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Annual event showcases new ag tech and startups

CREVE COEUR, Mo. — When Garret Riekhof was planting soybeans this spring, his biologic stimulant delivery tank shut off unexpectedly. He quickly stopped and corrected the problem, but he then followed the soybeans throughout the season to observe differences between the treated and untreated seed.

He showed a picture of the field to the agricultural scientists, investors and innovators gathered last week at the ninth Ag Innovation Showcase, at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in suburban St. Louis.

“Holy cow, I’m quite excited!” said Riekhof. Soybean plants treated with the biostimulant were much taller and apparently heartier. “When we can get same planting date, same hybrid, same planting depth, and we get visual differences that you can see on a PowerPoint presentation … I’m all about it. So let’s keep rolling with it.”

New and improved technologies from startup companies and inventors were on display throughout the Showcase. “This is innovation at ground zero,” said Rohit Shukla, founder and CEO of Larta Institute, the California technology accelerator that cosponsors the event with the Danforth Center.

The 22 companies presenting their innovations are selected from many more applicants. The innovations this year were far-ranging, from biologic crop stimulants to a non-thermal pasteurization process removing mold from harvested corn, to milk line sensors monitoring pathogens and pregnancy, and a company that preserves and disseminates corn pollen for improved pollination.

Biological crop stimulants are an area in which young, innovative startup companies are contributing to commodity production. “The biologic sector is growing,” said Bruce Caldwell, CEO of 3Bar Biologics, Inc. of Columbus, Ohio.

“There’s a problem. That’s inconsistent performance in the field.” He presented his company’s patented delivery system for Bio-YIELD, its biological with unique microbial strains licensed from The Ohio State University, targeted at Eastern Corn Belt farms. The bacteria are released when a button is pushed on the bottle cap.

The bacteria then multiply in the 24 hours before planting, maximizing populations delivered into the soil. The company announced in August it had secured $2 million in funding, and was at the Showcase to seek partners for future investment and product development potential.

Biological solutions continue attracting attention from companies large and small. Bayer LifeScience Center on Sept. 14 announced it will invest in a startup with Boston-based Gingko Bioworks to develop biological solutions to enable plants and soil to assimilate nitrogen from the air. The venture is also backed by hedge fund Viking Global Investors LP, according to a Bayer press release.

Realizing that a small company has limited resources and finding partners to commercialize innovations, is a strategy for success for ag technology innovators, according to John Sorenson. The former president of Syngenta Biotechnology is now CEO of Vestaron, a Kalamazoo, Mich., company that develops biological insecticides for fruits, vegetables and ornamentals.

Farmers will welcome any new tools, especially as insects build up pesticide resistance. But where Riekhof is looking for help from new technology this year is in weed control – especially in soybeans.

“This is killing me right now,” he said. “It has to be better than it is right now, as far as all these traits. Stacked is maybe where we need to be, and I think that’s where we are going.”

The issues surrounding dicamba drift are huge this year, he said. “It has been probably my No. 1 stressor of the past year, the hurdles from dicamba,” said Riekhof, who grows 1,600 acres of soybeans and white corn near Kansas City.

None of the companies at the Ag Innovation Showcase were presenting alternatives to dicamba, but several were touting software and analytics that can help whole-farm analysis. Colorado-based Visual Farms, LLC has developed software for farmers wanting to independently analyze differences between corn and soybean varieties. California-based WISRAN offers real-time analysis of farming operations to identify machine and logistic inefficiencies.

Riekhof sees promise in analytical data tools like those profiled at the Showcase. “I claim that analytics is going to make me more money, in about 10 years from now, than I even know,” he said. “I don’t know what I don’t know, when it comes to analytics. Analytics and farm data is huge. We’ve got machine data going places we can never even imagine yet.”