MN Impact: Pennycress shows great potential for improving farmer profits and the sustainability of Minnesota farmland
Development of new crop varieties will help Minnesota growers improve profitability.
Most of Minnesota's 27 million acres of farmland are dedicated to summer annuals which leads to unprotected land for a good portion of the year. This not only leads to nutrient depletion but also means Minnesota farmland is not as productive as it could be.
What has been done
The Forever Green Initiative employs cutting-edge research focused on developing cover cropping and perennial plant systems that keep the land covered 365-days-a-year. By bringing together a team of experts in breeding, genetics, agronomics and product commercialization the initiative plans to successfully domesticate new crops over the course of a decade--a concept only made possible by breakthroughs is plant sciences over the last several decades. One such crop is field pennycress, an annual crop that overwinters and can be seeded after corn or soybeans are harvested in the fall making it an easy addition to a corn-soybean rotation. Beyond soil protection, field pennycress produces high-value oil and protein meal from unused fertilizer and water that would otherwise be wasted and helps suppress weeds.
University researchers have already made improvements related to seed size, oil content and shatter resistance along with successfully mapping the pennycress genome. The most productive lines in the program produce 40 percent oil by weight, with a composition that could be converted to biodiesel, aviation fuel or other industrial products. The first U of M variety is scheduled for public release in 2021. Researchers estimate that adding pennycress as a winter crop has the potential to add up to an extra $300 of profit per acre for soybean growers. In 2018, 7.74 million acres of soybean were harvested in Minnesota, at $300 per acre the potential value add is over $2.3 billion in addition to its environmental values including preventing soil erosion and nutrient loss.