January 15, 2021—Cover crops have long offered huge promise for sustainability: They reduce soil erosion, prevent runoff, improve soil health, and sequester carbon. But for farmers running a business, cover crops often don’t pencil out. There is a cost to buy seeds, plant them, and in many cases terminate them. There is also labor and wear and tear on tractors and combines.
Enter CoverCress, an IN2 cohort company based in St. Louis developing a solution to this challenge. Its target market: the American heartland, where most of the 30 million acres devoted to corn and soy often sit bare over the winter.
The Magic of Perfect Timing
CoverCress is developing a namesake crop, CoverCress, with the magical characteristic of perfect timing. It is sown right after corn is harvested in the fall, and finishes growing before soy is planted in the spring. (The corn-soy rotation is the dominant form of farming in the United States.)
For 30 million acres in the southern Midwest, currently there are no cover crops that fit between the corn and soybean rotations that are harvestable. This means there is no competition for this plant.
Valuable Plant Oils
Most importantly, the oil pressed from CoverCress seeds can be used to make biodiesel, jet fuel, meal for animal feed, and eventually food oil. So, farmers can make money selling it. “We think there are so many opportunities with such a flexible product, and the research at Danforth (the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center) with IN2 has been very important for us,” said Cris Handel, CoverCress’ Senior Vice President for Marketing and Sustainability.
But making this miracle crop is not an easy process—at all. CoverCress doesn’t occur in nature in its commercially viable form, but rather as pennycress, a weed that grows in roadside ditches in the Midwest.
In order to give this plant more commercially desirable characteristics, the startup and its research partners at the Danforth Center have used the techniques of traditional plant breeding and genetic modification.
Rebranded CoverCress, it’s now more resistant to fungus, and easier to harvest. Experts at the Danforth Center, Dilip Shah and Dmitri Nusinow, were able to make suggestions and come up with new possibilities that the company had not thought of themselves. They now have grown dozens of research generations of CoverCress, and counting.
Inventing an Infrastructure
Inventing a whole new production cycle has also been a massive undertaking. “This is a very different type of startup,” said Handel. “Usually, startups are focused on one product or service to start with. In our case, there was no infrastructure around this product. We had to figure out processing and distribution too.”
The startup’s goal is to make it as easy as possible for farmers to integrate CoverCress into their planting schedule.Right now, it’s planning on a closed-loop business model. The company will give farmers the seed for free, and then at the end of the growing cycle, be paid along with farmers when they deliver the harvested product. IN2, Handel says, has been a huge benefit. The application process was easy and straightforward, which made it easy on the small company. Startups don’t have a dedicated staffer who can write grants all day, so the streamlined process and a helpful IN2 team helped them save time on reporting.
For Handel and her team, the end results are in sight, and will be worth the journey. “This is a plant that can protect your soil, add biodiversity in terms of microbes, and prevent nitrogen leaching into the groundwater and then into the Gulf of Mexico”. “There are all these environmental benefits – and then this plant will also increase farmer revenue. If you are using the oil for fuel, your fuel will have a low carbon-intensity score. It’s fantastic.”
The company is currently recruiting farmers in the Midwest for its first pilot plantings, and is on schedule to have 3-5 million acres under cultivation by 2030.
Learn more about CoverCress.