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View from the Cab: Cashing in on a weed

By: Kent Casson

It sounds like something straight out of the fiction section of a library: turning a common weed in the field into an oilseed crop to be used as renewable biodiesel in the future.

Actually, this is all true. A company known as Covercress Inc. is developing Pennycress into a crop. They have a full breeding program using gene editing through a full development cycle. Covercress hopes to have many acres of the crop over the next two years in central Illinois and eastern Missouri.

“We’ve been working on that for the last eight years,” explains Chris Aulbach, vice president of agronomy for Covercress. “We started with a group of employees who went around the countryside making selections.”

Aulbach was among those presenting information on the green and white Pennycress plant during a recent field day hosted at the Illinois State University farm near Lexington.

“Everything has converged really well together. We’ve got the oil business really looking for alternate sources of fuel and this is where our Covercress really fits into that.”

Aulbach tells me this provides farmers the opportunity to add another crop to their growing cycle, providing both a cover crop and grain crop. Covercress provided seed for a field of the crop at the ISU farm and the stand appeared to be good.

“They are using it to do a nitrate study,” explained Aulbach.

One of the benefits of cover crops is growth over the winter to help reduce soil erosion and nutrient loss, helping to capture some of the nutrients that would have otherwise been lost.

Field Pennycress is typically known as a weed farmers try to control – growing around farm buildings and the edges of fields.

“We have actually changed and domesticated this plant,” said Aulbach. “Our plant behaves differently in one core way – we’ve thinned the seed coat on this crop.”

As I interviewed Aulbach on the ISU research farm back in mid-April, the field of Pennycress was just starting to flower at ankle height. He said it will get to be waist high and a well-developed crop for grain harvest.

You can visit for more information and interested farmers can visit the website to find out more about participating in a Covercress program for the fall of 2022.


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