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A Look Back

About 14 years ago, I happened to meet a fellow at an Earth Day show who was experimenting with mycorrhizal fungi. As he explained how they function on plant roots and how they could greatly reduce the need for fertilizers, protect roots against pathogens, reduce water requirements, improve soil, etc., I began thinking that the idea had enormous business potential. It seemed obvious that anyone who grew plants, from farmers to nurseries to landscapers to home gardeners would leap at the chance to use this revolutionary biology-based method to replace soil-damaging chemical plant foods.

I had grown up on a large farm in Oregon, so ag wasn’t new territory to me and after a few hasty calculations as to how much sales volume would result from just 10% of the corn farmers in Iowa converting to this new growing technique, I plunged enthusiastically into the world of microbiological agriculture, the Next Big Thing.

It should be simple enough. All I had to do was describe the many good reasons for using this powerful beneficial fungus to get initial usage. After that, of course, word-of-mouth would spur tremendous growth. I had a concern about being able to accommodate too-fast growth, but decided I would deal with that problem as it came.

One of my first opportunities to introduce the concept to farmers came at a grower luncheon near Fresno one hot summer day. I was invited to be a guest speaker before lunch. After showing some slides of big-plant, little-plant, comparisons (as all growing-product companies must do) and telling the twenty or so farmers about the many wonders of using mycorrhizal fungi, the initial reaction of my audience afterward was silence. I confidently asked, “Any questions?.”

I will carry the memory of the next moment to my grave. A particularly grizzled old farmer stood up, hooked his thumbs into the suspenders of his bib overalls, and asked, “Are you trying to tell us…” (Now, in my long business career, I had learned that any customer questions that begin with these particular words are unlikely to end well.) “… that instead of using fertilizer, we should put some fungusses on the roots? That’s the biggest damn fool idea I’ve ever heard of.”

I very briefly considered letting him know that the plural of fungus is actually fungi, but somehow it didn’t seem to be quite the right time. It may seem hard to believe, but things actually went downhill after that, as one farmer after another took turns loudly expressing a profound lack of enthusiasm for the enlightenment I had brought to their meeting. I spent the long drive home revising somewhat downward my estimates of the market potential for mycorrhizal inoculants.

But I was too stubborn (or whatever adjective might be more suitable) to give up, and it turned out that wine vineyards in the Napa-Sonoma area already knew that these fungi were critically important to grapes and were happy to learn that BioOrganics was packaging mycorrhizal powders and root dip. Wine grape growers soon became regular customers.

These days, the use of beneficial fungi to grow healthier edible and ornamental plants is slightly less of an outlandish notion and BioOrganics has proven to be a very satisfying business venture. I hope that our thousands of mycorrhizal inoculant customers around the world will help show the way to more productive and sustainable agricultural practices, maybe even for those 10% of Iowa corn farmers some day!

Good growing, my friends,

Don Chapman
President, BioOrganics

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