Bayer targets biologicals

Bayer targets biologicals

With a new team and new technology under its belt, Bayer looks to the future of non-traditional agronomics.

April 16, 2013
Chuck Bowen

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – Almost a year after acquiring biological technology company AgraQuest, Bayer is ramping up its focus on non-traditional chemistry for lawn care operators.

That’s according to Pete Farno, who was named lawn and landscape business manager earlier this month. Most recently, he was global market segment manager for Bayer’s T&O business.

With the move, Farno comes back to an industry in which he began his career. After earning his bachelor’s degree in 1987, Farno signed on with Orkin Lawn Care in Connecticut, where he eventually became a branch manager. After a stint with a large fertilizer company, he joined up with what would be become Bayer in 1998.

Farno said that, while technology has changed a lot since the late 1980s, the basic agronomics and goals of LCOs haven’t.

“I know first-hand what it’s like for an operator in the field,” Farno said. “To come back to a business that I cut my teeth on is very rewarding.”

We caught up with Farno to learn more about his new role, and what LCOs can expect from Bayer in the next few years. (Hint: It’s biologicals.) Here’s what he had to say.

On Bayer’s new structure: “Our organization is structured very functionally. Our marketing people are very portfolio oriented. Our field sales organization is very customer focused. When you take both elements, the customer touch points and the product management and the strategic direction, they’re not always linked up,” Farno said. “The new lawn and landscape position takes all these elements into account to best support our LCO customers, and the industry.” 

On the AgraQuest acquisition: Last August, Bayer completed its acquisition of biologicals company AgraQuest, and inherited on product called Rhapsody, a biofungicide for the professional T&O market. 

Bayer does about $4 billion in products for the fruit and vegetable market. The goal is to use Bayer’s massive R&D machine to quickly bring to market more of AgraQuest’s technology in the turf and ag markets. 

Biologicals – technically any non-synthetic plant health products – are “very immature” in the green industry now, Farno said, but will become more popular. Bayer is just the latest of the major manufacturers to actively pursue this type of chemistry.

“Our competition is moving in the same direction, and in the future, it’s going to be a clear part of any agronomic program. Whether it’s a turf program, golf or trees and shrubs, these will be integrated into traditional programs as a way to complement overall plant health.

“It’s not a one-for-one substitution,” he continued. “That’s the mistake people make.”

Farno said initial research conducted on AgraQuest’s products at North Carolina State University shows an all-biological-based program improves turf health and quality much more than expected.

“It’s a clear example that Bayer is moving in that direction. Frankly, it’s a challenge for us, because the way you position these products is different from how you position traditional synthetic chemistry,” he said.

Plant health claims are becoming more common on product labels. Often they highlight a product’s ability to optimize nutrient uptake, improve a plant’s use of available water or thrive in adverse soil conditions.

“Those are the KPIs when we look at biological products,” Farno said. “At the end of the day, can you really measure this? Is the turf quality superior? Is the fertilizer use optimized? Can you grow plants in conditions where plants might struggle?”

On what this change means for the average LCO: “If you start with the customer – the homeowner, the lawn care operator or the superintendent – what we’re trying to do is come with this one view to the market,” Farno said. “We’re very good at developing new products, but we’re probably not as good delivering the overall message, which is how we help customers grow their business and come up with innovative solutions that go beyond basic pest and weed control.”

On the industry’s biggest challenges: “Clearly the biggest challenge is still the misperception of what lawn care professionals put out and the products they use. In the past, we’ve tried to fight emotion with science, and it’s challenging,” Farno said. “The second is talking about the key emotional benefits we bring and that there are softer solutions out there if that’s what you want. The third issue is regulatory – local ordinances and preemption …. I think the better we do at the first two things, the third thing will fall into place.”