Farm equipment developed at Penn State example of ag sciences entrepreneurship

By Jeff Mulhollem
December 16, 2014

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- A piece of agricultural machinery developed by researchers in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences is starting to achieve commercial success, the latest example of potentially profitable technology transfer spurred by the college's Entrepreneurship and Innovation initiative.

The Penn State Interseeder was the brainchild of agronomists grappling with how to persuade farmers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed to plant cover crops. Cover crops can significantly reduce erosion and take up excess nutrients -- playing a major role in reducing the amount of agricultural pollution reaching streams, rivers and, ultimately, the bay.

However, farmers' adoption of cover crops has been limited by difficulties in fitting them into crop rotations in a profitable and reliable way. By 2010, it was obvious that something needed to be done to help more farmers plant more cover crops in the Chesapeake drainage, according to Greg Roth, professor of agronomy.

That's where the Penn State Interseeder comes in.

"Pennsylvania's interest and commitment to cover crops, our concentration on no-till crop production, and a desire to expand cover cropping into regions with shorter growing seasons make the state an ideal proving ground," Roth said.

"With the heavy use of crops such as corn and soybeans, there is not much time to sow cover crops, so many farmers have not been able to introduce cover crops into their rotations. But knowing the benefits that cover crops provide, we were determined to find a way to change that."

Prior to this, a team of researchers in the college had experimented with aerial seeding of cover crops with mixed success. Contracting in late summer with services that flew small, crop-duster-type planes low over university corn and soybean fields, researchers spread seeds of cover crops such as winter canola and yellow sweet clover.

"However, these efforts showed us that simply broadcasting cover crop seeds late in the season was not a consistent answer to the problem," Roth said.

Roth then teamed with Chris Houser, Penn State Extension educator, William Curran, professor of weed science, and Corey Dillon, a Penn State farm operations technician and graduate student, to try a different approach. They developed a piece of equipment that could plant cover crop seeds between rows of corn -- and at the same time even spray a post-emergent herbicide and apply fertilizer to help establish the cover crop, in essence performing three operations in one pass.

"Before this, farmers could not get a cover crop planted before the onset of cold weather -- by the time they harvest their corn in the fall, it is too late to plant cover crops and expect much growth," Roth said. "So we built on our experience and created a machine capable of planting cover crops, such as annual ryegrass and red and crimson clover, among corn that is 12 to 20 inches high in late June. That results in viable growth that persists through the fall and winter into spring."

Thanks to support from the College of Agricultural Sciences, which awarded the Interseeder project a RAIN -- Research Applications for Innovation -- grant, and the acquisition of a Conservation Innovation Grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Resource Conservation Service, the Penn State Interseeder has taken the next step.

After applying for two patents on the device, the team in late 2013 decided to license the technology from the University and start a company called Interseeder Technologies to help commercialize their idea. The company located a Pennsylvania manufacturer to build the machines and then set out to market them to interested parties. With improvements made following several years of intensive and widespread field trials, the machines sell for $25,000 to $40,000, Roth explained, depending on size and options.

"We started a campaign, and we started marketing Interseeders here in Pennsylvania and elsewhere," he said. "We have machines operating now in this state, as well as in Maine, Minnesota, Vermont and New York. Controlling ag runoff and nutrient pollution, obviously, is not just an issue in the Chesapeake drainage. Farmers and researchers in areas like Vermont, with Lake Champlain, and in western Ohio, where they have issues with Lake Erie water quality and algae growth, also have expressed interest in the concept and machines."

The early success of the Penn State Interseeder is a tangible result of the College of Agricultural Sciences' recent emphasis on innovation and bringing new technologies to the commercial marketplace, according to Gary Thompson, associate dean for research and graduate education.

"The college has taken a leading role in University-wide efforts to promote entrepreneurship and technology transfer," Thompson said. "Our Entrepreneurship and Innovation initiative, including the RAIN grant program, is aimed at helping students, staff and faculty researchers to commercialize their ideas and the technology that their work generates. The goal is to support economic development and job creation and to provide a robust return on the investment that taxpayers and others make in Penn State research and educational programs."

Thompson noted that the college's Entrepreneurship and Innovation initiative is working toward that objective by encouraging faculty and staff to advance ideas that improve modern agriculture; the food system; sustainable bioenergy; and plant, animal and human health, among other areas. In addition to funding, the initiative helps connect researchers and students with expertise that can assist in developing ways to convey concepts to market with sustainable business models that make economic sense.

For his part, Roth realizes that it may take a generation or more before widespread interseeded cover cropping is adopted, but for now he and his team are satisfied to contribute to conservation and build a business at the same time, expanding the typical roles of agricultural researchers and educators to ag entrepreneurs.

"It is kind of a neat concept, coming up with a Pennsylvania idea, manufacturing it in Pennsylvania, benefiting Pennsylvania farms and farmers and then providing some funding back to the college through licensing of the technology," he said. "For most of my career, I didn't appreciate this model, but now I can see the wisdom of having students, faculty and staff become involved in commercializing technology transfer in a partnership with the university."

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Last Updated December 18, 2014