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Watch now: 'Wonder weed' research at Illinois State University called a 'game changer'

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LEXINGTON — Illinois State University researchers, administrators and elected officials lauded pennycress, once considered to be just a “weed,” as an economic and environmental game-changer during an event at the ISU Research Farm Monday.

A number of lucrative agricultural research grants have built a solid base for learning at ISU.

Pennycress is similar to canola and can be planted as an off-season cover crop between corn and soybeans. ISU President Larry Dietz called it "the wonder weed."

John Sedbrook, professor of genetics, said, "It's a team effort" that enables the university to involve students in "cutting-edge research" that helps the economy and creates jobs.

ISU is working in partnership with several other universities and CoverCress Inc. on the pennycress project. The goal is to develop pennycress as a cover crop that not only prevents topsoil loss and nutrient runoff but also provides a money-making source for fuel and animal feed.

Several state and federal lawmakers were at the farm Monday to receive an update on that project and other research at the farm.

The project has received a five-year, $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a $13 million grant from the Department of Energy. There also has been $14 million in private investment.

“When you look at the potential for this, it’s really phenomenal,” said U.S. Rep. Darin LaHood, a Republican from Dunlap.

Noting his district is the eighth largest agriculture district in terms of corn and soybean production, LaHood compared pennycress to where the ethanol industry was in its infancy but noted it is making great strides.

The first commercial planting will take place next year on about 2,000 acres, said Chris Handel of CoverCress. The following year, they expect 50,000 acres to be planted with pennycress, she said.

State Sen. Bill Brady, R-Bloomington, called pennycress “a game changer” that would help both the agricultural economy and the environment.

Michaela McGinn of CoverCress said planting cover crops is a good practice for the environment, but it costs money, including wear and tear on machinery.

The advantage of pennycress, as it is being developed, is that not only does its growing season fit well between corn and soybeans but it provides nutrients for animal feed as well as oil for biofuels, she said.

U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, a Republican from Taylorville, said, "We're looking ahead to the future," adding that the research will "benefit the country, not just Illinois."

Pennycress is not the only biofuels-related research being done at ISU.

John Sedbrook, Illinois State University professor of genetics would never consider pennycress a weed, but most farmers do. With his help, they are looking at their next cash crop.

David Kopsell, professor of horticulture, and LC Yang, assistant professor of environmental health, recently received a two-year, nearly $150,000 grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture to continue their work on anaerobic digestion of plant wastes in small to medium-sized conventional and organic farming composting operations.

Photos: ISU professor John Sedbrook's lab engineers pennycress plant

Contact Lenore Sobota at (309) 820-3240. Follow her on Twitter: @Pg_Sobota


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