St. Louis Agtech Startup CoverCress Turns a Weed Into a Cash Crop for Farmers

    By Kathleen Berger, Executive Producer for Science & Technology
    Making the best use of farmland in between crops takes innovative thinking. The biotechnology startup company CoverCress claims to have farmers ‘covered’ with a new cover crop that’s converted from a particular weed called field pennycress.

    “Really a once in a lifetime opportunity. We’re taking a winter annual weed and through breeding and agronomy and gene editing, we’ve converted it into a new rotational crop that fits in the Midwest, fits between a corn crop and a soybean crop, grows over the winter, so it’s giving a farmer a third crop over two seasons,” said Mike DeCamp, President & CEO of CoverCress. “So there’s a new opportunity for revenue on the same acre plus all the added ecosystem benefits of a cover crop.”

    CoverCress Inc. has converted field pennycress through advanced breeding and gene editing tools to create its climate-smart agricultural product marketed under the trade name of CoverCress. This renewable oilseed and animal feed crop has a winter annual growth cycle, allowing it to fit into an existing corn and soybean rotation. It is planted in the fall, vernalizes over the winter, flowers, sets seed in the spring, and is harvested just ahead of spring crop planting.

    On a farm in Arenzville, Illinois, the company demonstrated its success with industry experts and potential customers, including neighboring farmers. The company uses the opportunity to showcase the climate-smart seed technology.

    “Our ultimate product is renewable biodiesel with a low carbon footprint,” said Mark Messmer, Executive Vice President of Breeding and Product Delivery for CoverCress.

    When CoverCress grain is crushed, the oil produced is a lower carbon intensity feedstock for multiple uses, such as renewable diesel fuel, sustainable aviation fuel, and high-protein animal feed. And it’s good for the soil.

    “We can actually look the farmer in the eye and tell the farmer, ‘Look, we have a place for this stuff to go. You will be paid for it. And we’ve got a great crop for you to try to grow that’s both going to benefit your soil and benefit the environment,’” said Messmer.

    “As a company, CoverCress Inc., we are doing this under contract with farmers. We’re paying that farmer to plant, cultivate, harvest, deliver CoverCress,” said DeCamp. “We pay them at delivery and then we have the market. So our grain here, in the early days, will go as a whole grain additive into feed for chickens. Long term, we will take our grain to a crusher and that crusher will then crush the grain, extract the oil, extract the meal, the oil will go for renewable fuel production and then the meal will go for animal feed.”

    Having a cover crop is nothing new for Illinois farmer David Wessel.

    “I’ve been utilizing cover crops for several years and it just would fit into my rotation at least on my farm,” said Wessel. “I can get a little extra cash or a little revenue off that cover crop that I’m putting out there.”

    But as a cover crop, CoverCress is new idea that intrigues Wessel.

    “I think the biodiesel part is the driving factor right now. I sit on our state soybean board and so I’m pretty familiar with us being the number one feedstock for biodiesel- the soybeans. And we don’t really see it (CoverCress) as a competitor moving forward. It (CoverCress) may be a complementary product because we can double crop soybeans right behind this,” explained Wessel. “For years we consider pennycress as a weed that you would try to terminate and they (CoverCress) are taking it to the next extreme where they can get the oil from it. And also a feed source, that I learned today that I didn’t know – it’s going directly into poultry feed.”

    The crop has gone from the lab bench to the field, and the goal now is getting it from the field to market.

    “Customers and the folks that we talked to today obviously have a lot of interest. We had a couple of customers in the field that I just heard wanted to double their order after coming to the field today. So that’s always a good thing,” said Messmer.

    “Being out here, looking at the research trials and the team that they have put together, they have a very knowledgeable and a great team, I feel, developing these new strains. I think they have a good future moving forward,” said Wessel.