Public Service and Agriculture; Research

Food is a science, and so is how it’s grown


Food is a science, and so is how it’s grown
Clemson University scientist Brian Ward and his team harvested about 145 pounds of Purple Straw seed, which was grown from less than half a pound.
Brian Ward has harvested around 145 pounds of Purple Straw seed, which was grown from less than half a pound.

Agriculture’s impact on daily life is vast. It’s what we eat and how we eat it. For Brian Ward, it’s even more than that. It’s his life’s work – and it’s far from over.

As a research scientist, and seed restoration expert, he’s already influenced what we eat by bringing back plant varieties that were southern culinary staples centuries ago, like the Carolina African Runner Peanut and Carolina Gold Rice. Jimmy Red Corn, another crop he resurrected, even caught the eye of famed chef Sean Brock and landed on the menu of one of South Carolina’s most famous restaurants, Husk.

Now Ward is going beyond the seed to influence the food-to-table revolution in another way while also helping improve quality and productivity for farmers. He’s made a discovery that can revolutionize how farmers work and increase their organic output — a new fertilizer.

The limited potency, precision and consistency of organic fertilizers has long hindered organic vegetable production. Ward, an organic vegetable specialist, understands the importance of having a better fertilizer — something that would make it easier for all organic farmers to produce higher yields while maintaining quality and organic integrity.

After more than a decade of research, he finally found an answer. Earlier this year, he received a patent for his new fertilizer, and his method for using “extreme bacteria” isolated from the stomachs of cattle rivals synthetic fertilizers.

“Ultimately, if we start to get the fertilizer commercialized, producers would be able to fertilize organic crops and have the yield comparable to conventional produce without the lag time of existing organic produce,” Ward said.

Organic fertilizer’s effectiveness depends on how active bacteria are in the soil. Ward’s process overcomes that obstacle with the “extreme bacteria” that effectively activate the nitrogen in the soil.

The patent for the new fertilizer describes methods for producing ammonia and ammonium in accordance with strict organic farming certification standards. It also describes specifications for building a bioreactor that creates the chemical reaction needed to produce the super-potent organic fertilizer.

The process is all the more innovative because unlike synthetic fertilizer it does not require the use of fossil fuels, making it an environmentally friendly technology.

“Two percent of the world’s energy is devoted to making ammonium fertilizer,” Ward said. “This does it organically, so there would be a huge cost savings.”

But working out the science was just the first step toward getting the patent. Ward contacted the Clemson University Research Foundation in 2006 about its technology transfer program, which focuses on moving technology out of the laboratory and into commercial markets.

CURF applied for the patent on Ward’s behalf in 2006, but the innovation had to overcome a series of legal hurdles, most notably meeting the United States Patent and Trademark Office’s conditions for patentability in regard to “nonobvious subject matter.”

Ward finally learned  last fall that the patent could move forward.

“That was such an awesome feeling after 11 years of battling, but I never gave up hope,” he said.

Now, Ward is looking to expand on his fertilizer discovery. Commercializing and producing the first-ever organic ammonium fertilizer will allow farmers to answer the growing demand for organic produce. Ward hopes the product will be available for farmers by 2021.

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