The Challenging Biocontrol and IPM Industry

An Unusual Industry

As was written, like most industries, the biocontrol and (IPM) industry has its own idiosyncrasies. Understandable as they may be once you become familiar with them, having the details spelled out to you beforehand may be very helpful. In fact, because of the nature of this particular beast, it is really good to know and understand these peculiarities in advance, so you don’t get left high and dry when you need it most. You see, most industries have set models which they follow (the trails of bread crumbs left behind by their predecessors). The biocontrol/IPM industry doesn’t yet have this luxury — at least nothing which can be checked out of the library. This business had to pave its own way.

Extreme Perishability

The reason for this industry’s peculiarities, at least as it pertains to the biocontrol agents, with few exceptions, is the perishability of the products. Not just any perishability, either: most of the organisms cannot, for the most part, be stored in any way, shape or form. They can’t be frozen, most require chilling but not full refrigeration, and heat’s a real killer. Gourmet foods are perishable, but once those choice Midwest steaks are flash frozen and vacuum-sealed, they can stay that way for a very long time and pulled out when needed, right before shipping. You can’t do that with the bugs.

Biocontrol agents are usually insects, mites or nematodes. They are shipped alive and must be very fresh so they will function as expected. They are, by reputable companies, anyway, guaranteed to arrive to the end-user alive and capable of performing their intended duties. To facilitate this, certain protocols must be adhered to. It’s a matter of survival (that of the good bugs, that of those who purvey them, and that of those who use them and need them to control pests).

The Distributor’s Week

To better understand this industry, let’s take an inside look. In a nutshell, for the typical biocontrol distributor, the week goes as follows… Monday: the boxes are made up, gel-ice packs are frozen (if not already done) and other necessary packing materials are prepared. Tuesday: the biocontrol agents arrive via overnight courier from points around the world; they are inspected, packaged and labeled; they then head to the shipping department for consolidation and packing in special, insulated boxes with cold or hot packs, depending on weather conditions in the local area and at the final destination; consideration is also given to the route of the shipment, time of year, etc.; the boxes are then picked up by an overnight courier company United Parcel Service (UPS), Fedex and Airborne Express are three common shippers used for this purpose). Wednesday and Thursday: any late shipments are dealt with at this time; orders are taken for the following week, consultation and customer service is given, books kept, etc. Friday: this is typical deadline day for orders being shipped the following week; in other words, the end-users need to get their orders for the following week in to the distributors so the distributors can properly prepare the producers with counts needed, etc. For some companies, deadlines for certain species will fall on Thursday, and even Wednesday in some cases, depending on the species needed and the individual manufacturer’s deadline. For the distributor, this business can be a very challenging one.

The Producer’s Week

For the typical biocontrol producer, the week goes as follows? Sunday: some of the more rugged bugs slated for sale that week are harvested and put into a holding pattern; cultures and plants are tended to and the facility’s quality control is checked (plant care includes all normal greenhouse functions such as planting, weeding, fertilization, watering and such — except no sprays are used unless the good bugs are being challenged to increase their resistance). Monday: the majority of critters are harvested and added to the bugs holding over from the previous day; all are inspected, bottled, labeled, packaged and shipped to their various distributors; samples are taken from each batch so quality control is assured and maintained; cultures and plants are tended to and the facility’s quality control is checked. Tuesday: Same as Monday, except shipments made that day typically go to area growers as expedited shipping is less critical for them than it is for the distributors; samples are also sent to outside agencies for independent testing and research. Wednesday: Cultures and plants are tended to and the facility’s quality control is checked; various other functions of their individual businesses are tended to also. Thursday: Supplies are readied for the following week; cultures and plants are tended to and the facility’s quality control is checked. Friday: Orders are received and more preparations are made; cultures and plants are tended to and the facility’s quality control is checked. Saturday: Same as Friday, except most orders are in by then; cultures and plants are tended to and the facility’s quality control is checked. For the producer, this business can be a very challenging one.

Two-In-One?

Now imagine combining both facets: distribution and production. Typically producers who distribute may tend to lack in key areas such as customer service and technical support-they should have the know-how, but generally lack the time and/or rapport. Likewise, distributors very often don’t make very good producers — they’re too busy tending to a multitude of customers. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. However, only very large companies can pull this off by segregating their production and distribution segments. If you, as a buyer of biocontrol agents, is interested in distribution, you should seek the services of a producer so that your customers receive only the freshest possible product (or deal with a broker or importer who is willing to drop-ship on your behalf). However, if you’re a grower in need of customer service and technical support, you should probably contact a distributor geared up to meet your needs. An analogy: if you wish to buy a Ford, don’t call the Ford Motor Company’s national headquarters, seek the assistance of an appropriate Ford dealership. A good distributor will have educational literature such as detailed catalogs, books, instructional pamphlets or guideline sheets. Some will even have a web presence which you may find useful.

Freight Costs

Another peculiarity of this industry, one shared by others shipping perishables, is the enormous freight costs associated with doing everyday business. It is a necessary evil and should be considered when weighing the costs of choosing the Green Methods over conventional pest control techniques. It is a necessary evil, though. Let’s say, for example, a particular predatory mite lives for ten days from the time the distributor ships it out. The transit time involved with next day air delivery consumes ten percent of that mite’s natural life. That is on par with someone living in the country making a lengthy daily commute by car to the city to go to work. Ask anyone doing that how they feel about it and their response is likely to be negative. Ten percent of a life, wow! Second day air means twenty percent is consumed. Lengthy transit times not only put undue stresses on the biocontrol agents, they also decrease their usable life-making them less valuable. Be wary of distributors who claim to make life easier on you by shipping biocontrols by any means other than one which results in next day delivery. They may claim to blow the competition away by reducing the end-user’s freight bill, but it does come at a price, and in many instances that price is high, too high. Other IPM products — the nonperishables — are usually not affected as such and can be dealt with like any product, i.e., a pair of socks or compact disc. Products of this type can be shipped by ground services typically — unless you’re in a hurry.

Be Wary

Speaking of wariness, also be wary of companies having their bugs “in stock” or “shipping the same day.” Unless they are producers or the critters they are talking about can be easily and safely stored, they may be making these claims at the end user’s expense. Unfortunately some distributors will mask the truth by telling you they produce their bugs on their own farm or insectary. Some of these companies may actually produce one or two organisms, but for the most part, especially if they offer a huge and diverse selection, the biocontrols they’re offering are likely to be stored bugs. Some produce nothing and simply mask the truth about it to create a warm and fuzzy feeling of confidence among their clientèle. I guess these shady purveyors could also be called “confidence men.” I’ve seen some pretty crazy stuff — and not just in this industry, but in many industries. Probably the wildest marketing manipulation I’ve seen in the bug business is the claim that praying mantises (which are not terribly effective biocontrols of any pest — but are very symbolic and kind of cool) can control aphids and thrips and whiteflies and… well, everything under the sun. I’ve even read in one catalog that they can control white grubs. Outrageous! White grubs are in the soil (usually in turf) and mantids are not known to burrow after a meal. But fear not, the biocontrol industry is getting better about dispensing truths and wisdom. The bad apples can ruin the entire industry, but knowledgeable consumers will not be taken. Bad apples do tend to rot — eventually. Hope is in the air.

Self-Regulation

Another way the biocontrol industry is keeping house, officially speaking, is in its voluntary creation and adoption of standards. As this is being written, the biocontrol industry is creating and publishing a host of standards with the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM). Leading this effort is the biocontrol industry’s own regulatory body: the Association of Natural Biocontrol Producers (ANBP). Though these standards do not yet address implementation of the products, programs, etc., they do address production and counting techniques and the like. Some of the current concerns of the Association of Natural Biocontrol Producers, with the help and officiation of the ASTM, is the control and confirmation of correct species being reared, the way they are counted and packaged and other behind-the-scenes concerns. However important these concerns may be, and it is true these efforts have only been in effect for a few years, I do hope the list of standardized concerns will someday be expanded to include a full spectrum of categories which could benefit from standardization.

Your Role as a Consumer

Now that I’ve basically covered the ins and outs of this industry’s inner workings, let’s address your interaction with it. As I wrote before, your best interests will stand a better chance of being met if you focus on dealing with a distributor geared up to meet your needs and ask and answer question — and there will be lots of questions, probably from both sides. From personal knowledge, I feel the best way to have a rewarding heart-to-heart experience with a distributor is in person or over the telephone. Be advised: Having a distributor’s technical representative come to your facility to meet with you one-on-one will cost you. Unless you’re promising to put the representative’s kids through college by the shear volume of your orders, be prepared to pay extra for this luxury. It is, however, unnecessary to have someone visit. You’re now scouting well and know your operation like the back of your hand, and the telephone should easily satisfy everyone’s needs. There’s going to be lots of questions, though, and you’ll have to be prepared to either wing-it or provide suitable and educated answers. It may even involve going back in search of more answers or looking to a third party, like your university’s cooperative extension office, for help or pest identification (both services are offered by some distributors), unless you’d rather wing-it, of course. Fax and email? Forget it unless you’re very experienced and are simply placing an order. Faxing and emailing questions and answers back and forth is a weak, albeit so-totally-contemporary, attempt to be interactive. It can a techno-nightmare for everyone involved. These media take way too long and are hardly interactive. Give your distributor — and yourself — a break, use the phone.

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