Microbes for the Backbone of America

If small businesses are the lifeblood of the economy, then farmers are the backbone of America.

Kathryn Hamilton
Feb 16 · 7 min read

Fresh produce, stewardship of our land and wildlife, conservation of critical biodiversity, and a key ingredient for manufacturing crayons: these are just a snapshot of the essential work that farmers do to make a high quality of life possible for those not only in their local communities but our nation at large.

If small businesses are the lifeblood of the economy, then farmers are the backbone of America. According to the American Farm Bureau Foundation, more than 2 million farms dot America’s rural landscape and about 98% of U.S. farms are operated by families — individuals, family partnerships, or family corporations. In 2019, the output of America’s farms contributed $136.1 billion to the US GDP and direct, on-farm employment accounted for 2.6 million jobs.

However, many of the intimidating problems facing humanity also pose a unique burden to our nation’s farmers.

Farmers are particularly vulnerable to the results of climate change

Rising temperatures make it increasingly difficult to effectively water acres of crops. Rising sea levels and more violent weather patterns-like high winds and significant flooding- lead to irreversible seasonal crop loss. Additionally, as regional climates change, farmers must be prepared for the arrival of new pests and pathogens that thrive in these changing environments.

Mainstream fertilization techniques take an extreme toll on the environment

When topical fertilizers are removed from fields via rainwater, they enter streams and lakes, creating an imbalance of nitrogen and phosphorous. This nutrient-heavy runoff leads to an explosion of growth of microorganisms. This imbalance can significantly decrease the amount of oxygen in the water causing fish and other aquatic species to suffocate and die. In addition, the increase in nutrients can result in certain algae being overproduced. This can lead to harmful algal blooms which can be toxic to both humans and animals.

There are several hallmarks of healthy soil

Healthy soil needs a variety of minerals including nitrogen, phosphorus, carbon, calcium, and potassium. These minerals are essential to photosynthesis and plant growth. Organic matter, from decaying plants and animals, contributes to balanced levels of these minerals. Water is also necessary as a solvent carrier of plant nutrients and to sustain the life of microorganisms. Finally, soil microorganisms — bacteria, fungi, insects, algae, and worms — all assist in breaking down organic matter, making it available for plants to use. When all of these elements are available and at equilibrium, plants flourish.

Replacing Chemistry with Biology

This is the genesis for the founding of Locus Agricultural Solutions (Locus AG). Chemicals are involved in almost every step of the modern growing process from whether that be fertilizers, pesticides, or produce preservation products. Founders Andrew Lefkowitz and Sean Farmer decided to apply their expertise in microbiology and fermentation engineering from their previous work in probiotics for foods and beverages to address these problems.

How do you create products that make a better return for the grower per dollar invested, per megaliter of water applied, per acre of an agricultural field?

Pairing their experience with the deep wisdom of the caretakers of America’s farmland, they set out to find a biological solution. A potential product needed to:

  • Provide a strong return on investment for the grower while simultaneously aiding them in being good stewards of the land
  • Be efficacious and better for the environment
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Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash

To accomplish these objectives they turned to microbes that had have been studied in the lab for decades

To create their first soil “probiotic” technology, Rhizolizer® Duo, Locus AG centered their work around two microbes that would have a synergetic effect when paired together. The first microbe they used was Trichoderma, which is a filamented fungus. It expands the rooting system with finger-like structures that stick out from the root. This increases the surface area which helps the plant to bring up more nutrients and water. Then, they paired the Trichoderma with a bacillus bacteria that is able to solubilize inorganic materials like phosphorus in the soil. After nitrogen, phosphorus is the most important macronutrient. Now, versions of these microbes are well known in the academic lab environment to have fantastic effects, but Locus AG’s specific substrains had not made it from the lab to widespread adoption in the market.

An opportunity to pair their product against a challenging pain point

In recent years, Florida citrus has been completely destroyed by the citrus greening disease. Spread by an insect, there is no cure for trees that contract this infection and they often die within a few years of contracting it. In testing, Rhizolizer Duo’s combination of microbes helped increase root growth, nutrient solubilization, and overall better appearance which in turn reduced crop stress and by extension increased crop yield. Rhizolizer Duo doesn’t kill the disease, but it helps the plant live more vigorously, increase fruit production, and grow more roots. Locus AG recently launched a second soil probiotic technology called Pantego. This is a yeast-based organism that is optimized for cooler soil, providing more regions access to a biological solution to improve crop yield. It is also an efficient solubilizer of phosphorus.

Using Carbon Credits to promote environmental sustainability and occupational stability

Moving the needle in terms of climate change was a serendipitous moment for Locus AG. Healthy soil deposits carbon. In the US, the soil has been significantly abused and on average has lost anywhere from 30–70% of its stored carbon. This is very detrimental to soil health. In their work with Florida citrus, the Locus AG team found that their soil technologies significantly increased the amount of carbon stored in the soil. After seeing these results, the team at Locus AG decided to see the impact on greenhouse gas emissions, since agriculture accounts for a large percentage of greenhouse gases.

They found that they reduced emissions of carbon dioxide, but also the emissions of nitrous oxide. According to the EPA, nitrous oxide molecules stay in the atmosphere for about 114 years and when it comes to atmospheric warming, nitrous oxide is about 300 times more impactful than carbon dioxide. They saw an opportunity to help their farmers utilize these successful results for financial leverage by using them to generate carbon credits.

Through Locus AG’s CarbonNOW program™, reps help growers step-by-step through the process of generating carbon credits for their conservation practices and accelerates their carbon sequestration efforts through the use of Rhizolizer Duo. The credits are then sold through one of the multiple carbon marketplaces, that market carbon credits to buyers including retailers and institutions. The Locus AG team follows internationally recognized carbon standards and methodologies to produce premium carbon credits and validate that carbon is actually being put in the soil. This allows them to mitigate common concerns that exist with the carbon credit models still being developed: traceability and viability of credits. This protocol focuses on what conservation practices farmers have implemented into their work such as:

  • Fertilizer reduction
  • Implementation of cover crops
  • Transiting to no-till farming which allows the soil to be protected by remaining intact
  • Livestock grazing
  • Utilization of manure or composting
  • And more

Many of the farmers that Locus AG is working with already using these conservation practices but didn’t see the market for monetizing these practices. However, as many leading corporations publicly pledge to become carbon neutral in a few decades, this is an untapped revenue-generating opportunity for many farmers. Additionally, based on data about the positive impact of Rhizolizer® Duo in accelerating soil carbon deposition, farmers potentially can increase their earning potential from 0.5–1metric tonne of carbon to 2–3 metric tonnes of carbon to monetize. Shopify recently became the first purchaser of carbon credits from CarbonNOW farmer, Kelly Garrett. This positive momentum around carbon credits not only moves our global society closer to sustainable business practices but also gives farmers additional security for the future.

Locus AG is focused on increasing feed, fuel, and fiber by growing more sustainably. Our long-term plan is focused on “How do we feed the world and do it in a sustainable fashion?”

-Alex Fotsch, VP of Product Management

Locus AG has just partnered with BlueSource the most prominent and respected carbon retail in the nation. This means that their farmers will generate the highest-quality carbon credits and have access to a larger pool of buyers and markets. By using biotechnology to address farmers’ pain points, Locus AG has found a solution that not only is better for the crops and growers but will play an integral role in building a more sustainable future.

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Want to talk about biotechnology or bioeconomy innovation? Let’s connect! Working on some cool science you think is essential to the conversation? Leave me a comment below! Also, make sure you check out this other interesting article:

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Kathryn Hamilton

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Integrating Business with the Developing Bioeconomy // Making the Complex Uncomplicated

Bioeconomy.XYZ

The Medium publication for biotechnology and everyone involved in the revolution. The best brought to you by the brightest.

Kathryn Hamilton

Written by

Integrating Business with the Developing Bioeconomy // Making the Complex Uncomplicated

Bioeconomy.XYZ

The Medium publication for biotechnology and everyone involved in the revolution. The best brought to you by the brightest.

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