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The Bio-Inoculant Marketplace: Who’s Trying, Who’s Buying, and Who’s Lying?

When I first got involved with beneficial mycorrhizal fungi several years ago and realized what these microorganisms could do for agriculture, I was wildly enthusiastic about the marketing prospects. After all, here was a natural method that promised to grow high-yielding, disease-resistant plants without contaminating water supplies, without having to apply heavy doses of expensive fertilizer, and without depleting our food-producing soils. At the time, I thought, “Wow - If just 5% of the corn farmers in Kansas convert to biology-based methods, it will be a billion-dollar market! How will suppliers ever be able to propagate enough of the fungi to satisfy the demand once the word gets out?”

Well, seven years later, with the added wisdom of actual experience, I now see that nothing short of major yield failures or government restrictions on excessive fertilizing will move large farmers away from chemistry-based practices. The cost and complexity of restoring biological activity to huge acreages of croplands makes for a pretty overwhelming task, no matter how great the long-term soil and yield improvements might be.

Yes, the interest level in biological practices is increasing; Many growers around the world are now routinely applying bio-inoculants to crop plants and ornamentals. Dozens of university and USDA researchers have published thousands of articles to describe favorable test results...But we’re a long way from getting even one-half of 1% of those Kansas corn farmers on board.

So, if the large acreage, lower value crop farmers are not great prospects (yet), then where is the market for bio-products? Based on our general experience, two distinct factors produce orders - poor soils and higher value plants.

For growers with sand who are having problems holding moisture and nutrients in the root zone, the mycorrhizal fungi can perform miracles by clumping together sand particles and promoting the development of an underground biomass. Also, soils that are too salty, overloaded with some element, or with pH levels that are outside the acceptable range for plants are all excellent candidates for using biological rather than chemical methods.

Grain crops can certainly benefit from having mycorrhizal fungi in the soil; but grapes, citrus, avocados, melons, stone fruit, tomatoes, peppers, and other market vegetables are better candidates from an economic standpoint. A one-time inoculation of seeds or transplants can produce a quick and significant monetary payback.

Of course, landscape plants and turfgrass (especially on golf courses or in stadiums) also fall into the higher-value category and we have many customers in those areas. For example, check out the grass in the Baltimore Raven’s stadium next time they are on TV.

Combining the above factors, you can see that valuable plants being grown in problem soils represents the most immediate market for inoculants. I could add another consideration as well: The larger the acreage, the more difficult it will be to get off the chemical treadmill. But it can be done.

So, home gardeners, landscapers, market growers, and orchards/vineyards will probably be the “early adapters” of soil-biology methods. Actually, I see absolutely no reason why any home gardener or landscaper should ever rely on chemistry when it is so simple for them to create wonderful soil conditions with beneficial organisms. These are not, repeat, not places to copy chem-farmers.

There have recently been good articles about mycorrhizae in “Mother Earth News” and “The American Gardener” (the publication of the American Horticultural Society), and I expect there will be many more in coming months. Hopefully, all this favorable publicity will not bring fast-buck artists out of the woodwork, making exaggerated claims for the fungi and turning off potential users. Read the small print on the labels folks. Look for guarantees of species and spore counts - and don’t pay Endo prices for Ecto spores! (Those of you who know one from the other will understand.)

Good growing, friends,

Don Chapman
President, BioOrganics, Inc.

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