By: Rob Larose, CEO & President of BioSafe Systems
During every new BioSafe Systems team member’s initial week of training, they listen to me ramble on about the chicken story. It is an essential element of how we got started.
It may seem odd that a company that got its start within the professional horticulture business has a story about chickens, but that is exactly how it all began. BioSafe Systems is a family business that got its start through a partnership between father and son. My father, Rene Larose, spent thirty-five years in the poultry business working for a company called Arbor Acres. Arbor Acres specialized in producing the breeding stock (baby chickens) that would be sold to major chicken producers such as Purdue Farms, Tyson Foods, and others.
Arbor Acres genetically bred their baby chickens to be suited for the various environments they would be sold into. Arbor Acres was also a family business started by two brothers and eventually grew into a company that did business worldwide, producing baby chickens that were disease indexed and guaranteed to be free of viruses, bacterial and fungal infections.
My father’s role as a microbiologist was to maintain the health of the “stock” chickens that produced the fertilized eggs from which the chicks were hatched, and the health of the fertilized eggs and hatched chicks until they were transported to the chicken farm that purchased them. Arbor Acres had operations all over North America comprised of containment farms that housed the stock birds and hatching operations.
It is very much like the propagation and breeder business model within the agricultural industry. Instead of propagating plants, they were propagating baby chickens. However, unlike plants which are propagated with a “built-in disease resistance factor”, chickens are biological in nature. Their disease resistance capabilities do not fully become functional until the second week of hatching, so they were very susceptible to various viral, bacterial, and fungal diseases. Standard operating procedures in the poultry industry are to use a variety of pharmaceutical interventions and inoculations to boost their defense resistance. However, the first two weeks were always very tricky to maintain the health of the flock due to environmental and pathogen challenges. Young Plants – Young Chickens.
One of the company’s tricks was to fumigate the chicken hatcheries between hatching cycles with formaldehyde gas to sanitize the facility. Ultimately, they found a way they could fumigate on a consistent basis while the chickens were hatching. It was a known factor that without this essential sanitation step, they would have a mortality rate in excess of 25%. A method was developed and provided a form of “chemotherapy” to the newly hatched birds. This method consisted of a constant, low dose of sanitation using formaldehyde with concentrations high enough to kill the pathogens but not enough to kill the baby birds.
This system worked well until the State of California intervened at the Arbor Acres facility outside of Fresno. They were given a cease and desist order from the California Department of Pesticide Regulation, due to the residual formaldehyde within the hatchery (formaldehyde was a suspected carcinogen.) This development forced my fathers’ company to find an effective alternative.
The solution that my father found was a form of activated hydrogen peroxide called Peroxyacetic Acid. It was determined that this formulated peroxyacetic acid works every bit as well as formaldehyde but did not present the health and safety concerns. Chlorine was out of the question because of its toxicity, so the activated peroxyacetic acid looked promising.
Where the application of formaldehyde was easy because it was a gas, the peroxyacetic acid application had to be done via aerosolized spray. Almost immediately, my father’s solution outperformed the formaldehyde applications and the company was back up and running. The peroxyacetic fog provided better disease control, but more importantly, the baby chicks reacted better. They took on feed and water 50% faster than they did with the formaldehyde treatments.
So, how did we make the leap from chicken to plants you ask? Well, when my father saw how well the peroxyacetic acid worked in replacing formaldehyde, he began talking with my uncle who owned a retail greenhouse. Both my father and uncle graduated from the University of Connecticut with Microbiology degrees. My father went into the poultry business and my uncle went into health care. He started one of the country’s first blood testing labs and then retired to his passion, which was horticulture.
My father and my uncle started experimenting with the peroxyacetic acid formulation to see if they could clean up algae around the greenhouse and found that with some modifications, they could also spray it on the plants to kill off some of the powdery mildew and botrytis problems my uncle was having on his poinsettia and geranium crops.
Ten years after graduation, I found myself working in the environmental field cleaning up Superfund sites around the country. My epiphany moment came after completing a 40-hour safety training on the dangers of Temik insecticide and realizing my uncle regularly applied Temik in the greenhouse without any PPE (personal protection equipment.)
My uncle had never met a pesticide that he didn’t like, and ultimately was diagnosed with colon cancer and died after a five-year battle with that deadly disease. In many ways, his death prompted me to think that there had to be a better way to put the “green” back in the green industry. Remembering my uncle spraying the Temik, I decided to take some soil samples from the greenhouse and have them analyzed for contaminants.
What came back was a long list of heavy metals such as mercury and arsenic, as well as organophosphate pesticides that were way above the limits of any superfund site that I had been working on. The greenhouse had been there since the 1940s and every pesticide ever sprayed had somehow made its way into the soil.
One thing that most people don’t know about the green industry is that when you spray a pesticide, the overspray will find its way to the ground. Even though the person applying is protected by a respirator and chemical suit, the pesticide that is being sprayed becomes part of the environment and attaches itself to soil particles that later dry out and become dust. These dust particles then float back up into the air where they may be ingested or inhaled by people who later enter the greenhouse to work.
The scary thing is that the US EPA only requires pesticide manufacturers to submit information on the individual compounds used in a formula to review them for safety. No one could ever do safety testing on the infinite combinations that are possible when these compounds are combined as a result of residual accumulation.
When I realized that I had eaten countless pizzas and sandwiches in that same greenhouse, it got me thinking about how much I ingested. There had to be a “cleaner” way to provide pest control within the growing environment. At the time, there were no terms to explain the ideas I was proposing. Today, our products are considered “green”, “sustainable” and “organic” by the industry.
Our approach is to provide products that do not leave behind any toxic residue or legacy. We leave no footprint behind.
So, it started with the chicken which evolved into a fertilized egg that helped hatch a new business enterprise aimed at providing sustainable solutions for a variety of industries– including the greenhouse industry that began the 20 year legacy of BioSafe Systems.