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Rethinking synthetic fertilizers: The race for alternatives is on

The discovery of synthetic fertilizer revolutionized food production for a growing population, but its use has also gained growing criticism in recent years. While these products provide critical nutrients to crops throughout the season, not all fertilizer applied is used by the plant. It’s also spurring increasing demand for alternatives.

Founded in 2013, Sound Agriculture has developed technology that activates the soil microbiome to give plants access to important nutrients that exist in the field, allowing growers to optimize fertilizer inputs. It is also exploring accelerated breeding technologies.

“We believe growers need new tools to not only help them adapt to the changing environment, but to consumer and regulatory preferences as well. Our goal is to develop reliable, effective tools that increase production, improve food quality, and reduce waste,” says Travis Bayer, cofounder and chief technology officer at Sound Agriculture. “From the science side, we also saw an opportunity to take what we’ve learned about how plants and microbes interact in the soil and how that drives a lot of agronomic factors. Our understanding in this area has really increased in the past 10 to 20 years, and we wanted to get it out of the lab and into the field.”

Ahead of his Rethinking Synthetic Fertilizer: The Race for Alternatives session at the 2022 World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit, Bayer talked to Successful Farming magazine about disrupting traditional input-intense techniques. A biochemist by trade, Bayer will be joined by Kim Nicholson of Mosaic, Luca Bonini of Hello Nature, and Yossi Kofman of Groundwork BioAg during the session. In its tenth year, the summit is an annual meeting place where growers, agribusiness leaders, technology pioneers, and investors gather to exchange insights, be inspired, and identify future partners.

SF: How does innovation play a role in tackling growing demand for alternative solutions?

TB: Innovation is what really leads to those revolutionary changes. Without innovation, you’re caught in the cycle of very incremental changes and improvements. In nutrient efficiency, we’re lucky right now that there’s been a lot of innovation around a variety of alternatives. On the one hand, you have variable-rate nitrogen, which is on the digital and machinery side of innovations. On our side, you have improvements in understanding the soil microbiome and how we can influence it with our product. You also have improvements in genetics thanks to a better understanding of plant biology. I think these innovations, either by themselves or together, will let us take a big step forward and not just continue to move incrementally.

SF: As a young company, what is Sound Agriculture’s biggest challenge?

TB: Thinking of nutrient efficiency broadly, the biggest challenge is adoption because it is a complex system, and it’s a complicated story to talk to a grower about. It’s not like crop protection, where you spray and see a dead weed. Doing something where you’re trying to improve nutrient efficiency means you’re trying to use your fertilizer more efficiently, and that is impacted by factors like soil, weather, and the crop you’re growing.

We’re developing tools to solve that issue. For example, behind our foliar spray are a lot of data analytics that tell a grower where and when to place that product, so he or she will get the best return on investment. We tell a grower, “Hey, based on your soil and management practices, these are the right acres for this product, or it’s not a good fit on these acres.”

SF: How is Sound Agriculture’s foliar spray different from others on the market?

TB: Our foliar spray is a chemistry product with a unique mode of action. It signals microbes already in the soil and activates the microbes involved in nitrogen and phosphorous cycling. Basically, the plant gets a boost of nitrogen and phosphorus at the root zone from the microbes that are already in the soil.

SF: As one of the panelists in the Rethinking Synthetic Fertilizer: The Race for Alternatives session, what do you hope attendees take away?

TB: There is a nice mix of both fertilizer incumbents and start-ups on the panel, which can provide interesting perspectives from all sides of the industry. The path a large company takes toward nutrient efficiency compared to the one a small company may take can be very different. I’m hoping the audience hears a lot of diverse perspectives on how we get there.

SF: Where does Sound Agriculture want nutrient efficiency to go?

TB: We want to see fertilizer used in the most sustainable and the most profitable way. We see those as completely compatible, especially with fertilizer prices the way they are right now. Overapplication of fertilizer really does hurt a gross bottom line, and it also hurts the sustainability profile of the farm. We believe using fertilizer intelligently to be profitable and sustainable is the way to go.

SF: Where does Sound Agriculture see the greatest demand for alternatives to fertilizers? Is it in corn? Is it in soybeans? Is it across the board?

TB: Typically, we see the most demand in corn. With nitrogen prices the way they are right now, demand for alternatives has gone through the roof not only for corn but also in other crops like soybeans and wheat.

SF: How do we bring these alternative solutions like the ones Sound Agriculture is developing to farmers?

TB: Our route to market is a little bit unique. We sell through dealers, and we also sell direct to growers. Our partnership with Mosaic is focused on developing a new product. We’re open to exploring pretty much any, and all routes to put a great solution in the hands of growers. Our route to market is designed to remove the friction for a grower. We like to go in and show growers data. We have a performance guarantee where we underwrite any risk that they may have from the product not working. We believe in it that much and our data supports that.

We try to make the initial interaction with the grower and the first season on their farm as easy as possible. Our belief is the product speaks for itself, and we see it in growers coming back to buy again for a second or third season.

SF: Why is an event like World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit so important for a start-up like Sound Agriculture?

TB: This will be our fourth time attending the summit. It’s one of my favorite conferences on ag tech because it’s a gathering place for a lot of people from diverse parts of the industry. It can be hard to get your message out there. If I can meet people in person, have a face-to-face conversation, that’s key to increasing our visibility.

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