Western is awarded $10 million for agriculture research

Marc Ramirez, News editor


Western Illinois University and the School of Agriculture held a press conference Tuesday to announce the selection of Agriculture Professor Win Phippen as the recipient of a $10 million federal grant for Integrated Pennycress Research Enabling Farm and Energy Resilience or IPREFER research at Western.

Interim Provost and Academic Vice President Billy Clow opened up the conference by thanking everyone in attendance and highlighting public officials Representative Norine Hammond, Jay Burgess representing Congressman Darrin La Hood’s office, Macomb Mayor Mike Inman, Senator Jill Tracy and a number of other university officials and community leaders.

“This is a day that has been in the making for a while and I know that Win is very exciting and I am very excited to be able to present this,” Clow opened with.

Acting President Martin Abraham approached the podium to welcome and thank everyone in attendance. He added that this is going to be a great day for the University and community. He made it evident that he wanted to thank everyone that has been a part of receiving the large grant.

“You don’t do things like this on your own,” Abraham said. “You are successful by building partnerships, by working hard together over long periods of time, building groundwork and growing from the opportunities that you put together and that develop and that’s what we’ve done here and that’s what Win will tell you about.”

Abraham added that this is what he is here to tell us about and that this is what Western is all about. He states that this is part of his agenda here as Acting President. Growing partnerships and building relationships to help create mutually beneficial relationships is what he strives to do with his time at Western.

“The School of Agriculture, one of our signature programs here at Western, I had the pleasure a couple weeks ago of going out and touring the facilities,” Abraham said. “It’s truly a world class facility, its unique to what we can offer here at Western Illinois. It’s a tremendous activity and a tremendous opportunity.”

He then thanked Phippen and School of Agriculture Director Andy Baker for all the work they do, their dedication to the University and the support they provide to their students.

“So I’m going to cut right to the case,” Phippen said. “I’m glad to announce that Western Illinois University has been awarded $10 million. This is a federal grant that’s going to be used to investigate the use of an alternative crop called Pennycress.” According to Phippen, Pennycress is a new cash cover crop for the midwest region. The grant was awarded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

This will allow researchers to establish Pennycress as a new winter annual cash cover crop for use by the biofuel industry. Researchers from Illinois State University, Ohio State University, University of Wisconsin- Platteville and the University of Minnesota will join Phippen’s team.

“Western is one of only eight schools across the United States to receive the National Institute for Food and Agriculture grants for sustainable research,” Phippen said. “Pennycress is unique among the cover crops because it can generate income and this helps incentivize it for producers. The integration of Pennycress into existing corn-soybean rotation extends the growing season on established crop ground with avoiding the issues with food versus fuel issues. All while yielding up to two billion gallons of oil annually.”

The overall goal of the project is to produce 50 billion gallons of fuel in the next 25 years. The project will work on commercializing Pennycress in just five years. The goal is to commercially launch Pennycress as a cash cover crop in two years by 2021.

“Research will focus on improving Pennycress genetics (germplasm) for plant breeding and preservation, agronomic management, ecosystems and supply chain management for post-harvest seed control,” University Relations said in their press release.

Phippen says that the project can make a huge contribution to the state of Illinois as well as the rest of the midwest. The integration of the alternative cash cover crop will positively impact producer profits, help decrease soil erosion, improve nutrient runoff which will positively impact our water supply, helps diversity pollinating species, suppresses weeds and helps diversify the nations energy sources while benefiting rural economies.

“I am most appreciative to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and NIFA for their faith in my research,” Phippen said. “I look forward to leading a team of researchers to help build this crop as a new viable crop for the midwest.”

“CoverCress, Inc., of St. Louis, MO, is working closely with our team, they are our corporate partner, and they will support most of the breeding and some of the post-production efforts,” he said.

According to University Relations, Trial Pennycress planting in Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin and Minnesota will begin this month, with the first harvest anticipated in May 2020. The alternative crop is planted immediately following a corn harvest. After harvest, Pennycress storage will be tested, along with the quantity and quality of oil extracted, and the shelf life of Pennycress oil. The oil and meal will be further studied to determine uses for fuel, feed and food applications.

Next to the podium was Baker, who congratulated Phippen his grant approval as it is a phenomianl coup for not only Pippen but the School of Agriculture as well. He added that 19 years ago Phippen was hired to lead an alternative crops program that was relatively new to the University.

“Not only does this grant and research put our School and his program further on the map, it provides learning opportunities for our students that they will not find anywhere else,” Baker said.