St. Louis startup says it's developed eco-friendly 'cash cover crop' to add to corn-soybean rotation
A St. Louis startup agriculture company says it’s developed a cover crop that will eventually generate income for Iowa and other Midwest farmers while helping mitigate climate change.
CoverCress is attracting investment from agriculture industry heavy-hitters including Bunge and Bayer, and plans to make its “cash cover crop” available on limited acreage in Illinois this fall before expanding to commercial-scale acreage next year.
Farmers plant cover crops like cereal rye and oats near the fall corn harvest, putting roots in the ground to anchor the soil and nutrients during winter and spring, then harvest it in May before soybeans are planted. Cover crops also help sequester carbon in the soil, preventing it from combining with oxygen and adding to greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming.
What they don’t do, generally, is provide farmers an easily saleable crop. But CoverCress, both the name of the company and the crop, aims to bridge that gap. Derived from field pennycress, a native winter annual, it produces oil seed that can be harvested and processed to produce what the company says is a “low-carbon intensity oil” that “represents a new scalable source of material for producing fuels like renewable diesel, biodiesel and sustainable aviation fuel.”
Farmers could reap $50 an acre from the crop, according to the company, which attracted $8 million in investment this month. In addition to St. Louis-based Bunge, investors include the Renewable Energy Group, an Ames-based maker of biodiesel and renewable diesel.
CoverCress said it could be a “few years” before the crop is available for Iowa farmers. Right now, it doesn’t mature soon enough to be harvested in time to make way for a full-season soybean crop.
“We do plan to get to Iowa, but for now our top breeding lines are not early enough to perform really well for the farmers at that latitude,” said Cristine Handel, a CoverCress spokeswoman.
“We expect to get the CoverCress model to Iowa in the next few years as the breeding lines become earlier and earlier,” she said in an email.
Between corn and soybean crops, a growing number of Iowa farmers plant cover crops to hold soil and nutrients in place during the winter and spring.
It prevents erosion, reduces nitrogen and phosphorus runoff that pollutes waterways as well as improves soil health, providing the roots that feed bacteria, fungi, earthworms and other soil organisms that increase soil carbon levels over time.
While cover crops offer soil and environmental benefits, they offer few commercial opportunities, although many livestock producers graze cattle on cover crops, reducing their feed costs.
CoverCress say scientists used plant breeding to increase covercress yield and to accelerate maturity, as well as advanced gene editing tools to improve the oil and meal quality.
“The CoverCress crop generates revenue as animal feed, either as a whole-grain feed ingredient, or when processed, as a high-protein meal in addition to the low-carbon intensity oil,” the company says.
The new round of investment indicates “downstream” demand from companies that would buy the crop’s oil and meal, CoverCress Chief Operating Officer Mike DeCamp said in a statement.
Founded in 2013, Covercress anticipates farmers will plant the cover crop on up to 4 million acres by 2030.