Growing Ideas: Unearthing dirt’s dirty little secrets

“Communicating with microbes” for healthier soil

Soil health is perhaps a farm’s greatest asset. But there’s a lot more farmers can learn about what’s in the earth. “Our technology is analyzing information below the surface and in the soil,” says Adrián Ferrero, Co-Founder and CEO of Biome Makers.

Most wine lovers know about terroir, the unique combination of earth, climate and landscape that makes, say, a Burgundy Pinot Noir taste different from its Sonoma County cousins. Raised in a wine-growing family in Spain, Adrián Ferrero knows the importance of the invisible properties of soil.

He co-founded Biome Makers, which helps famers understand the microbiomes in their soil, to address the needs of the wine industry. Today, the start-up has processed over 3,000 soil samples from eighteen countries and is building an open-source ‘bio-map’ of vineyards and other agricultural lands.

A microbiome is a ‘community’ of microorganisms – bacteria, fungi – that lives, for example, on our bodies or in the soil. Depending on their composition, microbiomes can have positive or negative impacts on the health of their environments. Biome Makers, which combines DNA sequencing technology with intelligent computing, “decodes microbial interactions.” They chart microbial impact on agriculture, advising farmers on how to protect and improve the health of their soil and crops.

Ferrero spoke with us about uncovering the mysteries of the microbiome.

Biome Makers CEO Adrián Ferrero: “We’re analyzing information below the surface, in the soil.”

What you are doing for the wine industry?

Most agtech talk today is about sensors or automation. We provide information drones and sensors do not see: analyzing information below the surface, in the soil.

Winemakers have been open to understanding microbes, not just how microbes might impact wine negatively, but also in positive ways. WineSeq, our first product, tests microbes from the soil to the cellar. We study these microbiomes to understand their influence on the health of the vines, the fermentation processes and the quality of the vineyard.

Our technology allows for early disease detection in the soil and optimizes agricultural practices. We detect pathogens to target prevention methods with less chemical spraying.

“Living soil is the basis of durable and sustainable agriculture”

- Adrián Ferrero, Biome Makers

So Biome Makers can help reduce fertilizer use?

Farmers spend a lot of money every year on chemical additives and inputs for the soil. Twenty to forty percent of these products are wasted or don’t work. Farmers need to know what products they need for their soil specifically. If they do not have a risk of fungal diseases, for example, don’t spend money on overtreatment.

How else do you help farmers?

A living soil is the basis of durable and sustainable agriculture. Farmers have to make sure to preserve life in crops and soil, and the only way is through studying the microbial community.

By studying microbes, Biome Makers can predict the needs of the crop and the strengths that make the soil unique. We can see the real effect of agricultural inputs on crop yield. We can even transmit our deep understanding of crops’ microbiology to develop biological solutions to enrich soil and understand the impact on biodiversity.

The WineSeq kit for collecting soil samples

How does it work?

When we receive a soil sample in our lab, we profile all the microbes. We identify and quantify all the species including the bacteria, fungus and yeast. We mix those findings with weather data, soil data and other data that the client provides such as farming and irrigation practices.

Our results are based on three types of information coming out of the soil: the vulnerability of the crop and soil, the microbiological biodiversity and the fermentation potential.

We can detect the whole microbial community present in crops. Microorganisms play crucial roles in nutrient cycling, the maintenance of soil fertility and soil carbon sequestration. But microorganisms are also responsible for a wide range of plant pests and diseases. We can show the risks for disease and give recommendations and actions.

“We could solve so much if we could understand microbes properly”

- Adrián Ferrero, Biome Makers

How has your product been used?

Through Terra Accelerator, we worked with one of the biggest apple producers in the US. AgroFresh wanted to know the difference between apples farmed organically and conventionally. We found that conventional apples did not have any pathogens or other health risk factors, but biodiversity in the soil was very low. For the organic apples, the biodiversity was huge, but we found risk factors.

What’s better: ecological or conventional? Perhaps we can find an intermediate model of smart agriculture that uses only the inputs we need – fertilizer, for example – and doesn’t damage soil biodiversity.

What’s next?

Our goal is to keep building this bio-map of agricultural soils to understand the dynamics of the microbiome community. Microbes might be the best and most important solution for the future of agriculture and they have been with us the whole time. We could solve so many things if we could start talking to and understanding microbes properly.

Biome Makers pitched their concept at the FoodBytes! start-up competition in San Francisco in March 2018.

FoodBytes! is a Rabobank initiative connecting agrifood start-ups with industry leaders and investors. The first FoodBytes! pitch competition & networking event in London is on September 13, 2018. Learn more and get your tickets here.