Duets: Biostimulants — Learning to leverage the biological world By Peter Konjoian, Allison Jack

Allison Jack

My guest today is Allison Jack, Ph.D., product technical director at NewLeaf Symbiotics based in St. Louis, Missouri. Allison earned her undergraduate degree at Reed College in Oregon, working on abiotic stress tolerance. While serving as an AmeriCorps waste reduction educator, she became interested in vermicompost, which led her to Cornell University for her master’s degree in soil science and doctorate in plant pathology. A postdoctoral assignment at Wageningen University in The Netherlands completed her formal education. She has been at NewLeaf Symbiotics since 2018.

Peter: That’s a full education path, Allison — congratulations. Tell us more about the progression of your microbial focus.

Allison: My undergraduate work on abiotic stress tolerance broadened to vermicompost as mentioned. That paved the way for my master’s, doctorate and postdoctoral research interests evolving into how complex microbial communities in organic amendments, composts, liquid compost amendments or soils can influence crop production, either for a growth and yield response, or a disease suppressive response.

Peter: This is exactly why I invited you to Duets. I often use my own experience to describe how agriculture keeps evolving. We’re transitioning from what I call the golden age of chemicals to the natural age of biologicals. That’s a bit simplistic; biology by definition is inseparable from chemistry, both organic and inorganic. Your expertise in biostimulants is a “right time, right place” focus for sure. Non-microbiologists like myself are learning about the term microbiome thanks to efforts like yours.

Allison: Developing biostimulants and bioprotection products from key members of the plant microbiome feels like a natural progression to me. I still love composts, soils and microbial ecology and follow all of the exciting innovations in the field of soil health. But I have been consistently intrigued and, honestly, quite surprised by how much you can move the dial biologically in a plant with the targeted application of a single isolate of a beneficial microbe.

Peter: I’m evolving my research focus to include your world of natural microbes and other growth stimulants. In no way am I an expert in this area, but it’s fun learning from colleagues like you and companies like yours. Help our greenhouse growers understand the two main U.S. agricultural systems; traditional row crops such as corn and soybean and specialty crops. Are biostimulants being used differently in these two environments?

Allison: When I first started in an industry role, I assumed that specialty crop growers were much more open to using biologicals than row crop growers. After working in row crop biologicals for almost 10 years, when speaking with a row crop grower, I usually start a conversation about biologicals by pointing out that they may already be using biological seed treatments without realizing it. Major ag companies in this space have incorporated biologicals into their base seed treatments, but there hasn’t always been a lot of communication or fanfare around the technology, which makes it a steeper hill for smaller companies to climb in terms of grower education on biologicals and the benefits they can provide.

Peter: That’s a good point about some growers using products without realizing it. My experience as an ornamental crop grower included sowing most of my bedding plant crops on site. Seed technology continues to advance; during my commercial growing years it was focused on the physical parameters of the mostly small-sized seeds we sowed. Treating the smallest seeds by pelletizing them and coating others to be smooth allowed automated seeding equipment to singulate them accurately and speedily.

While these treatments did not fall into the “didn’t realize we’re using them” category, they paved the way for this group of growers to more quickly accept biological inputs at the seed level. Are the biological seed treatments that are routine for outdoor row crops finding their way to greenhouse ornamental and/or edible crops?

Allison: In specialty crops there is a much longer history of biologicals, especially when you consider biologicals outside of rhizobial inoculants, and those biologicals haven’t been hidden in other types of products as they sometimes have in the row crop space. There also has been more research and communication from cooperative Extension and other third party entities around this type of technology in the specialty crop space. And there is likely a much wider range of product offerings geared toward the specialty market, especially in the U.S.

Peter: You’ve established that the specialty crop space is seeing research and communication. Many of us on the educational side of our industry see a need for more. More research, more information, more education. Are you seeing the same?

Allison: I was pretty surprised at Commodity Classic 2020; I think we were one of 20 biologicals companies there. And one grower told me, “Look, I don’t need the whole spiel; I know probably some of the biological products at this tradeshow will work well in my operation, but I guess I am going to have to try them all to see which ones I want to continue using.”

Peter: That’s exactly what I’m asking. We often hear scenarios that sound like this. “Product X is working for grower A but not working across town for grower B.” How are you addressing concerns like this?

Allison: So there is also unfortunately not a lot of cooperative Extension or other third-party research comparing biological product offerings to help growers decide which ones they want to try. Row crop growers looking for the “next thing” are very open to trying biologicals, but my sense is they end up having to do a lot of trialing on their own operations to figure out where they best fit in their crop management.

Peter: That’s a squarely hit nail with your hammer, Allison. On-site trialing … it’s been part of my and many of my colleagues’ messaging for years. Helping fellow growers learn how to properly design and execute good trials is a pet project of mine. The most important concept, by far, of this instruction is practicing good, sound experimental control.

Allison: It is a challenge to approach a specialty crop grower with a new type of biological. They’re not the usual suspects. It’s not a trichoderma, it’s not a bacillus, it’s not a mycorrhizal fungus; it’s a pink pigmented facultative methylotroph (PPFM) with a unique mode of action that only needs to be applied once because it colonizes the plant so well. PPFMs have been pretty widely researched and are known in scientific circles, but because of the hurdles involved in large scale fermentation and formulation of non-spore forming bacteria, they haven’t previously been commercialized at a large scale.

I remember sitting in the back of the Soilborne Pathogens conference in 2019 with a speaker saying what a shame it was that scientists know so much about all these different types of beneficial microbes but no one is trying to commercialize the ones that might be a little harder to grow.

I almost fell out of my chair raising my hand, “Oh oh oh, we’re doing that! NewLeaf is commercializing some of the difficult ones!” And now, four years later, we’ve announced a business partnership with AMGUARD Environmental Technologies and OHP Inc. in the specialty crop space to help us broaden our market share.

Peter: That NewLeaf feels that specializing in the difficult ones will generate attractive ROIs in the specialty crop arena says a lot about where we stand in our understanding of the microbial world. I’m reading about the Apollo moon landing, which, as a high school junior, became a defining moment in my life. Most of the book details how the Mercury and Gemini programs methodically taught us about the challenges of space exploration, each raised the bar. Understanding trichoderma and bacillus paved the way for PPFM and opens the door for so much more exploration.

How is your group addressing grower needs? Do you work directly with growers, indirectly through university Extension programs or other platforms?

Allison: Well, Peter, one of the outcomes of the scenario I mentioned just now about row crop growers needing to do their own trialing is that there is a growing group of highly knowledgeable growers and crop consultants who have been trialing biologicals for years. We feel so fortunate to have the opportunity to collaborate directly with growers and crop consultants on our technical field development. We’ve learned so much, and we’ve come so far.

Our early field stage pipeline work is done with contract research organizations and university research programs with those results helping us select which isolates get nominated to become products. But the technical field development to get us from “This is a great PPFM isolate for this crop” to “This is a convenient and easy to use product that has demonstrable ROI for the grower” is done hand in hand with growers, crop consultants and our distribution partners.

We’ve had great experiences trialing on farm in row crops with the support of contract research organizations and a range of partners and collaborators. We’re taking a similar approach for specialty crops in terms of collaborating with growers through our distribution partners for our field technical development.

Peter: Last year we worked together on a tomato study; how did it contribute to our biostimulant knowledge base? Where are we as an industry in acquiring and applying more knowledge about the biological world to controlled production systems?

Allison: Our 2022 tomato study in your research greenhouse provided supporting data for the optimal application timing. But we also learned something unexpected, which is always fun. Thanks to your careful observation and data collection, we were able to document a decrease in the incidence of blossom end rot, a physiological disorder of the fruit caused by limited calcium availability and/or mobility within the plant. This helps us design future studies and build our technical product positioning and regulatory data portfolios.

Thinking industry-wide, I’m really excited about the advances in imaging and phenotyping in controlled environments. I’ve seen how precision ag tools have empowered growers to do their own research with biologicals in the row crop space, and I can’t wait to see what insights come from on-farm phenotyping in CEA.

Peter: Thank you, Allison, for sharing your expertise with us.

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Peter Konjoian, Allison Jack

Peter Konjoian is president of Konjoian’s Horticulture Education Services Inc. His career spans four decades as a commercial grower, researcher and consultant. Allison Jack is product technical director at NewLeaf Symbiotics.

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