Fungus has developed a bad reputation. But a Camarillo biotech company is out to set the record straight.
Bio-Enhancement Technologies Inc. is developing a line of agricultural products that contains a natural, beneficial fungus that strengthens the root systems of plants, thus enabling them to extract more water and nutrients from the ground.
Scientists have also linked the fungus to the prevention of disease in plants.
Company officials say that by using the fungal products to inoculate the soil when the plant is put into the ground, or by applying the products directly to the plants' roots, farmers could decrease the amount of water, pesticides and fertilizer needed to grow their crops, as well as speed up the growth cycle and increase crop production.
Representatives of Bio-Enhancement Technologies have been traveling to agricultural expos to demonstrate their products, specifically targeting strawberry, grape and vegetable growers.
The products, being marketed under the name Earth Man Micro-Organics, have as their main ingredients spores from various types of mycorrhizae fungi, found in plants and trees throughout the world.
"All the plants you see growing up on the hills, with nobody watering them, are doing fine because they have this fungi naturally bringing in the nutrients and water," said Donald Chapman, vice president of Bio-Enhancement Technologies. "The fungi feeds and waters the root systems of the host plant."
For the past five years, the company has worked to develop a way to reproduce the fungi in large quantities. It currently has five small greenhouses in Camarillo, a total of about 1,000 square feet, but is negotiating a move to several greenhouses totaling 20,000 square feet in the Santa Rosa Valley by the end of October, Chapman said. The company's goal, he said, is to utilize 50,000 square feet of greenhouse space by the end of 1996.
"We will produce in excess of 100 tons of [the fungi] in the coming year," said Chapman. Also within the next 12 months, he said, the company plans to expand the product line to include a fungus-enhanced organic potting soil and an organic fertilizer, in addition to the inoculant.
The Earth Man inoculant comes in the form of a mixture of fungus spores and sterile sand.
"We find a plant growing in a hostile environment, dig up its root system, and identify the kind of beneficial fungus that is helping it grow," said Chapman. "That's our beginning seed."
Chapman said the fungus that helps a plant grow under less-than-ideal conditions, such as in a desert or in soil that is low in minerals, is then reproduced to benefit other plants in similar growing environments.
Ben Faber, farm adviser for the UC Cooperative Extension office in Ventura County, said the mycorrhizae fungi are indeed beneficial, but their benefits outside a controlled greenhouse environment are still in question.
"The fungus is important in a natural environment, but in many ways we've replaced it with fertilizers and water," he said. "We are getting to the point, though, where we may have to be more reliant on the fungus in the future because of restrictions on fertilizers and pesticides."
Faber's office is set this week to begin an independent study of the fungus's ability to prevent disease.