In 2025, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton hopes the state reaches his goal of improving water quality by 25 percent. Dubbed 25-by-25, the strategy puts more than $350 million towards the objective. The plan includes incentives for the creation of buffer strips and encourages changes in tillage practices.The initiative has sparked a new venture that explores something beyond just planting cover crops. Josh Buettner has more in our Cover Story. Producer contact josh@iptv.org

Dr. Don Wyse/Department of Agronomy, University of Minnesota /Director – Forever Green Initiative: “They’re using the same principles on the development of these species as they would on barley or wheat and other crops that are being developed.”

Dr. Don Wyse is spearheading an initiative to revolutionize food systems, create rural jobs and improve soil and water quality – by commercializing conservation.  The University of Minnesota’s Forever Green Initiative is engaging over 60 faculty, graduate students and researchers - along with USDA and corporate partners - around a suite of 13 underdeveloped winter annual, perennial and native woody crops.

Dr. Don Wyse/Department of Agronomy, University of Minnesota /Director – Forever Green Initiative: “The land grant universities took on the grand challenge of producing hybrid corn.  We believe its equivalent to that.  And now the tools are there to actually develop these new crops in a relatively short period of time.  And because of the biotechnology that’s currently available, we’re talking about domesticating some wild species within a decade rather than 150 to 200 years.”

Spurred in part by state efforts to reduce nutrient runoff in the Upper Mississippi River watershed, Forever Green’s agricultural supply chain collaboration is devising markets for a host of new value-added cover crops like pennycress and camelina that fit into traditional farming rotations.

Dr. Don Wyse/Department of Agronomy, University of Minnesota /Director – Forever Green Initiative: “You could put it in as a relay crop…. plant soybeans into this crop earlier in May, and then harvest the camelina and allow the soybeans to come through.”

From the St. Paul campus, Wyse points to a handful of affiliated projects sprinkled across the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

Gregg Johnson/Associate Professor – University of Minnesota Southern Research and Outreach Center: “The benefit is you’re getting two sources of oil off of this field instead of just one.”

At the University’s Southern Research Center in Waseca, Associate Professor Gregg Johnson is implementing the new approach.  

Gregg Johnson/Associate Professor – University of Minnesota Southern Research and Outreach Center: “One of the keys is flexibility, right?  So we want to be able to give growers options.  We want to have a portfolio of choices that we can give them to match their operation or match markets – however they might evolve.”

Johnson works with the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute, a nearby non-profit, that helps refine and develop new uses for agricultural products – like cold-pressing camelina.

Alan Doering/Senior Co-product Scientist/Agricultural Utilization Research Institute: “There you see the oil starting to come already.” 

Senior Co-product Scientist Alan Doering says businesses are interested in the plant for cooking oil, bio-based plastics, alternative fuel, and livestock feed.

Alan Doering/Senior Co-product Scientist/Agricultural Utilization Research Institute: “It will sell very similar to soybean meal but maybe at an 18-20 percent discount just because it’s a little lower in protein.  But what makes up for some of that is the camelina meal still has a high level of energy in it, so that brings the value back to it.”

Camelina’s high flashpoint makes it ideal for biodiesel production. 

Ron Fedie/Senior Research and Development Scientist/ SarTec Corporation: “Here you can see the methanol on top and some biodiesel on the bottom.  And then we’ll distill that off, that methanol, and have our biodiesel samples.”

Back near the Twin Cites, SarTec Corporation evaluates the viability of several different biofuel feedstocks.

Ron Fedie/Senior Research and Development Scientist/ SarTec Corporation: “We’ve done a bunch of different oils including camelina and pennycress.”

Senior R&D Scientist Ron Fedie’s findings have helped determine whether these new sources can be scaled-up for mainstream use.  But Fedie says variables like temperature and pressure aren’t the biggest hurdles to turning a profit.

Ron Fedie/Senior Research and Development Scientist/ SarTec Corporation: “More, it’s availability and can we get enough of it in to, to merit 10,000 gallons a day.”

Curt Anderson/Chef – Evansville, MN: “There’s many health benefits now to this camelina oil.  You should take a look at it.”

Local chef and PBS television personality Curt Anderson was approached by Forever Green to evaluate camelina oil in his kitchen. 

Curt Anderson/Chef – Evansville, MN: “I have rice that I’ve cooked, and I’ve got some potatoes that I wish to fry…  So using the camelina oil, I just need to get me a few drops in the pan.  When you smell this, it has a nutty-ish, grass aroma…  My friends, here comes the steak part of it…See how it sizzles?  The oil is holding up wonderfully, and you would definitely see that difference in lower quality oil…  That’s as good as I could expect from any other oil that I want to pair it up against.”

While plant oils occupy a large share of Minnesota’s initiative, Dr. Wyse also points to advancements in nut crops, fruits and herbaceous mixtures that may help farmers in the difficult choice of what to grow.  

Dr. Don Wyse/Department of Agronomy, University of Minnesota /Director – Forever Green Initiative: “American Hazelnut was never developed as a major nut crop in the Upper Midwest.”

Wyse believes his work may add to the lifespan of a number of crops like kernza - a perennial wheat useful in baking, brewing, forage and biomass. 

In the shadow of Norman Borlaug, Father of the Green Revolution, Wyse says Forever Green might allow farmers and end users to share the mantle of good stewardship.

Dr. Don Wyse/Department of Agronomy, University of Minnesota /Director – Forever Green Initiative: “The food industry wants a new story.  They would love to bark at this idea that if you plant kernza, the intermediate wheatgrass, for wellhead protection across rural America, and if you buy this product, that product is protecting that water supply.  So consumers can participate in protecting that landscape by purchasing that product that carries those different outcomes.”

For Market to Market, I’m Josh Buettner.