Although they may seem like newer entries into the agricultural marketplace, some of the products that are part of the biofertilizers sector have been around for a long time. “Considering some of these products have actually been around for over 20 years, we are just starting to recognize their potential,” observes Dr. Chris Underwood, Chemist and Product Development Manager for AgroLiquid.
Of course, part of the reason could be because of some confusion as to what constitutes a biofertilizer vs. a biostimulant. According to most of the experts CropLife® magazine spoke with, biofertilizers are defined as microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi that can increase nutrient availability and utilization by plants. They are oftentimes referred to as a “sub-category” of biostimulants.
“Common examples of biofertilizers include mycorrhizai fungi, rhizobium, and plant growth promoting rhizobacteria (PGPR),” says Jane Fife, Chief Science Officer for 3Bar Biologics. “These microbes can help plants fix atmospheric nitrogen, soluble phosphorus, and/or produce phytohormones for evoking plant responses.”
Despite this longer history as a product category for agriculture, however, biofertilizers have traditionally had a tougher time gaining acceptance from ag retailers and their grower-customers. According to Rad Page, Chief Commercial Officer for PlantResponse, part of this had to do with perception, not fact, on the part of potential users.
“The biggest misconception is that there is not much science around these product categories,” says Page. “That may have been the case 15 to 20 years ago, but not today. Today, many of these products have been built with cutting-edge technology that can truly define the mode of action and quantify efficacy.”
AgroLiquid’s Underwood agrees with this view, also noting how it is starting to change among potential customers. “Previously, most growers knew [biofertilizers] as ‘snake oil’ or ‘bugs in a jar,’ but that perception seems to be shifting,” he says. “Until five to 10 years ago, most people did not realize how these products worked inside the plant or in the soil. Or if they did understand the benefits of these products, they also knew they were expensive, messy, and difficult to use.
“But now, growers have a renewed interest in what’s happening below the soil surface,” continues Underwood. “Farmers are looking at ways to improve the biological activity in their soil, and fertilizer products that incorporate organic matter, beneficial fungi, bacteria, and microbes will help them meet their yield goals and improve their soil vitality.”
Even with these fledging acknowledgments from potential customers, biofertilizer sales have remained relatively low across much of the U.S. — barely moving upwards from the almost $1 billion in sales the category saw back at the start of the 2010s. In particular, say market watchers, the Midwestern row crop market has been slow to adopt these products into the crop nutrition mix. And according to Murray Van Zeggelaar, Vice President of Marketing for NACHURS, this probably reflects today’s overall agricultural market realities at work.
“I would suggest that adoption in the Midwest row crop market has been slow, however, the main reason for this has been the current commodity price cycle we are in,” says Van Zeggelaar. “There’s still a healthy return-on-investment on these products at low grain prices, but many growers have been forced by their lending institutions to spend less per acre on crop inputs. This has forced a lot of growers to look for ways to cut costs, and biofertilizer products have been victims of that.”
According to 3Bar Biologics’ Fife, another hindrance to the market growth for biofertilizers could be how some of them tend to work most effectively. “The challenge with biofertilizers has always been how to deliver them to the farm in a viable form,” she says. “As a living product, the microbes need to remain viable from manufacturing all the way to use in the field. At 3Bar Biologics, we’ve overcome this challenge by delivering a disposable bioreactor product. With the most viable bacteria being applied with the seed, the bacteria can more effectively colonize the seedling and root system to enable faster emergence and healthier early growth of the plant.”
But biofertilizers are making/expected to make significant headway into the row crop market in two areas, say observers. One is in run-off concerns have tended to dominate the talk among consumers and regulators in the market involved. “As fertilizer applications increasingly come under the microscope from the perspective of environmental stewardship, biofertilizer products will be called upon to help growers to create a 4R nutrient strategy for their farms,” says NACHURS’ Van Zeggelaar. “These products help plant tolerance to biotic/abiotic stress as well as nutrient use efficiency.”
Dr. John Bailey, National Row Crops Product Manager for Timac Agro USA, agrees with this view. “We recently conducted research with the University of Missouri, evaluating our biofertilizer, NutriRhize,” says Bailey. “If it can be demonstrated that banding lower rates of biofertilizers with strip-tillage, for example, maintains or improves yields, combining these practices could become the standard to meet land stewardship goals associated with fertilizer efficiency and reducing environmental impacts on farming.”
Feed/organic farming are the other areas where interest in biofertilizers seems to be growing, according to BRANDT. “We have seen an increase in the use of biofertilizers in the Midwest, particularly on grain acres and grain for livestock feed,” says Randy Dodds, Product Manager for the company. “This is being driven by increased consumer demand for organic-certified beef, poultry, and diary. We are seeing an increase in the use of organic lignosulfonates and organic-based products. BRANDT currently offers eight formulations under its BRANDT Organics line of liquid lignosulfonates, which offers single nutrient formulations as well as crop specific ones.”
According to Chandra Roberts, Marketing Director of Specialty Formulations at BRANDT, the company is planning to expand upon this market demand with a pair of new biofertilizers this spring, pending registrations. “These fertilizers are formulated with patented enzyme technologies that are new to the agricultural market and have been very successful in enhancing fertilizer efficiency and efficacy,” says Roberts.
Moving forward, experts predict that biofertilizers will continue to grow across all of agriculture, globally. In fact, according to a study conducted by research firm DunhamTrimmer, the overall biologicals market could increase to $11 billion by the year 2025. Microbials — a major part of the biofertilizers segment — have traditionally been the fastest growing sector of the market, holding an approximate 60% market share vs. macro-organisms and biochemicals. “This is expected to remain the case through 2025,” concludes the report.
Likewise, biofertilizer suppliers are expecting to also see this level of market growth from their products. “We anticipate rapid adoption in the next two to five years as consumers and governmental agencies continue to demand ‘softer’ alternatives with regards to managing/improving plant health,” says PlantResponse’s Page.