Biological Control Taking Next Steps for Specialty Crop Growers

Three hundred attendees gathered in Monterey, CA, the first week in March for the Biocontrols USA 2022 Conference and Expo. Hosted by Meister Media Worldwide and its American Fruit GrowerAmerican Vegetable Grower, and Greenhouse Grower brands and sponsored by Certis Biologicals and Valent, the event was a welcome opportunity for growers, crop advisors, educators, and suppliers to reconnect and share solutions to their most pressing production challenges.

While it has been two years since the last Biocontrols USA event due to the pandemic, developments in biologicals and related specialty crop technologies have continued, making this year’s conference an especially fertile environment for education and networking.

Sustainability and technology were a uniting thread that ran through both the Conference program and the Expo, where nearly 30 suppliers shared updates on innovative new products. For growers and crop consultants, the benefits of softer, more targeted materials for their crop protection and plant and soil health programs are much more widely accepted in 2022. And that trend perfectly aligns with a growing focus from consumers who are making their expectations for sustainably produced food, flowers, and other products clear. Biologicals are an obvious fit serving both growers and their customers with those goals in mind.

The conference was headlined by an engaging keynote from biologicals industry veteran Dr. Pam Marrone, founder and former CEO of Marrone Bio Innovations and current Director of Chestnut Bio Advisors. Marrone, who now works with agtech and agbio startups, detailed many of the advances that have taken place in the biologicals space in recent years. She asserted that developments there should be viewed in coordination with many of the developments happening in other areas of agriculture. The next big steps, she said, will come when we start tying all the pieces together.

“Stop expecting a silver bullet. We need systems integrators who can help create holistic systems with cultural tools, crop varieties, soil health practices, biologicals, and precision farm data,” she said.

Biologicals are definitely the direction of the future: Marrone predicted that within 20 years, sales of biological products will equal those of more traditional synthetics.

Breakout tracks provided a deeper dive for grower attendees focused on fruit, vegetable, greenhouse, and cannabis production. Sessions included presentations on proper tank-mixing procedures when using biologicals, the discovery of a new predatory mite for pests in greenhouse crops, and a new parasitoid for the fight against Spotted Wing Drosophila. There was also a fascinating discussion on the unfortunate rise of internet sales of non-registered and non-regulated bio products in the cannabis market. Plant and soil health were a focus as well, with presentations on biostimulants in greenhouse production and biochar in wine grape vineyards.

Attendees also learned about developments in plant nutrient diagnostics using a new technique. Sap analysis provides a current look at nutrient levels in the plant, providing time for growers to react before deficiencies arise, said Agro-K Southern Business Development Manager Jeff Glass. This technique also offers growers information more quickly than the traditional industry testing standard using tissue analysis, which provides more of a cumulative look at what has been happening in the plant, Glass said.

Trevor Suslow, University of California-Davis Professor of Cooperative Research and Extension, Emeritus, shared a message about biostimulants and biofertilizers that can often fly under the radar: food safety considerations. While biologicals are considered to be very safe products for food production, without the proper focus on clean water sources and sanitation practices in irrigation and application equipment, growers using these products may unwittingly create conditions that can lead to the development and spread of human pathogens in a crop. Growers should only source water from tested sources, he says, “because once something like Salmonella gets into water tanks and lines, it’s really difficult and time-consuming to eliminate.”

The day before the Conference, two busloads of growers took part in a field tour of Salinas Valley agriculture, visiting vegetable, vineyard, and greenhouse operations and other facilities to see first-hand how growers in the region are putting biologicals and sustainable practices to work. The tour, sponsored by UPL, visited some of the most innovative operations in the region, including Laguna Mist Ranch, Growers Transplanting, Taylor Farms, Double L Vineyard, and a Wilbur Ellis research facility, before finishing the day with a relaxing stop at Morgan Winery.

Cannabis growers also had an additional learning opportunity with a deep dive into a number of key insect pests plaguing their production with a three-hour workshop session led by Suzanne Wainwright-Evans, Owner of Buglady Consulting. Growers of this still-relatively new crop have limited control options for many of the pest problems they face. They also have to work around a lack of established research, which often leads to a proliferation of misinformation that makes producing a consistently high-quality, profitable crop a challenge. Wainwright-Evans shared high-quality photos and video to help attendees identify specific pests and offered potential solutions and real-world management tips she has seen with her clients. The workshop was sponsored by Beneficial Insectary.

Watch for announcements coming soon on details for the Biocontrols USA 2023 Conference and Expo, and other educational opportunities on biological solutions from Meister Media and its brands.

Scroll through the photo gallery above for some of the sights seen during the Biocontrols USA 2022 Conference and Expo.


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