Illinois State University (ISU) President Larry Dietz jokingly referred to Monday’s celebrity plant as a “wonder weed,” but a $13 million Department of Energy (DOE) research grant gave pennycress more gravitas.

ISU scientists provided an overview of research to make pennycress into an oilseed cover crop to be used for biofuel, jet fuel, animal feed and other products. Federal and state lawmakers, agency leaders and ag organization representatives heard about work “to benefit agriculture, the environment and economy,” Dietz said at a press conference following a closed-door briefing on ISU’s Research Farm near Lexington.

As director of a DOE Pennycress Crop Resilience project, John Sedbrook, ISU genetics professor, and student researchers are genetically modifying pennycress to a create a commercially viable crop. Sedbrook’s work on the breeding and development side dovetails with a $10 million USDA Integrated Pennycress Research Enabling Farm and Energy Resilience led by Western Illinois University Agronomist Win Phippen. Phippen said the USDA project “is full steam ahead for commercialization by 2021.”

Sedbrook pointed out a pennycress cover crop would grow from fall to spring and offer farmers an economic crop that overwinters. Admitting he was skeptical when students first raised the idea, Sedbrook said, “In eight short years, we’re ready to take the weed and launch it” as a crop.

Cris Handel, vice president of strategy with CoverCress Inc., an industry partner, said her company currently has 10 research fields in Illinois. Next year, the company plans to expand to 2,000 acres and up to 50,000 acres in 2022.

Handel explained Covercress seed may be sown from a seed box on a combine that would allow farmers to plant while harvesting.

Asked about seed availability, Handel answered, “We give seed to farmers. We talk to farmers who will deliver to the grain handlers. ... It is a closed loop type of system.”

Handel said her company works with cover crop growers who are interested, and it wants to create clusters of Covercress growers to consolidate field locations and transportation needs. Interested growers may go online and indicate their interest, she added.

Earlier during the closed-door briefing, Lauren Lurkins, Illinois Farm Bureau director of environmental policy, connected pennycress’ potential to reduce nutrient losses fields as a cover crop. Cover crops are part of the statewide Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy, Lurkins noted.