In a sense, pennycress is a crop for all seasons -- or at least a crop for the right season.
Peoria-based Biofuels Manufacturers of Illinois LLC (BMI) last week completed its first commercial harvest of the crop -- a mustard relative whose seeds contain an average 36 percent oil, or roughly the oil content of soybeans. The 27-acre harvest will be processed into biodiesel in turn to be marketed by GROWMARK.
According to BMI, which plans to use a variety of biofuels feedstocks including soy and other oils and animal fats, an acre of pennycress can produce 115 gallons of biodiesel, more than twice as many gallons as soybeans. But that’s merely the beginning of pennycress’ virtues: It’s planted in the fall and harvested in the spring with conventional equipment, provides conserving winter cover, and is neither a human nor animal food crop.
Pictured left to right: Dr. Terry Esbell, Peoria USDA lab researcher; Dr. Peter Johnsen, CTO, Biofuels Manufacturers of Illinois; and Brad Glenn, Ag Guild of Illinois.
That’s potentially crucial as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) grapples with proposed rules under the federal renewable fuels standard (RFS). Ag groups and a number of farm state lawmakers are concerned about EPA plans to evaluate prospective biofuels based on “indirect land use” -- hypothetical impacts on global crop acres or environmentally sensitive lands linked by some to use of food crops for energy production.
BMI Chief Technology Officer Peter Johnsen is among those wary of current land use science and assumptions. However, pennycress offers biodiesel producers a possible alternative should EPA adopt current proposals to disqualify “sustainable” vegetable oils from the RFS program -- a move that could endanger future soy biodiesel markets.
“In a sort of perverse way, the indirect land use regulation would be a good clause for pennycress, although I would not want to see it happen,” Johnsen told FarmWeek.
“The fact that we do plant it in the fall after corn and then harvest it and then plant soybeans on the same ground really would indicate that this is a crop that does not get tangled up into that (land use) conversation. I think it’s an ideal solution for any of those types of concerns.”
That said, Johnsen maintained scientists don’t yet fully understand the relationship between U.S. agricultural and cropping practices and production across the rest of the globe. “To artificially impose some kind of structure and rules before we understand these kinds of things is simply tying one hand of American agriculture behind our backs,” he said.