Leveraging 100 Years in Agriculture w/ Jason Ellsworth
Interview with Jason Ellsworth, Organic Portfolio Manager for Wilbur-Ellis Company
In this episode, we hear from Jason Ellsworth, the Organics Portfolio Manager for Wilbur-Ellis Company. Wilbur-Ellis is the fourth largest agriculture retailer in the United States. Jason shares how Wilbur-Ellis helps the agriculture industry in three main vertical markets and how his role supports organic farming in the West.
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Learn more about Wilbur-Ellis: www.wilburellis.com
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INTRO: Welcome to Organics Unpacked, a podcast for the business-minded organic grower — an interview podcast where we hear from the top experts in the commercial organic industry, with a focus on the business elements of organic growing both in and out of the field. You will gain insight and grow your operation. This show is brought to you ad-free by Avé Organics, a Wilbur-Ellis company. To learn more about Avé Organics, visit our program notes. In the meantime, enjoy the show.
TOM: Hello, everyone. Thanks for tuning in today. Welcome to episode three of Organics Unpacked, a podcast where we discuss organic farming from a practical view. I’m your host, Tom Buman. Today’s guest is Jason Ellsworth from Wilbur-Ellis, where he is the Organic Portfolio Manager. Jason is here to share some exciting news on how Wilbur-Ellis is developing products to make life easier for the organic grower. Jason joins us from the great state of Washington. Welcome to the show, Jason.
JASON: Thank you, Tom. It’s good to be on.
TOM: Jason, before we get started in our discussion about Wilbur-Ellis and their products, can you tell today’s audience a little bit about yourself, your background and how you got to this point in your career?
JASON: Yeah, you bet. So I graduated from Iowa State and took a job with the University of Idaho and was a research scientist there for five years in southern Idaho. I worked in both research and extension and focused on precision ag, as did my graduate work at Iowa State. Then I took a job with Wilbur-Ellis to manage the precision ag activities in the Northwest. I spent a few years doing precision ag, working in software, developing site-specific management practices and techniques for growers with Wilbur-Ellis. Then, three or four years ago, I transitioned over to managing our organic product lineup for Wilbur-Ellis. Wilbur-Ellis has always had organic products. Just nobody was focused directly on them. So my responsibility, then, was to manage the current organic products that we had and build out that line, finding novel and unique products that Wilbur-Ellis could sell to growers that would be effective, as well as valuable in the organic space.
Mission of Wilbur-Ellis
TOM: Good. Jason, I know the company Wilbur-Ellis. Depending on where you’re from in the United States, you may know Wilbur-Ellis very well. Or, depending if you’re somewhere else, you may have not heard of them a lot. Can you talk a little bit about Wilbur-Ellis, your company, and maybe just generally where you’re located and where your strengths are?
JASON: Yeah, you bet. So Wilbur-Ellis is the fourth largest ag retail company in the United States. It is a private company. This year, in 2021, we are celebrating our 100th year of business. The company was started by three friends in California in 1921, over the course of time, and originally trading fish meal and waste products, generally, out of Cannery Row in Monterey, California. Later, in the thirties, they purchased a trading company, Connell Brothers, that was focused in the Far East and, just over the course of time, have built up the ag retail business and now cover 30 states in the United States. There are three divisions of Wilbur-Ellis. There’s the ag business, which is what most people are familiar with. There’s the trading company that I talked about, Connell. Then the third one is Wilbur-Ellis Nutrition, and their focus is animal, small and large animal nutrition products. So pet foods, but also dairy supplements, aquaculture. Then, with the increase in the ag retail business, originally, it served as a specialty market in the western United States, California, Arizona, Washington, Oregon. Since, it’s expanded into the Midwest, and so we have retail outlets in Texas and Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, North and South Dakota, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio.
TOM: Okay, but your main core business is, kind of, west coast?
JASON: Well, no, not really. Maybe just over half of the business is on the west coast. The other half or just less than half is in the Midwest. So that Midwest segment is growing really big. And, related to this podcast, we see the organic market in those areas growing really big, both growers deciding to get into that market and some pressure from food companies looking for commodities, organic commodities that they can use in their food products.
Wilbur-Ellis & Organic Farming
TOM: So I invited you today because I know Wilbur-Ellis has a real presence in organic farming and helping out in that organic space. Can you talk about your footprint in organic farming and maybe kind of just a high level of some of the products that you have available?
JASON: Sure. So the main organic area that we service is California, of course, and, then, in Washington. Now, that’s not to say that there aren’t organic acres in other areas. There are. That just seems to be the largest area that we service today, and we’re trying to expand that, of course. Originally, our key products were nutrition products and some, what we call problem-solver products, adjuvants that were organic because they just happen to be organic. The way we manufactured them, they could be approved for organic use, and so we went with them. But the focus really wasn’t on organic agriculture. In the last four or five years, however, our focus has really been: what is it that the organic customer needs? What do they want, and what are their gaps in being successful? So we have focused on nutrition. We focused on pesticides, as well as additional problem solvers. And some of this is that more of these growers are coming from conventional, and so they understand how some of these products work, and they understand the benefits of them and not that they want to change organic agriculture. They just understand that there are some benefits to these types of products, and if there is an equivalent that can be approved for organic use, let’s figure out how to do it, and then let’s make use of it.
Evolution of Organic Farming
TOM: So, in your time, tell me how you think organic farming has evolved. Where do you think it’s going? Then, we’ll get into some of the products that you carry.
JASON: The word organic farming just kind of becomes a label, and it depends on who’s saying it on what it means. But people have been focused on soil health and the value of having a healthy soil in relation to crop production and also to human health. And if we look back 40, 50, 60, even 100 years ago, we talked about humus farming, where we’re trying to improve soil health, improve organic matter, limit the amount of certain products that could be deleterious to the soil, and people adopted that, and, to some extent, it was more. It was almost a philosophical type of reasoning. But, I think, now in these times, we understand that it’s more than just philosophy. There’s some science to back up those claims, and we’re seeing that as people transition to no-till and reduced-till. Looking at cover crops, we see the value of building up the soil organic matter within reason, and even that is relative. How much can you do in arid, coarse-textured soil that we have in the West versus a really heavy loam soil in the Midwest that has a lot of rainfall.
So we have to understand the limitations of the area that we live in, but there’s value to those things. So we’re seeing more and more growers figuring out and understanding how to adopt those practices and use those practices easier, more cost effectively. One of the things that we’re seeing now is, for instance, you’d have a food company. A food buyer would work with 15 or 20 or 30 different organic growers to get produce for the supermarket. Now, they’re saying, look, it’s too expensive. It’s hard to deal with that many people, and so they’re turning to larger growers and encouraging them to transition their acreage, some of their acreage, to organic, and then they can go to one or two sources for both their conventional produce and the organic produce. So we’re seeing more of these larger businesses come into organic and then trying to have both organic and conventional systems running simultaneously. So that’s one area that Wilbur-Ellis really tries to help on because, typically, those are already our customers, and they may have an agronomist or two to help with them. But they understand the business side of it and look for help in other areas as more of a business-to-business relationship. So, as we develop products, we’re looking at those types of customers and trying to help them with that. A good example is we have a line of products in the Pacific Northwest called ProNatural, and it’s an amino acid complex, micronutrients and nutrients. It’s a foliar fertilizer, and both conventional and organic growers use that product. We just carry that one product, and all of our growers use those because it’s a good nutrition tool, and it works. It happens to be organic, as well.
Transitioning to Organic Farming
TOM: It seems to me that that’s a product that could really help transition somebody that’s kind of a large grower and doing it in a traditional, conventional way and have them transition some of their acres over because they’re using the same products in the same way. But it meets organic standards.
JASON: As much as they can do that, they want to be able to do that because it limits the risk of them getting in trouble. One of the things that we always worry about, especially at Wilbur-Ellis, is you have our salesmen. They’re trained up with conventional agriculture. They’re used to walking through a field. They scout the field. They see a problem, and they think, okay, I have something in the barn, and I can fix that problem tomorrow. Well, in organic, we don’t have that option. All of our pest control, all of our nutrition, we have to be planning and thinking weeks, if not months, ahead, to be ready for that, when we anticipate disease coming, when we anticipate insects, when we anticipate nutrient needs. So we have to already have those things in place. So we need to encourage our salesmen to understand that, so that they can help the grower, and they’re planning ahead. But if they have products that can be used in both conventional and organic, that limits their risk of getting in trouble by accidentally applying a conventional product on one of their organic fields and potentially losing their certification. It’s a three-year commitment to get to that point, and we definitely don’t want to be part of that and be the cause of that to that grower.
Products for Organic Growers
TOM: So talk about some of your main-line products that you have at Wilbur-Ellis that fit into that organic world. What are some of the products that you’re really proud of and really make life easier for that business-minded organic grower?
JASON: So one of the products I just mentioned is our ProNatural line. There’s calcium and zinc, iron, manganese, magnesium and, then, a product called Photo Max. Each of those are developed for use by crops. They’re an amino acid complex, and so that means that the nutrient, the element — the copper, the calcium, the iron, the magnesium — is tied up with this amino acid complex. So there’s some value in holding that on the leaf so the plant can actually get to it. There’s some value of that amino acid that the plant can use directly as an amino acid, but the plant can also use that as a source of nitrogen. So the plant sees benefit from the nitrogen, sees benefit from the nutrient that we’re putting on, the calcium or the zinc or a multitude of elements in our Photo Max product. Also, since it can use that amino acid directly, it gets a boost from that, and we know that certain amino acids give a bio-stimulant effect or a plant benefit in that way in helping prevent or being able to resist abiotic stresses that come from outside the plant. So that’s a really important one, and we ran into some issues. The states kind of do things differently in the fertilizer registration world. In some states, they don’t like the word natural because it makes a claim. You’re saying your product’s natural.
So we have an equivalent of that called BenVireo, and that’s also a very similar product. It’s not the same but that we register in areas outside the Pacific Northwest. Then we have two fantastic fungicides. One is SONATA. That is a bacillus species that has an ISR response, and ISR means induced systemic resistance. The SONATA, the bacteria — that bacillus — releases a signaling compound that the plant interprets or understands that it needs to make products to defend itself against the pathogen, and so it doesn’t actually sense it as a pathogen. The signaling compound just triggers the plant’s response, and so it begins creating products to fight against the disease, as well as it has direct activity on the disease, like powdery or downy mildew botrytis, things like that. We use it, and it’s labeled broadly across a lot of different crops. We use it in the Midwest very successfully on soybeans, corn and wheat, but we use it in grapes and almonds and lettuce in the West. A sister product to that is a product called Romeo. This isn’t our product. We have an agreement with a French company, and we’ve worked with them for several years now, and they’re bringing several of their products to market in the U.S. Romeo is a yeast-based product, and it’s an ISR. It has no direct activity on the plant or on the pathogen, but it induces this systemic response in the plant, so that the plant produces the products and the chemicals within the plant to defend itself against some of these similar diseases. The funguses, for sure, but the powdery mildew, downy mildew botrytis, and we’re discovering that it’s effective on a lot of other crops. But the benefit of both of these, Romeo and SONATA, is that when we put them in a tank mix with conventional products, we see an added benefit of synergistic effect with that. This is what makes these products unique to us. It’s not just an organic focused product, but it’s a product that we can use in the conventional system, as well.
TOM: So do you see that most of the products you have, I know you mentioned that they’re kind of general purpose across a lot of crops, but most of the products you have, are they that way, that they’re general purpose? Or are they kind of focused on maybe almonds or corn or one crop or another?
JASON: That’s a good question, and that’s one of the neat things about some of the products that are approved for organic use. It’s their generally broad spectrum. The types of active ingredients that are used in them can be labeled broadly across crops and across regions, whereas some of our conventional products are very specific to a single crop or to a single area and organic products. One of the benefits and one of the characteristics of organic products is that they’re a safer type of product, and so they can be used on a lot of different things.
Pesticides in Organic Agriculture
TOM: I was just going to say that. So, if I’m a consumer, I often think that organic means no pesticides, but as an ag person, I know that that’s not true. So you have fertilizers, and you talked about some of the other things with pathogens, fungicides and stuff. But you also must have some insecticides, too.
JASON: We do. We have an oil that’s used for tree crops. An oil. It’s organic. It’s a pesticide, and it’s an insecticide in that it covers the fruit. It covers the leaves and prevents insects from getting access to the leaf or access to the fruit, or at least making it harder for them. But we are developing. We’re working on some other ones that will be Wilbur-Ellis branded. But beyond the oil, we don’t have an insecticide. As a distributor, Wilbur-Ellis is a distributor, and so I’ve mentioned our branded products. But we distribute a wide range of other organic products. So, if we’re looking at insecticides, there’s neem oil, azadirachtin, some of the BT products, different types of BT products. Some of the bacteria also have some insecticidal activity, and so, as a customer, we can get these. Or, as a grower, we can get these products for them to use, and we’ve done a lot of work. We have a couple of really good folks that have spent several years doing research and putting together some programs, especially in California, for different products that may or may not be Wilbur-Ellis products, but programs for different crops so that a grower can be successful using the organic products that are out there.
Adjusting to Organic Farming
TOM: So, Jason, do you find that when you are working with farmers, does it take a different mindset as an agronomist or somebody who is providing advice to a farmer? Does it take a different mindset in commercial farming versus organic? How do you help provide technical service to a farmer that might have his foot in two different worlds or be in the organic world? It seems to me that it would be difficult for a lot of agronomists to adjust to that organic side.
JASON: Yeah, that’s a good question, and I think it is. Even within the conventional world, you have different growers. Some salesmen gravitate to different types of growers more than others, but it’s definitely if you have a grower that’s doing both. One of the things that we talk about is a conventional grower or a conventional salesman. People have made fun of organic farming. There are all kinds of fun jokes and everything that we say, and I tell people, look, you cannot do that because every grower in this country has a napkin, has a spreadsheet, has a piece of paper. They have something somewhere where they’ve tried to pencil out. Okay, if I make the transition to some of my acres or all of my acres, can I do it? Can I make it pay? It may be a philosophical reason. It may be a business reason that they’re looking at, but they have a reason, and then they have a reason for why they chose not to do it, or why they chose to do it. They may say, well, I don’t have the right products. There’s not a market in my area. It’s too much work. I don’t have enough people. Whatever the reason, they’ve opted not to do it. And I say, look, we can’t be the reason that they decide not to. We want to be the reason that they decide to. Look, if you’re going to make that decision, if you’re going to do that, we’ll help you. We may not be experts now, but we’re going to commit ourselves to becoming experts. And based on the phone calls that I’ve got and that some of the others that have worked in organic get from these salesmen, they’re trying to get up to speed really fast on products and on what they can do to help those growers that are contemplating or are in transition to organic growers.
So it’s growing, but it is. It’s not for everybody, and I think that’s just the business of it. That’s okay, but we’re going to do whatever we can to help them. When you look at the specific salesman, it’s that switch from, okay, I can solve a problem tomorrow because I’ve got an insecticide. I’ve got a fungicide in the barn that I can apply, and we’re good. But now he’s got to say, okay, it’s November. We’re going to plant in April. What do I need to do now? What do I need to do in a month to prepare, so that we can have things in place for disease control, for nutrients as soon as the ground warms, that we can control insects? What are our options? Do we need to buy equipment? Is there new equipment that we’re going to need? Do we need to get more labor? But all of those things need to be thought about well before. Once they get into that, and once the grower’s familiar with it, once the salesman has been through that, then it’s a little easier. Still, you’re planning and working on this all the time. The best thing about it is, if you’re an agronomist and if you love agronomy, organic farming is going to challenge every bit of knowledge you have about agronomy because you really have to understand and think back to what you learned about soil, about plants, about how plants defend themselves, about how they grow, how insects mature through their life cycle, so that you can make those decisions and be ready at the appropriate time in the plant life cycle, in the insect life cycle, in the weeds’ life cycle, so that you can control and get to a good yield in the end. It really is all about agronomy.
TOM: Well, that sounds fascinating from an agronomist myself, that it’s not the cure in the bucket that you can pull out two days in advance. But it’s something that you really have to kind of preplan and think about ahead of time.
An Organic Ammonium Nitrate
TOM: So I know you have an exciting new product that you’re rolling out here, your TerraPreme. Can you talk a little bit about that?
JASON: Yeah. TerraPreme is interesting, and it’s fun. It’s a really exciting product for organic farming. TerraPreme is an organic ammonium nitrate, and your immediate response is: ammonium nitrate? Isn’t that what they use for bombs and things? How can that be organic? And that was some of our thinking, too. Well, what we’ve done, or what this group that we’re working with has done, is they have figured out a way to make this, naturally. So, when you look at manure, when you look at chicken litter specifically, but when you look at any type of manure, you can smell the ammonia coming off. We know that there’s ammonia in the urine. When we stir a manure pile, when we move a manure pile, we can smell that ammonia, and so we’re losing that. That’s nitrogen that we’re losing to the environment. So we talk about some of ag’s role in greenhouse gases. Well, that is one area, but through this technology, we can take litter and, really, any manure, really, a waste stream, but litter directly from the hen houses and put it into a dryer, where it gets tumbled and dried for 20 minutes or 30 minutes. The time is really not relevant, but all that gas comes off, and we capture that. There are a lot of other molecules in there, but one of them that’s the most important is the ammonia. Then we capture that ammonia. We condense that gas as it comes off and clean it, so that we end up with an aqua ammonia solution.
So it’s simply that ammonia that we captured from the manure dissolved in water. Then this group, NuOrganics the company, have experience in wastewater, and they have figured out how they can cultivate and grow the soil bacteria that are responsible for the nitrification of ammonia or ammonium, specifically, to nitrate. So they grow these bacteria, nitrosomonas and nitrobacter, in this tank, and then they push this aqua ammonia solution through these vats. This is very simplistic. It’s a lot more complicated than that, but what comes out of that is an ammonium nitrate solution. So it’s about half-nitrate, about half-ammonia, and it’s a pH of 6.8. It’s a dark brown, tea-colored liquid, but it’s an 8% ammonium nitrate solution that is all organic. It’s all natural. So, when you look at manure, and when we apply that in the soil, we till that under. That free ammonia is converted to nitrate, or that free ammonia can be used directly by the plant, or it’s nitrified by the bacteria in the soil to nitrate, which is then used by the plant. We’re doing the same thing. We’re capturing that ammonia and then putting it in through this vat of nitrosomonas and nitrobacter. We end up with an ammonium nitrate solution that we can, then, apply as a fertilizer. Now, when you look at the manure, not only the ammonia, but then as the manure breaks down, that nitrogen is freed. That’s mineralized, and so the results of the mineralization of that manure, cattle manure, slurry manure, is ammonia. Then the soil bacteria? Then convert that into nitrate, and so it’s the same process that we see in the soil. We’re just doing it externally but capturing this waste ammonia that we would normally lose to the environment. So, now, we have fertilizer.
TOM: It sounds like you’re not doing anything unnatural other than taking the processes that happened in the soil and dropping them into the tank. It’s the same bacteria. It’s the same process. You’re just putting it in a controlled environment to get the product you want?
JASON: Yeah, exactly, and so it’s our understanding of the soil biology. This whole thing around soil health and understanding the soil microorganisms and what’s happening in the soil has increased our understanding about how these processes can work and how we can use them outside of the soil to do some similar things, to create and make products that are valuable to agriculture but, in particular, to an organic grower.
TOM: So we’ve talked about some of the insecticides, the fertilizer, the fungicides and our audiences across the United States. Maybe this is a bit of a challenging question, but if somebody wanted a product from Wilbur-Ellis and, say, they want maybe one of the fungicides you talked about or the TerraPreme, how do they get that? Jason, do you have a distribution mechanism that allows anybody to get any product? Are they licensed in all states? Just talk about that process.
JASON: That’s a good question. We are not licensed in all states. We do have stores in many states. We’re not set up to handle the homeowner or the casual, small grower. We can be, but for the larger and midsized growers that are used to dealing with distribution, you bet. In some states, we do have stores that are kind of cash and carry, where somebody can walk in and buy some things, assuming they have a pesticide license and things. We have the website www.wilburellis.com. And from there, you can get to the ag business site, which, then, you can see a map of all the locations where there’s a Wilbur-Ellis location. Then there’s a 1 – 800 number that will put you in contact with somebody who can direct you to the right person. So, while we don’t have a presence in the eastern U.S., we do have people that sell Wilbur-Ellis products into the eastern U.S., and they work with other distributors. They don’t work directly with growers, so part of Tenkoz, but other local or regional distributors we work with. So they sell Wilbur-Ellis products or a Wilbur-Ellis brand through their own store so people could get some of these products.
TOM: So, if I want to go in and kind of review all the products that Wilbur-Ellis has for organic farming, I assume it’s on the website, but how do I get to it? I go into Wilbur-Ellis, go into the agribusiness. Then how do I get to the organic portfolio?
JASON: So, if you get to the agribusiness site, there is a link to the organic page, or you can just go www.organic.wilburellis.com. It will get you there, and you’ll see a list of all of our products, all of the organic products.
Four R’s in Agriculture
TOM: So I want to be aware of your time, Jason. I appreciate it, but is there something that you would like to talk about with Wilbur-Ellis and organics that we haven’t mentioned today?
JASON: I think that, when you look at the organic system and you look at the values, the needs, the necessity, I mean, this is an exciting area. It’s a needed area. I come from a conventional background, but there are some things that, as an ag community, that we can do better on. And I think a lot of those things are in the area that we see in organic farming. Now, am I advocating a wholesale switch to organic? Not right now. I think that there’s a pathway there to improve the way that we do things. But when you look at the change and the improvement that we’ve made in agriculture over the last few years, it’s been tremendous in terms of variable-rate application. Understanding the four R’s: right time, right place, right product, right rate, and how those affect crop growth, as well as the environmental issues that are out there. Improvements in equipment, just our understanding of the soil, new products. We’re improving all the time, and it’s just absolutely amazing, where we’ve come from in the last 50 years, for sure. The dust bowl was kind of a wake up call for all of us but just steadily improving and getting a little bit better each year. I think that’s what’s expected in organic farming. It’s going to be a key aspect of that. It definitely fills a need and a demand, but there’s technology and ideas within that there’s no reason that a conventional grower shouldn’t be implementing into their operation.
TOM: Yeah, well, you give a lot of promise to the future of organic farming, and I appreciate that. One last question: if you and a farmer had two minutes together in a room, what would you want him to remember about Wilbur-Ellis and your products?
JASON: The most important thing is that we’re in there with them. We want to be their partner. We’re going to fight their battles with them. We don’t want to be just the guy that drops the products and leaves. We’re there scouting fields. We’ll be there before planting. We’ll be there at harvest and after harvest. There’s that personal touch. It’s not just the products. It’s not just the ideas, but it’s that personal touch that we, as a company, are going to be beside that grower, helping them all along the way.
TOM: Jason, thank you, and thanks to the listeners for tuning into another episode of Organics Unpacked. Stay tuned for next week, when we’ll have another topic. If any of the listeners have any suggestions and speakers they’d like to have, please let me know, but till next week, thanks for tuning in.
OUTRO: Thank you for listening to Organics Unpacked. If you enjoyed this episode, please consider subscribing and giving this show a five-star rating and review, so we can continue to help organic growers improve their operations.