Research brings microbial-level nitrogen products to the field

With several products in their first years of commercialization and more on the way, ag research is edging its way toward an elusive goal—harnessing the relationships between microbes and plants to help fertilize crops.

The quest is as old as agriculture itself. Research coming to fruition today could mark a significant moment for the industry— especially if you think about it from a historical perspective.

Before we reached the modern age of agriculture, humans spent millennia selecting and improving grain for its domestic utility in feeding ourselves and livestock. Humanity had done pretty well for itself, too. We’d done the selection work. We’d figured out that manure was good fertilizer. We’d learned about green manures and crop rotation. But even with all that time-earned agricultural wisdom, pushing yield with fertility had hit a plateau.

Of course, that changed in the early 1900s when German sci­entists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch developed the industrial pro­cess for converting atmospheric nitrogen to ammonia—a pivotal moment and a foundation for the agricultural output we enjoy today. And while commercial nitrogen produced from this pro­cess will remain a foundation of fertility programs, the new focus can be traced back a few decades before Haber and Bosch made their discovery to another pair of Germans, Hermann Hellriegel and Hermann Wilfarth, whose research focused on how plants fix nitrogen for themselves.

In the 1880s, Hellriegel and Wilfarth explained how inoculum of suitable species and variety promoted root nodules on legumes. These nodules, through symbiotic activity among plants and soil organisms, fed the target plants nitrogen and helped them grow. It was a controversial suggestion at the time.

Such early research and discovery may seem quaint by modern standards. Still, it provided the foundation that is being built upon by today’s technology, from advanced screening for beneficial microbes to gene editing and genom­ic work to identify and proliferate the biological interactions needed for bacteria and plants to work together.

What’s coming to the agricultural marketplace has been derived from multiple methods and approaches but collec­tively uses activity from soil microbes and plants to attain nitrogen.

In a meta sense, you can sometimes measure the general advance of technology by merger, acquisition and licens­ing activity in the sector. Capital seeks innovation, and innovation seeks capital. In the past few years, announce­ments from multiple companies signal progress in the field. Aligning with that process is continued scrutiny on nitrogen production regarding the energy used to produce it and its environmental fate once applied. Addressing those issues without sacrificing yield will push development all the more.

MFA is in the early stages of evaluating these types of microbial products. This year’s research will focus on rate equivalents of nitrogen provided.

While the field is growing, some of the available products include:

Corteva Utrisha N (foliar application)

Corteva Agriscience recently announced an agreement with micro-biologically focused Symborg to bring microbe-based nitrogen fixation products to market in the United States, Canada, Brazil and Argentina.

The agreement gives Corteva an exclusive license to distribute the endophytic bacterium, Methylobacterium symbioticum, which works with the plant to secure needed nitrogen from the atmosphere. You will see the product branded as Utrisha N.

PivotBio PROVEN (in-furrow)

Pivot Bio PROVEN is applied in-furrow during planting. The mi­crobes create a symbiotic relationship with the corn plant, produce nitrogen and deliver it directly to the roots of the corn plant.

Azotic Envita (in-furrow, foliar application, seed inoculant)

Envita is a naturally occurring, food-grade bacteria—Gluconaceto­bacter diazotrophicus—that was initially discovered in sugarcane. Envita forms a beneficial relationship with the host plant and pro­vides nitrogen to cells throughout the plant, both above and below ground, all season long.

Sound Agriculture Source (foliar application)

This chemistry activates hormones in the plant to produce a gel-like substance from the root that stimulates existing soil bacteria to fix nitrogen and make phosphorus more available.

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In this June-July Magazine

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Spring freeze is reminder of nature's unpredictability and a farmer's resiliency

This was shaping up to be a banner year for blueberries at Brandywine Farm in Rolla, Mo. As spring unfolded, the bushes filled with blossoms while honeybees from rented hives buzzed around, taking care of their pollination duties.

After five years of renovation on the farm, Pat Marti was eagerly anticipating blueberry season. The U-pick operation had been closed to the public during the painstaking process of removing old, un­productive bushes and replanting new ones. Finally, the farm would be ready when the berries ripened in June.

Mother Nature had other plans. Winter returned with a vengeance the third week of April. Below-freezing tempera­tures settled across the farm for two nights in a row at the absolute worst time for berry development. The unseason­able weather took its toll. Within a couple of weeks, Pat could tell that many of the blooms had been damaged and dropped without forming fruit.

“We were really looking forward to being able to open this year,” Pat said. “I was heartbroken. I had been out to the patch and saw how good everything looked, and in two or three days, everything changed.”

It was another blow in an already devastating year for Pat and her family. Her husband, Larry, an orthopedic surgeon affectionately known as “Doc” to nearly everyone who knew him, died last August at age 82 after suffering two strokes. They were married for 61 years.

The Martis, stalwarts of the Rolla com­munity for more than 44 years, purchased Brandywine Farm in 2010 from previous owners, Dave and Mary Hinze. The Hinzes opened the farm in 1982, but after Dave’s death, Mary decided to retire from the venture.

“We just happened to see that the farm was for sale and hated the idea of it closing down,” Pat said. “It’s such a community tradition. I loved coming here with my kids and grandkids to pick blueberries long before we ever considered buying it. Larry had several cattle farms of his own, so we bought Brandywine for me. It’s always been considered my farm.”

While Pat—called “Nan” by family and friends alike—is ultimately in charge, the blueberry operation has always been a fami­ly affair. She and Larry have five children, 23 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren. Through the years, many of those family members have helped out on the farm, especially during the short-but-hectic blueberry season from mid-June to mid-July.

Even though Doc Marti worked long hours at Mercy Clinic in Rolla, he would usually be on hand for the busy pick-your-own Saturdays at Brandywine, his wife recalled fondly.

“He never met a stranger and always had a smile. He just genuinely loved people,” Pat said. “He liked to stand at the gate and talk to the customers. He even had a little dance for them as he waved them in.”

“But you didn’t want him picking berries,” she laughed. “You’re supposed to pick them one at a time. He’d pick a handful at a time, which meant he always had half a bucket of berries and a half bucket of other stuff. He was a better greeter than he was a picker.”

Neither one of them had any prior experience with blue­berries, so learning the intricacies of production has been a continual process. Pat said much of the family’s education on the subject comes from attending “Blueberry Schools” hosted regularly by the University of Missouri Extension in Springfield.

“I like working outside, and I like growing things, but blue­berries are a whole different story,” she said. “They’re the hard­est thing I’ve ever grown. I can do vegetables; I can do flowers. I was used to things that I could just put in the ground, add a little fertilizer, and they’d flourish. Blueberries are not that way.”

First of all, she said, blueberries need an acidic soil. The pH should remain between 4.8 and 5.2. They also need lots of wa­ter. Successful blueberry production requires the soil to remain moist but not saturated. Brandywine’s entire 10-acre blueberry patch is dripline irrigated.

Pat follows a labor-intensive fertilization schedule that in­volves applying necessary plant nutrients bush by bush.

“We fertilize three times a year—in the spring, after picking in the summer and then again in the fall,” she explained. “Every few years we’ll take soil samples to see what we need.”

The bushes must be pruned over the winter. And during berry season, there’s a constant battle to keep weeds, insects and birds at bay.

“I love it, but it’s a lot of work,” Pat said. “I’m 82 now, and I just can’t do as much as I used to.”

The customers, however, keep her going. Brandywine Farm has a loyal following, Pat said, many of them tracing back several generations to the era when the Hinzes owned the farm.

“People just love it,” she said. “They come and they sit and they visit. I make blueberry muffins and jam, and they all sell out fast. Families will come and walk through the patch, eating blueberries as they go. We don’t mind. We never weigh the customers when they leave. We only weigh what’s in their bucket.”

The blueberry business flourished for the Martis until about five years ago when they noticed some of the bushes were dying. After soil-testing and talking with Extension specialists, they determined the most likely culprits were the age of the plants and a common fungal disease. The family decided tem­porarily close the farm to the public, allowing time to remove the old bushes, let the soil recover, add fresh topsoil and plant new bushes—nearly 1,000 of them. They have plans to add 600 to 800 more bushes in the next year or two.

“You should be able to get up to 30 years out of a blueberry bush, and some of these had been planted 40 years ago,” Pat said. “It was a long, difficult and expensive process to put all the new bushes in. We bought 2- to 3-year-old bushes, which can run anywhere from $6 to $8 each. You don’t want to start picking from them until they’re about 5 years old. This was going to be the year that they would have been ready.”

As a blueberry farmer, Pat said nothing has been as disap­pointing as watching all that hard work succumb to this spring’s freeze. But like her, the bushes are resilient. The Marti family expects this season to yield a limited number of blueberries, which they will likely harvest and sell at the farmers market in Rolla rather than opening for public picking.

“My dad always taught me to do the best you can do and work hard to make things happen,” Pat said. “So, we’re not going to give up. I don’t give up. And Larry wouldn’t want me to. He’d love to see us being able to pick again. It’s worth all the challenges.”

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