Soil Health & the Living Soil w/ John Jansen

Interview with John Jansen, VP of Commercial Operations for Trace Genomics

Show Notes

We welcome John Jansen, VP of Commercial Operations at Trace Genomics, to discuss the latest information on soil health and the living soil, including new ways to analyze your soil to improve productivity. Trace helps farmers across the country better understand their soil through data-driven, evidence-based recommendations.

Learn more about Avé Organics: www.aveorganics.com

Learn more about Trace Genomics: www.tracegenomics.com 

Connect with our guest on LinkedIn

#agriculture #farming #organicagriculture #organicfarming #soil #soilhealth

Podcast Transcription

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 a new episode of Organics Unpacked, a podcast where we discuss organic farming from a practical view. I am your host, Tom Buman. Today, I’m joined by John Jansen. John is the Vice President of Commercial Operations for a really exciting company, Trace Genomics. John’s going to share with us some of the newest information on soil health and a really new and interesting way to look at soil health. Welcome to the show, John.

JOHN: Tom, really great to be with you. Thanks for having us. 

TOM: Thanks, John. Hey John, just before we get started, tell us a little bit about your background and how you got to this point in your career. What led you to your position with Trace Genomics? 

JOHN: Yeah, Tom. Well, I’m an Iowa native, first off. I lived the first 28 years of my life in Iowa, attended the University of Iowa, studied chemical engineering and business and spent my career really launching new agricultural technologies, biotech traits and working on a lot of digital platforms prior to joining Trace Genomics to lead our commercial operations in the middle of 2020, just last year. So I’m based in St. Louis. In Trace Genomics, we got our start in specialty markets, leafy greens on the west coast, about five years ago. This will be our sixth year in the marketplace, but I joined Trace to help build on that, as well as expand our efforts into row crops and across the United States. The living soil is all around us, and this capability has tremendous applications all across agriculture. So I lead our business development efforts, work with our customers, everything farmer-facing. We distribute through agronomists, and so I spend a lot of my time working with farmers and agronomists. That’s how I got to where I am today.

Mission of Trace Genomics

TOM: Great. You’re the person to talk to, then. So tell us about Trace Genomics and kind of some of the uniqueness that you bring to the marketplace, John.

JOHN: Trace Genomics, as I mentioned, actually has been in business for six years. We have a technology that helps farmers and agronomists and product companies understand the living soil, the soil microbiome. As we all know, soil traditionally has some key chemical attributes that we measure for fertility purposes. For example, when we rotate corn, we may want to make a lime application for pH adjustment, develop P and K rate maps, and develop prescriptions. We provide those baseline diagnostics, but what we have done on top of a traditional soil test is we have stacked on a new capability called whole genome sequencing. By understanding the living soil, we can help identify things that can be detrimental to the crop, like pathogens that can propagate into disease, as well as the beneficial good guys in the soil, things that can help the nutrient cycle work better, more efficiently. Improve plant health. So we call ourselves an alive science company. This area of alive science is really understanding what before we could not measure. There is a tremendous amount we still do not know about the living soil. In fact, of all the organisms in the soil we’ve characterized to date, just to state the art of the science, is right at about 10% at the gene level in the living soil. But we’re continuing to classify and codify new microbials every day and other beneficials in the soil so that, ultimately, we can help farmers be more productive and improve their bottom line.

Soil Health & the Living Soil

TOM: So, John, there’s really a lot to unpack there. You said a lot. So take the next few minutes and kind of break down some of that stuff. First, let’s just talk about soil health and the living soil and where you fit in. You can’t pick up a farm magazine without talking about soil health, but from the standpoint of Trace Genomics and your background, tell us your perspective on soil health and the living soil and what we know and what we don’t know and where this kind of whole soil health movement is headed.

JOHN: Well, the microbiome and the living soil really is the next frontier in agriculture. We have mapped and characterized nutrients in the soil. We’ve classified different types of soil texture. Then we tend to spend a lot of our time above ground, working on plant health and observations above ground to make better treatments. But there is so much to unlock below ground with alive science. When you start mapping the soil biology for disease pathogens, what we can do is we can develop smart benchmarks of those pathogens in the soil, as well as nutrient cycle indicators for phosphorus utilization, nitrogen use efficiency. We can help provide farmers and agronomists a benchmark of how those compare to different yield environments within a field and across a farm. And that’s where this really starts to get powerful. We digitize all of these results. We provide them on what we call Trace View, our web engine. Whether you’re running Trace Chem or Trace Bio, we also have a carbon measurement, Trace Carbon, to help farmers understand carbon stocks and their soil and how they are sequestering carbon over time. Carbon is a biological process, right? So it’s important to understand the soil microbiome’s impact on that. It really provides a broad set of indicators. That’s the feature of this. The advantages are our Trace View engine helps you focus on the one or two that matter most. And the benefit is you can then really pick the best seed treatment, soil treatment or crop treatment and improve your return on investment. Farmers and agronomists are bombarded with new products, treatments, new types of innovative fertilizer products. And we just keep stacking and stacking these technologies on top of each other. It’s just not sustainable, and farmers and agronomists know. How am I going to get my money back on this investment? That’s what we do. We verify how these products are working in the living soil.

Soil in Organic & Conventional Farming

TOM: Organic farmers talk about how their soil is different. They have different characteristics than a conventional farmer. That’s kind of one aspect, but the other aspect is a lot of organic farmers tend to do more tillage. We know that tillage in and of itself, sometimes, can be detrimental to the soil. Has Trace Genomics looked at the difference of the fingerprint between soils that are under organic production and more of conventional production? 

JOHN: We have done some research in this area. At Trace, our team is composed, principally, of soil scientists, geneticists and folks that study the soil for a living. So what we do is we have consulted with several product companies, for example, to understand the benefits of organic fertilizer over traditional, conventional fertilizer technologies. And you asked about soil health earlier. Soil health is about fostering those beneficial microbes that are in the soil. To know that you’re doing that, you’ve got to measure it. How can you improve something if you’re not measuring it? In human health, look at all that we do, especially, these days, to track our health, our progress and adjust our lifestyle to maintain the best health and fitness that we can. The land, the soil, is our greatest asset in agriculture, and we absolutely need to be doing the same. So we did several trials over recent years where we looked side by side at the impact on nutrient cycle indicators, specifically with organic fertilizers. And we saw a statistically significant benefit to organic fertility by helping with phosphorus solubilization and utilization, as well as nitrogen utilization. So, in side-by-side trials, we’re actually able to measure the living organisms in the soil that help contribute to those cycles. We definitely have seen a difference. It’s early. We need to do a lot more work in this area. Tom, that’s why I’m excited you invited me here today. I know you’ve got some project ideas for this upcoming year, and I’m sure a lot of your customers do, too. There’s a real simple way you can start with this because our capabilities stack right on top of a traditional soil test that your customers are already doing today.

Testing Soil Health

TOM: John, I really liked the analogy of comparing soil health with human health because there are so many aspects. I can go to the doctor. When I go into my regular checkup, they’re going to take my pulse and my blood pressure, my temperature, my weight and height and some of those things, just to see that things aren’t out of whack. But they really don’t have an idea of what my overall health is. I often think the same thing about soil testing. I can get a nitrogen and a phosphorus test, but those are kind of like the pulse and the blood pressure and the temperature and things like that. How do your tests that you’re doing kind of add on to that encompassing view of soil help?

JOHN: Well, great question. So let me start with telling you about Trace Chem. Then I’m going to go to Trace Bio, which is our gene sequencing capabilities. As it relates to what you described as a traditional soil test, we’re all accustomed to looking at pH, P, K and macro and micronutrients in the soil. So, really, what we’re able to do is start with that as a bit of a foundation. That’s really where you kind of have to meet where the state of the industry is at today, which is, in fact, providing those types of standard analytics that folks are used to seeing. If you see my screen okay here, Tom, I’m going to share a graphic with you that, basically, what we’re doing is we’re providing that traditional chemistry that you see on the left for fertilizer management. Then we’re helping to characterize, with Trace Bio, the diseases and the beneficials and, with Trace Carbon, the carbon concentration as early indicators of carbon sequestration. On the far left, the chemistry, let’s talk about chemistry analytics for standard fertility management. There’s a tremendous amount of variability in the way that chemistry is analyzed in soil. 

All of us know soil science is a very complex science, and how you sample, where you sample, sampling depth, timing is really important. We have benchmarked our capabilities to do chemistry analytics against all the other major labs in North America. What we have done is we’ve invested a tremendous amount of automation in our lab to really get a high-quality, consistent output for your standard soil test for fertility. Then what we’ve done is we’ve added our gene sequencing capabilities. A lot of folks will do biology tests. They might do what’s called the qPCR test. It’s a quick test, targeted at one major pathogen. Universities are terrific at doing this. What makes this capability unique is we are doing whole genome sequencing. Nobody else is doing this. We’re actually measuring these indicators at the gene level, and we’re providing a part-per-billion report back to farmers and agronomists. So, for example, if you’re rotating into soybean, you would want to know my soybean sudden death syndrome pathogen loads in the fields I’m going to rotate into. What’s my soybean cyst nematode load? We’ve actually got a novel test that will quantify soybean cyst nematodes. So you can start to quantify these pathogen loads in the soil and know where your hotspots are and treat those hotspots. Or, frankly, manage those hotspots, either through varietal selection to make sure you’ve got good, resistant soybean varieties that you’re putting in those areas, or rotate away and make sure you’re putting that soybean seed in an environment where it’s going to succeed the most.

Living Soil Insights

TOM: Again, there’s kind of a lot there. So, when I go to the doctor’s office, and I’m going to get that quick physical, it’s one thing for him to tell me what my blood pressure is or something, but I like to know what I need to change. How actionable is the information you give to farmers? What kind of things could they expect? If they wanted to make a change, what kind of things could they actually change on their farm based on the information that you give them?

JOHN: So the insights that you’ll often see are areas in the field. It starts with the standard stuff, like low organic matter or pH. Now that we get into the living soil, we can identify spots in fields that have low nitrifiers, optimal conditions for the highest productivity where you can really try to get the most out of every acre, boost fertility levels and really maximize yield potential. We can identify areas of low phosphorus solubilization. Those are some great examples of how our customers today are utilizing these capabilities. Areas with higher nutrient levels than have existed in prior years, you can track that change over time and see how it improves. We have customers on the west coast, in crops like almonds, that are utilizing Trace Genomics to identify the probability of needing to treat for Phytophthora. We have correlated several of our indicators to understand the water loads in the soil with the pathogen loads and correlate that to where there is some real Phytophthora disease risk in almonds. In those tree fruits, it’s a multi-year system that you’ve got to manage and keep on top of. So that’s an example where we’re doing a lot of routine testing to really try to address some very specific problems. In North Dakota, just last year, we had some incidents where folks thought they were seeing some sudden death syndrome. Sure enough, it popped up on our soil test, and nobody believed it. They’d never seen SDS up in that part of Cass County before. Sent it off to NDSU. The fine folks at North Dakota State confirmed, in fact, that it was sudden death syndrome. So we’re able to spot some early indicators and, then, help you manage them. Those are some very tangible examples of how folks are using Trace.

Diagnosing Farmers’ Soil

TOM: So are you able to, by doing the soil samples, are you able to catch some of the problems before you would see symptoms in a field? Is it an early diagnostic test? Can it be used like that? Or is it not that good?

JOHN: It absolutely is a diagnostic test. Now, let’s all remember the disease triangle. You’ve got to understand the pathogen and the pathogen load. You’ve got to understand the environment that it’s in. Then you’ve got to understand the crop, the seed, the host and, ultimately, you’ve got to consider those factors together. So, Tom, when you ask about a diagnostic test, we don’t recommend specific products. What we do is we’re a pretty high-touch diagnostic lab that works with you as a farmer or an agronomist to design some experiments, some sampling on your farm, that will answer some questions that are on your mind and will help you interpret those results. We don’t just send you a web link when it’s all over. We’ll hop on a call like you and I are on here today, and we’ll review your soil test results with you. So, as an example of that, I can show you a farmer and how they’re using this capability today. I’m going to pull up my screen here, and I mentioned that we digitize all our results. Can you see this okay, Tom?

TOM: Yes, I can.

JOHN: Okay, well I know some of you are listening, so I’m going to describe what we’re looking at. We’re looking at a web engine here. You’ll recognize farm fields here. There are field boundaries, and what you’ll notice here on the left are some menu icons for fields, pathogens, nutrients, cycling and chemistry. So you can sort for all your fields. You have all your soil’s data in one place. You can take a look at different pathogens in corn, different nutrient cycle indicators and, of course, your standard soil chemistry results. We make those available here, as well. So what you can do is, for 61 crops that we’ve loaded into our system, I’m going to toggle down here to soybean. If you’re interested in looking at SDS, for example, you can see a heat map here of all the fields in red, yellow and green. Those in red are well above our smart benchmark for this. You can understand, then, what these look like within a given field. Here, I’ve just drilled into this field. You can see this field was grid sampled, and then you can see each of the sample points. There are some spots of the field that are well within normal, but there are really some hotspots in this field that need to be managed. So this is a really interactive way that you can look below ground and see these soil indicators across your operation and make some management decisions. We just added a new feature called Rule Builder that lets you go in if you want to sort by all your fields for sample points that are above a certain smart benchmark, for example, with sudden death syndrome. So you place those varieties in the right spot that has some good resistance. You know where you’re going to get the best return on investment for that. So lots of ways to utilize this capability, Tom, but it all starts with making it available, and so many of our soil test results never make it out of a PDF or a three-ring binder. So, if you’re not looking at this stuff, it’s hard to take action.

Soil Variability Within Fields

TOM: So, John, a couple things I noticed there. Gosh, back in the day, when I was at Iowa State in agronomy, you would take a soil test over 40 acres or something like that, and we didn’t really think about the variability. How is that biological test that you’re doing? We know the chemistry tests vary throughout a field. How do the biologicals vary throughout the field? Are they more consistent than some of the chemical analysis, N, P and K? Are they even more variable?

JOHN: They can vary tremendously. What you will find is that no two fields are alike. I probably don’t have to stress that too much with you, Tom. Every farm and field is a sample size of one. But what you want to do to account for that is you want to make sure that you get a minimum data volume, a minimum amount of data weight to make sure that we’re drawing the right conclusion so that you don’t just take one sample and make a really big decision based on that one sample point. So we put some packages together to make this accessible to farmers. The reason we haven’t done this in the past is, first off, all of this whole genome sequencing and, let’s face it, even in human health, it’s really only been available in the last several decades. What our team at Trace Genomics did, our founder from Stanford University, Dr. Poornima Parameswaran, did an amazing breakthrough in reducing the whole genome sequencing cost. That’s what makes us now accessible, really perfecting the quality of the process, but also making it affordable so that you can start to make decisions based on that. So some common ways that folks approach it is to make sure that you’re taking a minimum number of samples. 

We have clients that do what I’m showing on the screen here, which is zone-based sampling, as well as grid-based sampling. On a zone basis, this is very price competitive with your standard soil tests at roughly $200 per zone or $10.50 an acre based on an average zone size of 20 acres. If you do two-and-a-half acre grids, you’re doing a lot more chemistry sampling across the field, and that runs $11.50 an acre because of that added chemistry. We have clients around the U.S., large landowners, agronomists, farmers that both utilize these two approaches. Then we have a simple trial program where you can see a few fields where we have one, two or three biology sample points in these three fields. We start that pricing at $250 a field. Then it’s $100 for each additional biology sample point. Everyone starts with two. They typically will run a biology screen on an area of the field where the soil chemistry looks great, but it’s just not producing up to expectations. They’ll compare that with the biology profile of an average or higher-yielding area in the field. But literally, as I showed in my prior case, we have folks that want to run biology across their whole operation, and we can work on a package for you to do that, as well.

Interpreting Soil Health

TOM: So, John, I’m beginning to realize that, well, I tend to think under traditional ways of doing business. If I’m a farmer, I don’t talk to my lab until my tests come back, right? My agronomist or I, we go out, and we take the tests, and we decide if we’re taking it on grid or zone or whatever. I sense that you might provide a higher level of service there in helping farmers decide what they want to sample, how many samples, that there might be more interaction with your lab than I would get with a traditional lab.

JOHN: We’re really high-touch, Tom. Our team of soil scientists are very accustomed to hopping on a Zoom call these days but also getting out in the countryside, visiting your farm, helping you interpret the results. When our public health situation gets a bit better, we’re going to open our Ames lab up again for some tours. It’s a great visit. If you’ve got some summer travel plans, make sure you’re coming through Ames, Iowa. We’re centrally located right off of Interstate 35 and would love to host you. But that’s right. Our team gets involved up front in a lot of these projects, Tom, and figures out the problem you’re trying to solve. If it’s a disease problem, if it’s a nutrient issue, if you’re trying to figure out how to get into the carbon market, and you want to measure your carbon stock and know where you’re starting from, if you just want to get a baseline in those, we will design protocols. We work with a lot of product companies that are developing biologicals, fertility products, new modes of action, and we help measure the impact of those products on the soil microbiome. It’s a pretty powerful dataset, especially when you’re doing new product development. So many companies cannot explain how their biological product works and how it impacts soil health and the microbiome, and that’s what these quantitative measures can help you do. But we also have some standard Trace Chem and Trace Bio diagnostic panels that you can ask us from your local retail agronomist. A lot of retail agronomists around the Corn Belt are utilizing Trace Genomics. So, if you’re interested in this, you can, of course, contact your Avé Organics team, who can get you connected to Trace, or you can come to our website or give us a call, and we’ll get you connected to some folks that you can follow up with.

Soil Labs

TOM: So, John, I know that, a lot of times, you can show some pretty dramatic changes in soil tests by going to a different lab. So, if I am an organic farmer, and I am out here, and I’m thinking about changing, one of the things I have to reconcile in my mind is, if I go to you, your processes are different. I’m probably going to see changes in my nutrient levels, not because I’ve done anything different, but you’re doing the analysis. How do I decide when I come to you? At what level do I want to do that?

JOHN: Great question. This is a big decision. Your soil lab and your relationship with your soil lab is typically, I’d say, multi-year. Heck, in many cases, it goes on for decades. Most of the established soils labs in agriculture today developed their technology capabilities in the 1960s. They’ve been around for a while, and they’re very regionally adapted, and they know how to classify the soils that are within their specific geography. It’s not a decision to take lightly. Here’s what I can tell you about our capabilities in Ames and why you should be confident to try this capability. Number one, we have the best quality in soil science. The lab automation and computer technology we utilize to process samples is unmatched. And, because we have automated that lab, we actually dedicate a significant amount of our sample processes to just blind samples for quality testing. We don’t even let the team know that these quality samples are coming through the lab, and then we measure the result and make sure they’re within our control limits. So, first off, if you send us samples, we have the ability to quarantine, by the way. 

So we’ll quarantine where needed, and we will process those samples, and we’ll make sure, when we publish the results, they’re within our control limits. Secondly, our methods are very well-established. We utilize, for example, in potassium, a method called wet K, which was researched at your alma mater, Iowa State University, for many, many years. It is, by far, a superior way to measure available potassium in the soil. With different clay contents around the Corn Belt, even within a field, you’ve got your Okoboji potholes sitting right next to a Tama silt loam. It matters, and that’s going to have a big impact on potassium availability. We have the industry’s best method to analyze the available potassium. The reason other labs don’t do it is because it’s not easy, and it hasn’t been scalable to do it. But our automation has enabled that milling process to be able to handle a high throughput of these samples. Then, finally, on the biology side, the ability to have our whole genome sequencers now located in Ames, Iowa, with a team that has been going on nine years together in that Ames lab. It’s a team of soil scientists that have been working together and have processed literally hundreds of thousands of samples through that lab and have a tremendous track record. So they can help you interpret the results. If things look different than what you’ve historically seen on your farm, we will unpack that with you and make sure that you know how to take action, how to adjust rates based on that and get a good historical baseline established.

Geographical Footprint of Trace Genomics

TOM: So, John, in these COVID times, we knocked down a lot of barriers, and we do work in other states that we never did before without traveling. You moved part of your lab from California to Ames. Did you mean to send a message that you’re focused on the upper Midwest? Are you focused anywhere in the United States on any crops? Where is your geographical footprint?

JOHN: Much the latter there, Tom. We are focused across the lower 48. We do a little bit of work in Canada this season that we’ve engaged in, but our origins are in the western U.S. in specialty crops, red and green lettuce, grapes for wine-making, almonds, apples. Now, we’ve expanded significantly in the Midwest to corn, to soybean, to sugar beet. We got a new diagnostic test that can analyze Cercospora beticola and the resistant types in the soil that can ultimately lead to fungicide resistance in sugar beets. The cotton market, we’re expanding into. So we do have a focus on bringing this capability to row crops. Ames is a terrific choice for us because it was an established lab with some excellent automation around chemistry that we could stack our biological capabilities on and still service that western U.S. You can overnight samples right into Ames. Our team will receive them. We turn around our Trace Chem panels in three to five business days, and the biology takes a little longer, right at 20 business days today. Call it a month. But our team is working hard to crash that schedule and improve the turnaround cycle time so you get these results faster. Ames is just a terrific location for us to operate and serve the broader U.S.

Sampling Your Soil

TOM: So a farmer, John, how do they get their results? Is it in a paper that gets mailed to you in the mail? Or do you have a web interface? I know that you showed some of your interface here. People listening, obviously, can’t see that, but what are the main ways that, once you get the results, you’re interacting with farmers?

JOHN: We digitize all our results, Tom. So, when you’re interested in taking a sample, the first step is to contact your local agronomist. They’ll get you in touch with our Trace team. We will send you sample bags. We will collect a field boundary and set up your web account in Trace View so that the fields you’re sampling and the lat longs of those sample points are recorded in the system. Then you’ll take the samples, or you’ll have a service take those samples. We can connect you with a service that does that, like SoilView. We have a great relationship with those folks. They do a terrific job of accurately pulling samples. Then they’ll send the bags into the lab. We process them, digitize them. You’ll get a little text alert that says your samples are available, and a member of our team usually beats any electronic alert that we send you to tell you the results are there and ready to be interpreted. So it’s all electronic. It’s the digital age, Tom. It’s the digitization of agriculture. If your soil results aren’t digital, if you don’t have a software system that is keeping track of all your soil’s data in one place, you need to try Trace.

Software Systems

TOM: So, John, I got enough software programs as a farmer out here. I got more than I can think of. Do your software programs talk to other software programs through an API? Are you a standalone that I have to go in and use, and I can only use it through your web interface?

JOHN: As exciting as software is, Tom, and what I just told you about in terms of how we digitize our results, we only do as much software as is necessary to communicate our results. We do have APIs. APIs are little bits of software code that help communicate our Trace Chem, our Trace Bio, our Trace Carbon results into the software systems that farmers and agronomists use. We have been working to establish a whole new set of standards. As you might expect, there were no API standards in what’s called the modus standard that the industry operates off of for exchanging soil test results electronically. So we have worked to define the modus standard for these biological indicators, over 172 of them. And we can pipe those to you right into the software system, Tom, that you use if you don’t want another user ID and password, and you want to look at it in your system of record. Maybe you’re using AgVerdict. Maybe you’re using some of the different farm management software systems that are out there, Agellum. We have APIs that are built to support those systems.

Measuring the Living Soil

TOM: Wonderful. So I just have a very simple question: do you measure every living thing in the soil? Is that fair to say?

JOHN: We quantify, at the parts-per-billion level, the pathogens and the nutrient cycle indicators that have been sequenced and are known to man, and that is about, we estimate, about 10% of the living soil. So, Tom, do we analyze everything in the living soil? There is so much about the living soil that we are discovering every day. Just this past year, we have added dozens of new indicators. We added a bacterial diversity indicator. We look at fungal activity. We’re always adding new attributes, and we’ll even add those analytical attributes retroactively on samples that you’ve run in the past. We retain samples and have the ability to rerun results if you’d like to go look at a previous trial and add a new dimension to it. So that is exactly how that works.

Future of Soil Health

TOM: I got to think, again, back to my personal health that, if I have an EKG or something, it’s not just about today. It lives into the future. If there’s some new medical breakthrough that allows me to look at that in a different way, I’ve done, today, something that could help me in the future. Are your samples or your analysis the same way in that you might be picking up something that you don’t know about today but, five years from now, if I had those samples taken, you might be able to uncover something that’s happening in my field?

JOHN: Tom, that’s what I get really excited about. We can make some decisions based on these indicators today, as it relates to a fungicide, a seed treatment, a varietal selection, your fertility plan and understand the impact of organic fertilizers on your soil health. But let’s imagine the next five to 10 years of product advancements that are going to occur in the area of organic fertility, in the area of biologicals, and the importance of establishing a baseline in your farming operation or, if you’re an agronomist, with the clients that you work with so that, as these new capabilities come along, you’ve got this rich data set to build from and begin to think about where you apply those technologies and where you can get a return on investment of these new products. I think ag’ is going through a huge shift. You talk about human health. Look where the pharmaceutical industry went in our lifetime. It went from some really big, blockbuster products that could be broadly used to now, where a lot of the innovation comes from the fringe. And with the public health circumstances we’ve all just lived through, what a testament to our capabilities and our knowledge of gene sequencing, that we were able to develop remedies so quickly. In agriculture, I personally believe we’re going to witness the same thing, the big, broad acre product breakthroughs. I think we’re going to need to be a bit more thoughtful, a bit more targeted, and I think the focus on the environment is not going to change. So the importance of being able to quantify environmental impact and how we are affecting the soil microbiome is going to be increasingly important.

Soil Health in Organic Farming

TOM: Yeah, I just think, for organic producers that are out there, they’re trying something, and it works in one place and not the other place. I think it’s a way to begin to help them understand that, again, this is not like conventional farming, where maybe you’re going to just do the same thing you’ve done every year, year after year forever, in the same spot. Every spot in the field and every field and every farm is the same, but we begin to uncover specifically what happens. To me, that’s exciting in the arena of organic farming.

JOHN: I think you’re spot on. I think that is a tremendous growth category. We receive a lot of inquiries from organic farmers who really want to track soil health. There’ve been some soil health standards and tests that have been out there in the past, but they tend to be more generic in general, as an overall set of indicators. And the word health, then, kind of gets diluted a little bit. What do we mean by healthy soil? So this capability takes it to a whole new level, where you can quantify, at the parts-per-billion level, pathogen loads, nutrients cycle indicators and really, with a high level of certainty, understand how those loads are changing over time and how your decisions are impacting them.

Securing Farmers’ Data

TOM: So I have one question. I don’t mean this to be uncomfortable but, again, kind of going back to the analogy of healthcare, we can measure a lot of things. But we don’t necessarily want everybody in the world to know what those are. I don’t want people to know if I have a pre-existing condition or if I have some hereditary thing. What methodology do you have to secure data for a farmer so this whole profile of his soil is not floating out? That becomes a way of buying and selling land when they don’t want it to be, if that makes sense to you.

JOHN: Tom, farmers and agronomists are our first line of business. In agriculture, we take data privacy extremely seriously. So, at Trace Genomics, we, early on, established a privacy approach to ensure that we utilize the industry’s best standards of data security. We operate largely on Amazon Web Service, utilizing the encryption methods that are utilized across the major farm management software systems that you would use in agriculture. And most importantly, we treat each agronomist and each farmer from the perspective that they own their own data. Any data that you communicate to Trace Genomics is held confidential. We don’t share it with any third party without your express permission. We share the results only back with your account and who you authorize to see your account. And if you ever become uncomfortable and want to cancel your service, we’ll do every best measure to delete the information that we have from your operation from our system. We continually work to improve the quality of our indicators. If you only want to see a specific indicator, and you don’t want to be bothered with trying to interpret all the others, we can customize the results just for you. So those are some ways that we’ve taken some good precautions to have a high level of data privacy. We only work with companies that have that same philosophy.

What Farmers Should Know

TOM: Well, that sounds wonderful. I know that the idea of privacy is something that farmers take very seriously in some cases. In other cases, they don’t care, but it’s nice to know that, as a farmer, I’m in charge of my own data. If I want you to share it with the world, that’s fine. But if I want to keep it to myself, I’m glad that you have that. So, John, this has been super exciting. I’m just fascinated by what you’re doing and not even as much what you’re doing today, but what the future holds for this type of technology. If I’m going to start, maybe I want to think about starting earlier instead of later to get some of those baseline things because I assume that things will unravel fast. But the last question I have for you is you’re in a meeting room alone with a farmer, and you have two minutes to tell him why Trace Genomics is the next thing to sliced bread. What is it that you want to convey about Trace Genomics to them?

JOHN: Soil biology is the next frontier of agricultural productivity, as well as helping us do the right thing for the environment. At Trace Genomics, we can help you get the most accurate soil test results for your routine interpretation of fertility, rate identification and rate map building and developing prescriptions. But further, we can go well beyond that, to identify the one or two key biological indicators in your soil. And based on our whole genome sequencing capability, we’re going to characterize everything that is known about your living soil, using what we call our alive science so that we can help you focus on the one or two key decisions that can help you improve the productivity of your most important asset: the land, the soil that you farm and produce a crop on. We have a highly-talented team that will work with you in a consultative way to help increase productivity. If you’ve got problems, spots on your farm that have deficiency that you just can’t seem to solve, contact Trace Genomics. We can help solve your soil fertility problems, disease issues and help you improve your seed, soil and crop treatment decisions to improve the return of investment on your farm.

TOM: Thanks, John. With that, thanks to the audience for listening to another episode of Organics Unpacked. Be sure to tune in every week, where we’ll unpack another facet of organic farming. If you have a specific topic or a specific guest that you would like to hear covered, drop us a note, and we’ll see what we can do. Thanks, John, and join us again in another week.

JOHN: Tom, as always, my pleasure. All the best.

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.