How Biologicals Offer Opportunity Amid Tough Year in Agriculture

If there’s one thing that Johnny McRight has learned during his 43 years as the Founder/Owner of DeltAg Formulations, it’s that the tough years typically open up huge opportunity for growth.


“Growers,” he says, “recognize that they need more answers than their conventional practices alone.”

With 2019 certainly qualifying as one of the tougher years, the immediate future may be bright for DeltAg Formulations and other makers of somewhat less conventional products, such as biologicals.

“There’s no doubt that this has been a difficult season for many row crop growers in the U.S. and Canada,” says Donald R. Marvin, President and CEO of Concentric Ag. “However, with the projection for a smaller harvest, some are predicting that growers could see an increase in crop prices. If that turns out to be the case, we would expect an increased interest in biological products.”

Advanced Biological Marketing (ABM) notes the effect that its biological product has on root mass.

Advanced Biological Marketing (ABM) notes the effect that its biological product has on root mass.

Advanced Biological Marketing (ABM) — which offers a cover crop biological that contains rhizobia for legumes and Trichoderma for grasses — sees the light. “With all of the prevent plant acres out there, a lot of cover crops are going into the ground,” says Pete Hayes, ABM’s Vice President of Marketing. “We expect our wheat product to be strong as well.”

Heliae Agriculture anticipates a lot of interest in biological products this fall, according to Chief Revenue Officer Norm Davy. “There are fundamentals in our favor,” he says, starting with economics.

“We’ve likely hit bottom regarding the trade war impacts on farmers. The 2019 crop to be harvested doesn’t appear to live up to USDA estimates, and an early frost could mean lower quantity and quality — all of which could help drive prices up,” Davy says. “Higher prices will definitely drive demand for all products but especially biologicals that can help increase yields without a significant investment or change in practice.”

Then there’s agronomics. “Farmers who did not get a chance to plant fields this year know they have work to do to get ready for the next crop,” Davy says. “Producers who have had their soil inundated with flooding or saturated will be looking for ways to rebuild soil health. … Next year’s success won’t be built on the best acres a farmer has in production. It’s how they build up the capacity of their marginal acres that will make the biggest difference to their bottom lines. Improving soil health is key to success in the future.”

Adds Barner Jones, Director of National Accounts and Account Services with Marrone Bio Innovations: “Across the board, biologicals have continued a fast adoption rate in North America. We believe that this fall, even with the decline of crop plantings and economic uncertainty, biologicals will be at the forefront of growers minds.”

Product Subsets

The biologicals market, according to Jones, has been “very dynamic” in 2019, with subsets covering biological agents, predatory insects, plant extracts, and naturally occurring chemicals. Most dynamic, he says, has been the area of biostimulants, which, he notes, is sometimes referred to as the “wild west” of biologicals.

“Many of these biostimulants naturally induce and activate immune response to various diseases, insect stress, and environmental stress,” Jones says. “These stimulants are primarily based on plant extracts, yeasts, single-cell algae, and other fungal and bacterial strains and have approximately 235 different examples, spanning over 1,000 different companies in the U.S. Sometimes this segment is the least understood, hence the ‘wild west,’ because we lack complete understanding and data, making it unique for growers to decide what is best for their operation and growing conditions.”

Jim Phillips, President and CEO of Azomite Mineral Products, says biopesticides, biofertilizers, and biostimulants have each enjoyed noteworthy advances this year.

Mike McFatrich, Vice President of Strategy and Business Development with Newleaf Symbiotics, agrees. “Overall, the biologicals marketplace, both biostimulants and biocontrol, has done well this past season,” McFatrich says. “Growing acceptance is driven by products based on deep science, strong field performance, and product fit. The value of microbial crop inputs is providing both grower benefits and consumer benefits. … The cornerstone of adoption remains performance.”

According to Concentric Ag’s Marvin, biologicals that address nutrient-use efficiency have had conservative growth, primarily due to current low crop prices and planting challenges that have resulted from excess moisture in the field. Meanwhile, biologicals that offer nitrogen-fixing benefits have been fairly static, and biopesticides, he adds, are capturing a large share of the global biologicals market, based on what Marvin has been hearing.

Row crops, Davy says, are a developing market for biologicals and “offer great potential.” Inoculants are the best understood and most widely adopted biological products for row crops, he adds. Volume trends in this subset are driven by market prices for soybeans and other legume crops, he says. “As acres go, so go the product volumes. Obviously, acres were down this year due to planting conditions in the Midwest.”

Overall, Davy adds, interest in biological products is going to grow because the opportunities for improvement are large. “Biofertilizer products, due to their nature, are usually produced regionally. We’ll see this grow as new sources of product come online. Products containing live organisms are uniquely challenging, as it is difficult to keep them viable over time. I think we’ll continue to see interest and trial for these products, but I’m not sure 2020 will be the breakout year for them,” he says.

At ABM, legume inoculants did well in 2019, according to Hayes. “That is typical most years,” he says, “as our line of soybean inoculants is our strength. The late planting had many switch over to soybeans from corn. And the excessive rain put the naturally occurring Brady rhizobia deeper into the soil. Our recommendation was to seriously consider using a seed treatment that contained this bacteria to make sure soybeans had good nodulation.”

Pressing Issues

Regulation and education are mentioned most often as being the industry’s top concerns today.

“There are still big regulatory questions related to biologicals and biostimulants,” says Agricen Senior Director of Innovation John Wolf. “Where do they fit? How are we defining them? How should they be regulated at the federal and state levels? All of these questions are actively under discussion right now among the government, industry, and other stakeholders.”

“Different groups are working on it,” Azomite’s Phillips says, “but I am not convinced that there is currently a clear and unified path forward, which should be a big concern for all involved.”

Concentric Ag’s Marvin and Heliae’s Davy agree that education is still lacking in the biologicals arena.

“The most pressing issue … is the continued lack of grower education about biologicals and how each different type performs in the field,” Marvin says. “There is no one-size-fits-all biological. There are hundreds of products that might be classified as biologicals. Each one has a distinct mode of action. The good news is that the science behind these products is improving every day.

“Those of us who are producing and selling biologicals must not only understand our own products; we need to educate ourselves about the agronomic benefits of all sorts of biological products. With that knowledge in hand, we can help growers understand how best to incorporate biologicals into their programs.”

Adds Davy: “Farmers need help sorting out which microbial and biological products and approaches make the most agronomic and economic sense for their fields in the corn belt and the sun belt. There is a constant pressure to do better, and the learning curve with biologicals can seem very steep to growers. Farmers and their trusted advisors have years of experience with NPK applications and foliars and the like, but the latest biologicals are so numerous, and the research is so new that there is a lot to learn. It can be overwhelming.

“We love having conversations about our products with farmers and agronomists, getting applications made, and letting the soil and the results do the talking. We know seeing is believing.”

Marrone’s Jones believes the industry has a cultural dilemma.

“We lack information and education around the ‘art of use’ of biology in comparison to what the expectation of traditional chemistry has been,” he says. “As a farm boy and previously ‘nozzle head,’ I want to walk into a field after an application of a pesticide and immediately count dead insect bodies or see immediate results to pathological infestations. Biology does not work in this manner. Instead, biology needs time to respond and do what it is meant to do. Many biologicals work from the inside out; meaning they induce systemic response through SAR and/or ISR pathways. The response is inspirational.

“For example, seeing a pest completely eaten from the inside from a bacterial inoculation, or beneficial insects eating prey, or beneficial fungi outpacing the disease, taking away its ability to become harmful; proper scouting and early treatment are key to being successful.”

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Avatar for Steve Londnet Steve Londnet says:

What are your thoughts on bee vectoring technology?

Excellent overview on the developing markets for soil treatment & soil health. The future will certainly include combinations of biological’s and conventional products. The education of growers on these new combinations will certainly accelerate the adoption of these new tools. Thank you for your insights.