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Fertilizing with fungi

: Grants Pass company sells spores as an alternative to chemicals

By JEFF BARNARD / Associated Press Writer

GRANTS PASS -- Mike Amaranthus opened the glass door of a refrigerator case that once stocked cold beer in a convenience store and peeled back the top of a big blue plastic container to reveal a musty brown powder.

Two tablespoons of this powder contains more spores than there are people on earth, he said. You can imagine what you can do with 50 pounds.

Amaranthus and a handful of other entrepreneurs are selling the spores of mushrooms, puffballs and truffles as an alternative to chemical fertilizers and pesticides -- not just because they are organic and natural, but because 430 million years of evolution can't be wrong.

They help plants grow.

As proof, Amaranthus offers test plants -- roses, maple trees and marigolds -- grown with and without the fungi. Those inoculated with spores are bigger, leafier, and have more blooms.

Most people relate to fungi moldy bread and itchy toes, but 90 percent of the world's plants form a beneficial relationship to fungi that we call the mycorrhizae, Amaranthus said.

Hence the name of his company, Mycorrhizal Applications, Inc.

The relationship can be traced to the earliest fossils of land plants, leading scientists like Amaranthus to theorize that fungi helped ancient aquatic plants make the jump to the hostile environment of dry land.

Simply put, the fungi attach to the roots of the plant and help the plants take in moisture and nutrients through a network of tiny filaments called hyphae that spread through the soil, increasing the root mass 10 to 10,000 times. The plants feed the fungi in return.

Amaranthus first ran across mycorrhizae in 1976, when he started working as a soil scientist for the Siskiyou National Forest. Many foresters still regarded the white and yellow strands they saw on tree roots as pathogens attacking the trees, but he found that they were beneficial.

Through his doctoral work in forest ecology at Oregon State University and later work for the U.S. Forest Service's Pacific Northwest Research Station, Amaranthus helped unravel the secret life of trees and mycorrhizal fungi.

In 1997 he left the woods to bring mycorrhizae to the marketplace. He ran through his retirement savings getting started, but is now making a profit and employing five people full time. The non-profit organization Sustainable Northwest, which promotes ecological use of natural resources, recognized him as a Fouder of the New Northwest this year.

The spores come from mushrooms, puffballs and truffles harvested from the wild as well as cultivated areas around the world. Amaranthus won't divulge financial information, but says last year Mycorrhizal Applications sold enough spores to inoculate 200 million plants. They are gearing up to produce enough for — billion plants.

Though Mycorrhizal Applications is still small, others are bigger. Plant Health Care Inc., in Pittsburgh, Pa., claims the title of industry leader, with annual revenues of $100 million just four years after startup.

They supply beneficial bacteria as well as mycorrhizal spores for arborists, nurseries, landscapers, turf farms, golf courses and fruit and vegetable growers.

We think that because of regulation of soil fumigants as well as increasing regulation of certain classes of chemical pesticide, more and more growers are becoming open to and interested in the below-ground ecology of the plant, said President Wayne Wall.

Complaints against the soil fumigant methyl bromide, used to control things like root-eating nematodes, are growing because of fears over ozone depletion and health risks. Last week the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency moved to ban methyl parathion, commonly sprayed on apples, over child health concerns.

Commercial demand for biological assessment of worn-out agricultural fields has grown so much that Oregon State University told forest science professor Elaine Ingham to take her outside lab work off-campus. She launched Soil Foodweb, an independent soil testing laboratory.

Sometimes I liken this to a tidal wave coming ashore, she said. When people start recognizing the potential benefits of getting health back into the soil, it is going to become a very important part of agriculture.

Research has shown that mycorrhizals help plants absorb essential micronutrients such as calcium, and can even help control pests like root-feeding nematodes, she added.

Only since the advent of companies like Plant Health Care and Mycorrhizal Applications could she tell growers how to get the biological elements back into soil that they had depleted by plowing, pesticides and chemical fertilizers, she said.

Biology tends to take a little bit longer than a chemical to do the job, he said. The biology is also a longer term solution to the problem.

Ken Riskin, president of Qualitree nursery in Eddyville, has been inoculating seedlings with mycorrhizae since 1983, and found he could get the same growth using 25 percent less fertilizer. The spores cost less than he was saving on fertilizer.

The trees are healthier and more disease resistant, he added.

Plants link up with specific fungi, so Mycorrhizal Applications makes custom mixes for commercial clients in a liquid, powder or gel. The spores can be dripped on through irrigation, sprayed on by crop-duster, or dropped in the soil at planting time.

The results produced by fungi could be achieved applying fertilizer every two weeks, but 70 to 90 percent of nitrogen applied in nurseries is not absorbed by the plants, and ends up getting washed into rivers, where it is a pollutant, Amaranthus said.

One inoculation of fungi lasts all year, costs pennies a plant, and produces a bigger root system that is also resistant to disease.

Nature has provided the template, Amaranthus said. The problem is education.