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Soil Health Technology Goes to Market

By Allan Maurer, NCBiotech Writer

A venture-backed Cary-based plant health company says agricultural growers can maximize their investments with its patented biological, nutritional seed treatment and other technologies.

Sam Wilson, Ph.D., vice president for technology development at Verdesian Life Sciences, has played a key role in bringing 52 new products to market over the course of his career. He described the company’s advances at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center’s NC Ag Biotech Professional Forum Wednesday.

The company, which grew through a series of acquisitions, sells products that improve soil health, lower nutrient applications and lower leaching and movement of nutrients in the soil, Wilson said.

Verdesian developed new nitrogen management technology with researchers at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. It also develops and produces nutrient management and efficiency technologies, seed treatments and inoculants, crop health chemistry and biologicals and more.

Wilson explained the “Four R’s” of nitrogen use: “Right source, right rate, right placement, and right timing.” The goal, he said, “Use no more fertilizer than you have to.”

In addition to improving plant health, proper nitrogen management can reduce the impact of nitrogen losses on water quality.

Wilson described Verdesian’s polymer technology for fertilizer management. It works around the applied fertilizer to keep nutrients available to crops from application through the growing season. It also helps manage the phosphorus cycle, protecting it. That can give plants an extra boost, increasing vigorous growth.

Fixing soil means testing soil

Diane Wu, Ph.D., co-founder and CEO of San Francisco-based Trace Genomics, who also spoke at the forum, said the company launched in 2015 to be the first to conduct rapid soil testing.

The company’s products and services offer “comprehensive microbial evaluation,” she said. “It enables assessable and affordable soil testing for farmers.”

She added a caution echoing that of Wayne Honeycutt, president and CEO of the Soil Health Institute earlier: “Building soil health is a long-term goal. Like all long-term goals, like weight loss or heart health, you don’t see the effects until later.”

Farmers may not see increased yields until years later, she said, “but then they are very long-lasting.”

One of the challenges of soil testing is, “How can we deliver insights to turn biological numbers into dollars?”

Trace tests capture the biological state of the soil, its fungal and bacterial communities and use it as a diagnostic. The tests “provide a ton of soil indicators,” she explained.

The more than 20 indices include disease-causing microbes, the fungal to bacterial ratio, bacterial diversity (healthier soils have higher diversity) and more. Ratios of different groups of bacteria can even predict flooding, she said.

After testing, the company suggests “Actionable intervention.”

At present, Wu said, “We’re just scratching the surface. We’re looking for partners and field tests.”

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