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  • Writer's pictureTim Hammerich

Farming Microbes

Thanks to advancements in DNA sequencing and machine learning, scientists are able to single out microbes that can be beneficial to the way we grow food.

If the concept of microbes is new to you, think of the last meal you ate. To digest that food, you relied on an ecosystem of microbes in your body that aid in digestion.

Scientists estimate that the human body is made up of more microbial cells than human cells. So in some ways, we are more microbe than we are human.

I know how weird that sounds. Let that sink in a little bit.

This ecosystem of microbes that are on us and in us, called our microbiome, can be altered in ways that can affect how we think, feel, and behave. We are likely just starting to understand the importance and impacts of our microbiome.

We depend on a symbiotic relationship with microbes. We give them a home and an environment in which they can thrive, and in return some of them aid in fighting off environmental stressors or optimizing our performance or behavior in some way.

The same is true for plants. Companies like Indigo Ag are taking this advanced understanding of microbiology and applying it to crop performance with some impressive results. I had the chance to chat with David Perry, CEO and Director of Indigo Ag for the Future of Agriculture Podcast.

Indigo hopes that this microbial technology as well as other services will help them accomplish their mission of harnessing nature to help farmers feed the world in a more sustainable way.

David explains that in order to achieve this mission, Indigo focuses on “Improving the environmental sustainability of agriculture, improving the healthfulness of agriculture, and making farmers more profitable.”

Currently, Indigo delivers their beneficial microbes via a seed treatment. The microbes then grow as their “host” (the plant) grows. In cotton, for example, trials demonstrated a 14% yield increase over cotton not treated with Indigo’s microbial technology.

Finding the right microbe is the “hard part” according to David. “In concept, what we do is simple. In practice, the identification and discovery of these microbes is really complex”.

Advances in DNA sequencing and machine learning have helped the process of analyzing microbes and identifying those that are best suited to target key crop stressors. For example, specific beneficial microbes can allow a cotton plant to withstand drought conditions. These microbes are sampled from all around the world and the DNA sequence is turned into 1s and 0s so the machine learning can take over the analysis. Pretty cool.

This would not be possible without this technology. Four years ago the cost to perform this analysis was at least $1,000 per bacteria. Now it’s less than $10.

David and his team are very bullish on the potential for microbial technology in agriculture.

“I think there is a future in which we use less than half of the chemical fertilizer we use today, and we may eliminate as much as 90% of the chemical insecticides and fungicides”.

Microbes can be utilized to impact all sorts of common crop stressors, such as water stress, salinity, nutrient deficiency, and pest and disease susceptibility. Indigo decided to start with water stress, because that is where they saw the fewest alternative products available to treat that problem.

Despite the efficacy of the product, and the fact that Indigo has found an ecological solution that can be implemented at scale, there are still challenges in bringing technology like this to the market.

Indigo has gone directly to the farmer to treat their seed before planting. They are going one step further to partner with buyers of farm products to offer incentives to farmers to use this technology.

He includes the example of their supply agreement with GrainCraft, one of the largest flour millers in the United States. Indigo agreed to supply at least 1,000,000 bushels of wheat meeting certain specifications for the upcoming crop year. In order to achieve this, Indigo has contracted with farmers to grow their wheat and provide them with a premium to the market for doing so.

This is a very unusual agreement for a crop input company, and another example of the confidence they have in their product.

David also shares in the interview about an on-farm storage program that Indigo is promoting in an effort to help farmers capture more of the value of their crops.

“One key to improving economic prosperity for farmers, I think, is to move farming from being a completely commoditized business to one where farmers are increasingly producing things that are value added. That people or buyers are willing to pay more for. And if we do that we serve the whole system. You know, farmers do better economically and consumers are able to get what they want” says Perry.

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