Inoculant maker moves to “stacked” approach

This time the so-called "biological revolution" is here for real, says inoculant maker Becker Underwood, and it’s going to make a lot of money for everyone from individual farmers to the largest multinationals.

In fact, Becker Underwood is forecasting its own global revenues will double within four years as mainstream farmers start buying more of the products they’ve been staying away from in droves for the past decade because of their perceived inconsistency and weak science.

That will drive the Ames, Iowa company’s annual sales well over $400 million, and a big chunk of that growth will come from Canada, the company predicts.

So far, farmers have known Becker Underwood — when they’ve known it at all — as an inoculant maker. The company’s Hi-Stick and Nodulator brands are market leaders in soybeans, and its pea and lentil business in Western Canada is expected to climb quickly from its current 25 per cent market share following the introduction of its Nodulator XL this year.

That’s just a start, predicts company CEO Peter Innes. Almost overnight, he says, farmers will be using more biologicals for a lot more reasons, from stronger crop emergence through to in-season disease and insect control.

"We measure these things in a lot of ways, but it all comes down to yield," Innes says. "We’re finding ways to make more yield."

Innes says the breakthrough is encapsulated in the new "bio-stacked" approach. It’s a term deliberately borrowed from the GMO seed industry. "They stack things in the seed," Innes says. "We stack things on the seed."

In the 1990s, the industry was based on applying a single fungus or bacterial agent against a specific target. "That’s unrealistic," says Innes, who says he has stopped believing in biological silver bullets. "We’re never going to get these things to work consistently as single strains."

Instead, new products combine a range of ingredients so they will work in a variety of conditions, and they’ll also be used in combination with chemical crop protection. Indeed, Innes says, Becker Underwood is in talks with the big pesticide makers who are looking to biologicals to help broaden the spectrum and reduce resistance risks with their chemicals.

With facilities in eight countries, Becker Underwood is spending $12 million a year on research and is rapidly growing that number. The company has 58 employees in Canada, with 11 dedicated to research and development.

Better, faster

Innes, whose background is in plant breeding, is a big believer in biologicals. "Nature has a solution for every problem that it creates," Innes says. "That’s how it works."

Becker Underwood now has collaborations with 110 university and government research programs to identify which natural solutions have the best potential fit for agriculture, and then it is pushing those actives into field research.

Innes says it’s no wonder it has taken time to master the technology. "There are five billion organisms in a gram of healthy soil," he says. Scientists have had to figure out which organisms help, which hurt, and which might have no impact this year, but could have huge impact when the weather is different.

Becker Underwood’s Padma Somasegaran only wishes the science could get even better, even faster. He believes science has the power to produce inoculants for corn and cereals so farmers could stop applying nitrogen.

International work on grass inoculants has ground to a virtual halt, however, because government funding has dried up. Still, Somasegaran thinks the world’s need for food will be so great, scientists will eventually solve the puzzle.

"It’s the holy grail," Somasegaran says. "It will happen."

— Tom Button is the editor of Country Guide at Ridgetown, Ont.

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