Consumer-focused approach

Company with a stable of beneficial microbes launches an identity-preserved quality-based rice program.

By Vicky Boydindigo ag logo
Editor

Boston-based Indigo Ag Inc., which launched an identity-preserved quality-based cotton program in 2016, plans to kick off a similar one for rice in 2018.

Known as Indigo Rice, it will involve the company’s proprietary microbial seed treatment, company-provided agronomists, identity preservation and quality incentives of as much as 57 cents per hundredweight. The actual premium will depend on milling quality.

Indigo already has thousands of acres of U.S. rice under contract, and the number continues to grow, says Ben Allen, Indigo head of food and fiber. The company is focusing exclusively on the Mid-South rice belt from Texas and Louisiana north to the Missouri Bootheel this season, but he says that could change in 2019.

During a Dec. 20 webinar, he discussed the company’s focus on giving consumers what they want, saying it wasn’t new and was following the likes of Whole Foods.

“Unfortunately, there’s a disconnect between what agriculture grows and what the consumer wants,” Allen says. “At Indigo, we really like to start with consumer preferences and work back to our farmer partners.”

He describes the current commodity marketing system as antiquated, saying it aggregates all of the grain and tends to lower quality as it blends to an average. As a result, producers aren’t rewarded for high quality.

Consumer preference is but one of the company’s three pillars; the other two are increasing grower profitability and improving sustainability.

Harnessing beneficial microbes

Funded by more than $350 million in private equity financing, Indigo is focused on endophytic microbes that help plants better cope with stress. Endophytes, which include bacteria and fungi, occur naturally within plant cells.

Through modern DNA fingerprinting techniques, Allen says Indigo has identified endophytes that have survived in stress-riddled plants and harnessed them for its commercial seed treatments.

Based on company studies, Allen says the microbial treatments increased dry root biomass by 50 percent, increased dry shoot biomass by 35 percent, increased nitrogen use by 20 percent and increased the number of tillers by 50 percent. The measurements were taken in seven-week-old rice plants.

Allen says he didn’t have specific yield figures comparing treated and untreated fields. But he did say, “Healthy plants yield better and fight off disease and fight off stress and produce more grain.”

The rice program

The five conventional and two Clearfield varieties available through Indigo will be licensed from other breeding programs, Allen says. Currently, only Southern long-grain varieties are involved.

“Indigo is not a seed-breeding company,” he says. “We don’t create our own genetics – we license genetics from other providers.”

As part of the program, participating growers will purchase seed from Indigo. This allows the company to maintain quality control and ensure that fungicidal seed treatments, which also will be applied, won’t reduce the efficacy of the microbial seed coatings.

The company also will provide participating growers with agronomic services during the growing season. That won’t preclude a grower from using his or own consultant, Allen says.

At harvest, the crop must be identity preserved and delivered to a partner receiver, such as a dryer or warehouse. Indigo is still working to develop those relationships, he says.

Premiums will be based on sample milling quality, with a 55/70 (head rice/total rice) netting a 40 cents cwt bonus. The program tops out at 57 cents cwt.

As part of the program, Indigo defers seed purchase payments, with zero percent interest, until after harvest.

In addition, growers have two marketing options through Indigo Ag. They can either lock in a price during a marketing window or choose an average daily price during the window.

When asked if consumers next year will be able to buy rice labeled, “Grown with the Indigo system,” Allen says he couldn’t speak to that at the moment.

None of the university rice specialists contacted by Rice Farming had previous experience with Indigo Rice, but some indicated they will have it in trials this season.