MACOMB, Ill. — Win Phippen knows he has to get it right the very first time.
“In working with new crops, you get one shot with producers,” said Phippen, professor of plant breeding and genetics at the Western Illinois Agriculture School of Agriculture.
Phippen recently received a $10 million from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture at the U.S. Department of Agriculture to use on his work researching and refining the seed genetics of pennycress.
Pennycress is a winter annual that is more recognizable to farmers as a roadside weed.
But the seed of the plant, resembling a penny in its seedpod, holds promise as both an oilseed crop to use for biodiesel feedstock and as a cover crop.
Phippen is working with CoverCress Inc., a St. Louis-based company started by retired corn and soybean plant breeders, to get the pennycress genetics to the stage where the seed can be marketed to farmers as an option in a conventional row crop rotation.
“We want to make sure we have the best varieties so we are breeding the best lines. We’ve identified the key traits we need in pennycress lines,” Phippen said.
Phippen’s pennycress project includes research partners at other universities throughout the Midwest, including Illinois State University, the Ohio State University, the University of Wisconsin at Platteville and the University of Minnesota.
The project’s territory covers from North Dakota to St. Louis.
The goal of the program is to work toward commercializing the crop within five years.
“It’s developing the protocols, working with corn growers, perhaps there are herbicide programs that are currently being used on corn that have a negative impact on pennycress. We need to be thinking what varieties of corn the pennycress is following, what herbicide programs are being used prior to planting the pennycress to make sure we get a consistent stand establishment in that corn, going through to soybean planting in the spring,” Phippen said.
One of the other major goals of the program is to have not just the seed right but also all the information available to producers so they can succeed. That has to be done even before major field trials can take place.
“We want to make sure the production protocols get written correctly, that we can make recommendations for fertilizer, how to prep the ground correctly, how to deal with issues that may pop up during the growing season, insects or diseases that may come along,” Phippen said.
Illinois State University and the University of Minnesota are looking at the benefits of pennycress as a cover crop.
“They are doing what we call ecoservices. What else does this plant give you, other than seed for cash? Does it help your soils? Does it help the insect populations? Does it help with diseases?” Phippen said.
Pennycress, because it blooms early in the spring, is one of the first plants for pollinators. In addition, the plant scavenges nitrogen and since only the seed is harvested, the rest of the plant is left as organic matter.
Phippen knows he and his team need to get it right.
“I want to be sure I put the best seed possible in the producer’s hand so when he puts it in te ground, he has a good experience. If he has a good experience, it’s that much easier for me to get his neighbor to grow it and then his neighbor’s neighbor,” Phippen said.