For more than a decade, enthusiasts have touted the potential value to Illinois farmland of a cold-weather stalk weed, field pennycress. Pennycress is adapted to the climate after corn is harvested in the fall and before new kernels are planted next spring. The fast-growing plant, if planted as an off-season cover crop, will send out late fall roots and discourage topsoil erosion during field downtime. Furthermore, the cress will then produce spring seedpods that can be pressed for biofuel oil.
Despite its potential value, until 2022 little pennycress has been planted in Illinois. There has been little demand for cress oil, and few or no Illinois elevators or buyers have offered to buy cress pods or seeds. This summer, however, reports came that Bunge, the sunflower/canola merchant, will start buying cress seeds. Bunge has inked a deal with Chevron, the oil giant, which is urgently seeking opportunities in biofuels. Chevron says it will process cress seed at its plant in Cairo, Illinois. From Cairo, cargoes can be shipped to biodiesel distributers throughout the eastern United States.
The pennycress that Bunge will buy will have to be a specific hybrid type called Covercress. Farmers will have to purchase Covercress seed, a patented, intellectual-property seed, in order to grow a salable cover crop. A spokesperson for Illinois State University says that Covercress was developed after more than seven years of federally-supported field studies and research. This institutional research project has generated a crop that is said to be ready for market expansion. Seed salespeople says that 1,000 acres of the new cress were harvested in Illinois in spring 2022, generating seed for planting 10,000 acres of cover crop in fall 2022. Enthusiasts believe that, with potentially booming demand for cress-oil biodiesel fuel, as many as 3 million Illinois acres could be planted to cress by 2030.