May 15, 2023

Salinas Biological Summit Preview: Learn About the Cutting Edge of Soil and Plant Health

For many, standing at the edge of a growing crop—whether it’s a plot of land filled with thick and rustling broccoli leaves or swaying stalks of sweet corn—is a peace that borders on the sublime. The plants move in the breeze, capturing the gust to make sound. The soil is rich with minerals from careful cultivation and plant matter that has been churned into it over and over again. The smell is thick with the heady earth, a far rarer sensory experience than it had been in past generations but seems to pull at a genetic memory.

But the expanse is far more bustling than senses perceive. From microbe to insect, a grower’s crop is a chaotic burst of constant activity. For much of human history, the dialogue around utilizing nature for the benefit of our species has used words like “harness” and “tame.” But acting in opposition to a natural force requires energy, especially when nature finds a way around those efforts. There is a shift happening in agriculture now, a change in tactics. If nature always finds a way, let nature guide.

The Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology is recognizing the need and opportunity that exists within the biological space. In a drive to showcase international solutions for improving soil and plant health, Western Growers and Wharf42 will be bringing together key players in global agribusiness (which will include thought leaders from New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Spain, Brazil and Israel) for the Salinas Biological Summit on June 20-21, 2023. The Salinas Biological Summit will be the first of this annual event where the discussion around biologicals in agriculture will be deep and thoughtful to address the opportunity to explore and fill a gap in agricultural use of biologicals that hasn’t been addressed before. The Summit will be a hub of activity to highlight advancements, provide networking opportunities, promote promising products and offer information.

Western Growers President & CEO Dave Puglia will speak at the event to usher forth the initiative to organize and accelerate the activity within the space of biologicals in agriculture. His experience with being at the forefront of major legislative and regulatory issues makes him uniquely equipped to lead the conversation. Since taking his position as the President and CEO, Puglia has supported the process of connecting influential participants in all necessary sectors to move progress, the Biological Summit being an example of such support.

But every journey into the new comes with uncertainty. With the known, there are standards, procedures and assurances. The market, the environment and regulators are pushing this initiative, pushing with many giving little guidance or regard to how it gets done as long as it does. The growers are the ones left to be the cartographers of this new terrain, but they aren’t alone. Innovators, seeing the opportunity of a new landscape to build products and businesses, are researching and bringing to market biological solutions to manage and grow crops in an environmentally cohesive and robust way. Organizations like Probelte and Bayer, profiled in this issue, are finding new ways to enhance the scope of the growing cycle with biologicals.

A key term in the conversation of biologicals is biostimulant. And defining it is an important step for research and regulation. According to the Plant Biostimulant Act proposed by U.S. Representative Jimmy Panetta (CA-19) and Representative Jim Baird (IN-04), “The term ‘plant biostimulant’ means a substance, micro-organism, or mixture thereof, that, when applied to seeds, plants, the rhizosphere, soil, or other growth media, act to support a plant’s natural processes independently of the biostimulant’s nutrient content, including by improving nutrient availability, uptake or use efficiency, tolerance to abiotic stress, and consequent growth, development, quality, or yield.”

According to a press release from Panetta: “Plant biostimulants are products that can be used in both agricultural and non-agricultural settings that improve natural plant nutritional processes, which can result in improved plant health, tolerance to abiotic and other environmental stresses, as well as improved growth, quality, and crop yield.” Bionutrients can promote micronutrient activity and improve absorption.

Companies offering biostimulant solutions provide products that work for and with the crop environment that preserves the quality and conservation of harvestable organs; generate stronger, better-structured roots; and deliver preventive maintenance of the crop under exogenous stress circumstances.

In the process of defining what means what and what falls under what category, biofertilizers fall under the umbrella term of biostimulants. One publication defined biofertilizers as “the substances containing variety of microbes having the capacity to enhance plant nutrient uptake by colonizing the rhizosphere and make the nutrients easily accessible to plant root hairs.”

In the book Biofertilizers Kamini Gautam, el al, the term is further explained: “Biofertilizers includes one or more beneficial microbes that facilitate better nutrient uptake, greater production of growth hormone and beneficial phytochemicals in crops leading to higher quantity as well quality crop production. Nitrogen-fixing microbes, phosphate-solubilizing bacteria (PSB), sulfur-solubilizing bacteria (SSB), potassium-solubilizing bacteria (KSB), and vesicular-arbuscular mycorrhiza (VAM) etc. are already being utilized in combination for making biofertilizers formulations for enhancing crop production but on small scale.”

As described in Biofertilizers, Probelte’s biofertilizer Biopron “has a high capacity for fixing atmospheric nitrogen, making it available to the plant; unblocks the existing phosphorus in the soil in such a way that the plant can easily absorb it; and provides the power to solubilize other macro (K) and micronutrients (Fe, Ca, Mg) present in the soil, which would otherwise be blocked. In this way, both nitrogen, phosphorus and other macro and micronutrients can be used efficiently in crop nutrition.”

Regulation of these biological products varies and is in a state of flux. The Plant Biostimulant Act looks to establish a regulatory framework to clear the path for research and development and use. An important feature of the Act is that it would officially define plant biostimulants and explicitly exempt them from regulation under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act. If there is to be a successful transition from traditional crop treatment option, it is in the best interest of regulatory bodies to support initiatives that encourage adoption of biologicals, both with clarity and space for adequate statistically backed research.

Those with a strong voice are speaking on behalf of change. Secretary of California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) Karen Ross has been a valued ally to protect and promote California agriculture. In her continued support to “strengthened partnerships across government, academia and the non-profit sector in the drive to maintain and improve environmental stewardship and to develop adaptation strategies,” Ross will be a featured speaker at the Salinas Biological Summit in June.

The CDFA has outlined a few labeling guidelines for biologicals, stating, “If biotics are guaranteed, FFLDRS requires the following additional information per Section 2304 of the CCR: 1. Species name of each microorganism, name of each enzyme, or organism by-product, if claimed, as part of the statement of composition. (Provide the full name, not abbreviations) 2. Active Ingredients: a. Microorganisms: number of viable units per mL or g. (e.g. 100 CFU/mL) b. Enzymes: concentration in activity units per mL or g. (e.g. 100 u/mL) c. Organism by-product: concentration in percent by weight. (e.g. 10%).” As support for the need for an established definition of the term biostimulant, the CDFA states that, “There are no official definitions for the following terms. They are considered misleading and are not allowed on fertilizing material labels: Balanced, Biostimulant, Stimulant, and Complete.”

The Salinas Biological Summit also is a response to the investment interest within the agricultural industry. Venture capitalists are drawn to the shift to the biological solution entrepreneur arena, with billions already having been invested in startups. Agtech investment leader Kirk Haney, the Co-Founder & Managing Partner at Radicle Growth, is looking to continue his effort to accelerate the development and adoption of sustainable solutions within the industry at the 2023 Summit. His insight gained from extensive startup and investment experience—on both sides of the effort—is an invaluable resource for startups and growers alike. And innovation in agriculture can’t happen without grower expertise and guidance. One of the grower representatives speaking at the Summit is Don Cameron, Vice President and General Manager of Terranova Ranch, Inc. Cameron is driver of change and adaptation to a shifting environment. His input and guidance for what’s to come will have unprecedented value.

The Salinas Biological Summit is designed to draw venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, growers, policy makers and researchers together to connect and learn. It is these participants who will work together to find the way forward for biological solutions. This event will mark the beginning of the impetus that will shape development in the years to come.

The possibilities for progress and opportunity within the realm of biologicals is as plentiful as the environment itself. Thomas Edison once said, “We often miss opportunity because it’s dressed in overalls and looks like work.” Fortunately for everyone who relies on the fresh produce industry, those who work to grow food aren’t put off by overalls or work, so the opportunities won’t be missed.

For more information and to purchase tickets, please visit