Renewable Farming

You can help crops tolerate weather stress with these symbiotic fungi

When I was a beginning ag journalist with Farm Journal, the senior crops editor advised me: When writing about a new idea for farmers, remember that your reader is telling you: “Write less on how it came to be, and more on what it means to me.”

August 22, 2018  By Jerry Carlson — But this story on Rusty Rodriguez is an exception. His background is essential to comprehending the importance of the living product which he and his colleagues are bringing to farmers. 

The product is BioEnsure. It’s a crop-friendly fungal seed treatment. The fungi colonize seed, then live within the plant between the cells. These beneficial organisms trigger the crop’s natural genes into expressing biological growth pathways that  make them more resilient against drought, freezing, excess moisture and salinity. Research shows that in droughts, treated crops outyield untreated ones by 85%. Even in a normal season of good weather and soils, treated crops yield 7% more. So this is better than insurance; it pays even in a good season.

Microbial discoveries usually don’t pop up in the test tube suddenly. They’re pieced together from decades of careful observation of living, microscopic creatures in real growing environments.

In Rusty’s professional progress, he sought to find how plants cope with extreme growing conditions like those in Yellowstone Park. What he found in those hostile soils, which swing during the growing season from 60 degrees to 160 degrees: Friendly fungi work symbiotically with plants’ existing genetic systems to help the plants survive and thrive through stress. 

Rusty’s years of research, teamed with several colleagues, led to living fungal products already on the market. This looks really promising for farmers. 

Dr. Rusty Rodriguez

His career also confirms the long-term benefits of a robust public ag research capability, versus constraining our Ag Research Service and universities to the point where they’re forced to abdicate crop technology development to multinational corporations. Companies, naturally, are keen on patented products. 

Dr. Rodriguiz earned a PhD in Microbial Physiology from Oregon State University in 1983. He followed that with postdoctoral work (Cornell University) in plant pathology before overseeing research programs on plant-microbe symbiosis in academic (University of California) and government (USFWS, NBS, USGS) institutions. Rusty is an affiliate faculty professor in biology at the University of Washington.

In 2012, he joined Adaptive Symbiotic Technologies (AST) to commercialize symbiotic technologies for addressing real-world problems and working toward a sustainable future. AST is dedicated to ensuring food security by generating climate-resilient crops for both large and small farmers around the globe. AST is using BioEnsure in emerging countries, especially those with marginal land and stressful climates. AST is training women to be seed treaters, showing farm families how to increase yields, and empowering communities to become more food-resilient.

Cattleman Rod Ruzsa of Selby, South Dakota, who was in the field day audience, confirmed a season’s experience on his pasture with BioEnsure. He uses controlled rotation grazing, and learned in his paddock grazing management experiment that his BioEnsure treated acres would support one hundred cow-calf pairs for sixty days of grazing instead of the normal twenty days. That extended grazing became possible even though the growing season was unusually dry at his ranch.

Rusty’s research has attracted widespread scientific and commercial attention. You can view his TED presentation, which includes a rich array of illustrations, at this link.