Source: Emerson Nafziger, Department of Crop Sciences, University of Illinois
“Every agronomic decision is a good one for someone” is a quote that I saw recently that reminds us that being “entrepreneurial” is high valued in today’s business world, rewarded in some cases by large amounts of venture capital invested in startup companies. That’s as true in crop agriculture as in any other business, and it means that startups are under pressure to find or create niches and product(s) to fill them, and to demonstrate that these products are widely sellable. The “grand prize” can be sale of the startup to a larger company, yielding a large return for investors and a chance for the entrepreneur to get a large financial award and perhaps move on to bigger projects.
The result is an increasing number of novel crop inputs, accompanied by creative marketing campaigns. Such campaigns often employ the trappings of science to help build trust in such inputs and those who develop them. Photos of serious-looking people examining flasks or test tubes while dressed in white lab coats populate websites, especially for startups that are developing and selling novel inputs such as microbes, or the less specific terms “biologicals” or “biostimulants.” Companies tend to point to field trials they have in their database, and a selected set of such results may be available to potential customers. Testimonials are very common, and almost every such website includes mention of the positive ROI (return on investment) that buyers can expect from use of this product.
Unsurprisingly, company websites tend to highlight data selected for the purpose of supporting sales—it would make little sense from a marketing standpoint to show all of the data. A few decades ago, it was common for companies to engage university researchers to conduct trials on novel products, and for companies to use such results (at least the favorable ones) to help support sales. There may have been cases in which results from universities were insufficiently positive to support sales, and a product wasn’t taken to market as a result. But for the most part, university testing was used to demonstrate that the company had enough confidence in the product that it supported public research on it even without knowing what such research might show.