agricultural approaches covering the entire food production system.

"Investing in high-value research that promotes sustainably intensified agricultural practices, while addressing climate adaptation and limited resources, ensures long-term agricultural productivity and profitability and provides unprecedented opportunities for American farmers and producers," said Hutchins, who leads USDA's Research, Education and Economics (REE) mission area. "USDA continues to support our nation's farmers through investments that help strengthen our rural communities."

This research investment is part of a new program within NIFA's Agriculture and Food Research Initiative's (AFRI) Sustainable Agricultural Systems program, the nation's leading and largest competitive grants program for agricultural sciences.

Other researchers part of Phippen's team include John Sedbrook, Bill Perry, Rebekka Darner, William Hunter, Nicholas Heller and Rob Rhykerd (Illinois State University); Jim Anderson, Ratan Chopra, Katherine Frels, M. David Marks and M. Scott Wells (University of Minnesota); Alexander Lindsey (The Ohio State University); Pamela Tas (University of Wisconsin-Platteville); and Cristine Handel, CoverCress, Inc. Project advisory board members include Steve Csonka, executive director, CAAFI, Greg Haer, VP Sales and Marketing, Renewable Energy Group, Jerry Steiner, CEO, CoverCress, Inc. Anne Kinzel of I-Prefer is the project manager.

Illinois State University researchers part of $10 million USDA grant to implement new oilseed cover crop for fuel

John Sedbrook, Dalton Williams, Taylor Suo, and Mali Esfahanian at the Horticulture Center.

Normal, IL (September 17, 2019) - Nearly 80 million acres of land in the Midwest are devoted to corn and soybeans in the growing season, which means millions of acres of land sit empty in the winter months. A $10 million grant from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) aims to protect that idle land and provide extra income to farmers. The grant will allow researchers to domesticate a plant into a winter cover crop that can be used to produce biodiesel, jet fuel, and animal feed.

“From the time you harvest corn and soybeans till you plant in May there’s mostly nothing in the ground,” said Illinois State University’s Professor of Genetics John Sedbrook, who has been working for years to convert what many consider a weed – pennycress – into a viable “cover crop,” or a crop that can be planted by farmers during the winter months. “Thlaspi arvense, or pennycress is an annual oilseed cover crop that has the potential to produce 3 billion gallons of fuel per year.”

With the grant, Illinois State researchers will work closely with the lead institution, Western Illinois University, as well as researchers at the University of Minnesota, the Ohio State University, the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, the USDA, and the St. Louis-based crop development company CoverCress, Inc. Working as a group known as the Integrated Pennycress Research Enabling Farm and Energy Resilience (IPREFER), Sedbrook said the goal is to have an infrastructure in place within five years, so farmers can plant and harvest pennycress as a cover crop, and processing companies can convert the seed to fuel and feed.

“The integration of pennycress as a cash cover crop will positively impact producers’ profits, decrease soil erosion and nutrient runoff which protects water systems, support pollinating species (bees and other pollinators), suppress weeds, diversify the nation’s energy sources and contribute to rural economies,” said Western Illinois University’s Agriculture Professor Win Phippen, the main recipient of the grant. “We’re very excited to further refine this powerhouse crop as an alternative for our Midwest farmers.”

At Illinois State, the grant will help support the ongoing work of Sedbrook’s lab. Over the years, the USDA has awarded Sedbrook’s work with more than $3 million in grants to bring out positive genetic traits in pennycress, ensuring seeds can be used for biofuel, and the seed remnants can be added to meal to feed animals. “We’ve made two key genetic changes to those seeds to make them edible and more nutritious,” said Sedbrook, whose lab at Illinois State is devoted to integrated plant biology and bioenergy. He noted the same process was used in the 1960s to convert rapeseed into canola oil, which is in widespread use today.

The USDA grant will help fund the work to domesticate and commercialize pennycress by expanding Illinois State’s team to include Professor of Water Ecology Bill Perry, Assistant Professor of Crop Science Nicholas Heller, and Professor of Soil Science Rob Rhykerd of the University’s Department of Agriculture.

“This is a very exciting project,” said Rhykerd. “In addition to providing a return to the farmer, this cover crop may help reduce erosion and nutrient runoff from agricultural fields, benefitting the environment.” Perry added the work fits in with the EPA hopes to protect water resources in Illinois and in downstream states. “Our research may help meet the goals of the Illinois Nutrient Reduction Strategy using pennycress as a cover crop that not only helps keep nutrients in the fields, but also provides an economic return to farmers during the offseason,” said Perry.

Grant funds will also support outreach to farmers and the agricultural community. Willy Hunter, Rebekka Darner, and Matthew Hageman of Illinois State’s Center for Mathematics, Science, and Technology (CeMaST) will begin the project by working with area 4-H programs.

Congressman Rodney Davis noted he was thrilled to hear about the grant. “This is welcomed news and I’m glad to see more of our local universities receiving NIFA grants,” said Davis. “These grants are a major asset to universities and our communities not only because of the research they fund, but because of the opportunities they create for our local farmers and our local economies. I proud to be an advocate for a 5 percent increase in NIFA funding in our last spending bills.”

“Pennycress offers an exciting opportunity for Illinois farmers, and demonstrates the exciting advances in agricultural technology,” said State Senator Bill Brady (R-Bloomington). “This grant will help our agriculture industry grow and advance, which will have a positive impact throughout Illinois.”

“Money for higher education means great things, and this grant is a great and collaborative opportunity for Illinois State University,” said State Representative Dan Brady. “The USDA grant will not only have a positive local impact, but regionally, and nationally as well.”

Along with the financial benefit to farmers, Sedbrook said cover crops such as pennycress need to be adopted more widely to help mitigate environmental damage. “Everyone knows that plants like pennycress take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere to grow. By using plant products as fuel instead of digging it out of the ground from millions of years ago, you’re taking carbon that’s already there. So it’s a zero-sum game,” said Sedbrook, who added that plants also act to enrich the soil and mitigate nitrogen runoff that occurs after crops are harvested.

Sedbrook hopes the new crop will be a key player in the fight against climate change. “Science indisputably shows that climate change is a real and a present problem that we need to address as soon as possible,” he said. “Pennycress can help do that while providing extra income to rural communities. It’s a win-win.”

Researchers gather at Illinois State to discuss the IPREFER effort.