Rethinking Biocontrol With Bio-Brews

Tom Costamagna, American Color
Tom Costamagna, American Color

Tom Costamagna, Director of Growing at American Color, an ornamental crops producer in Orange, VA, is anything but orthodox in his approach to pest and disease control, yet he gets results. With more than a decade of experience with biocontrols and biopesticides to back him up, he prefers to complement what growers are already doing — spraying. He’s just changing what they are applying.

Enhancing Plant Health and Quality

Costamagna focuses on microbials and entomopathogenic fungi. He uses bio-brews, which are mixtures of regenerative microorganisms (also known as efficient microorganisms or EM) that occur freely in nature.

A bio-brew is not a pesticide, but rather a biostimulant, which activates the natural processes of plants, benefiting nutrient use efficiency and/or tolerance to abiotic stress. Biostimulants are not fertilizers or pesticides, as they work regardless of nutrient content in products and do not have any direct actions against pests or diseases. Instead, they act on the plants’ vigor, rounding out crop nutrition and crop protection by working in synergy with them.

Inundative Control: A New Approach

Costamagna prefers to think of using bio-brews as an inundative or full immersion approach, which he takes due to plant purchasers with little to no tolerance for the presence of pests and the damage they cause.

To achieve inundative control, Costamagna says he recommends calendar spraying to provide ample CFUs (colony forming units) of biocontrol/biopesticide agents like nematodes and entomopathogenic fungi or bacteria. Regular applications of bio-brews must start at the plug and liner stage and continue through shipping to ensure pest populations are low to nonexistent.

Cost effective bio-brews work well for calendar spraying and have a longer shelf life than other beneficials. With the industry’s zero-tolerance view toward pests, Costamagna says taking an inundative approach to prevent crop damage makes more economic sense than treating problems you don’t have with expensive chemistries.

Costamagna got the chance to tackle just such an issue in his role as Director of Plant Quality with a previous employer, Mid-American Growers in Granville, IL, now part of Color Point.

Under Costamagna’s direction, the operation’s growers applied bio-brews topically to plants once a week and injected them into the irrigation water. They also made additional applications when needed based on scouting intel. This routine continued throughout the year, no matter what crops they were growing, because the bio-brews were safe enough to spray on full, open bracts without any phytotoxicity.

Costamagna jokes that it wasn’t long before chemical companies were asking why Mid-American Growers wasn’t doing as much business with them.

“The business didn’t go anywhere, we just changed our practices,” he says. “That year we saved thousands of dollars in chemicals because we were no longer taking an aspirin for a headache we didn’t have.”

Scouting Indispensable to Bio-Brew Success

Costamagna has since implemented bio-brew applications, coupled with a strong scouting program, in his current role at American Color with the same positive results.

The bio-brews Costamagna uses are unique formulas developed for specific insect and disease targets. They incorporate a number of essential oils, ETOH (200-proof ethyl alcohol), and apple cider vinegar, which kills the active microorgansims while preserving each blend and leaving behind specific metabolites and enzymes. Apple cider aids in the preservation of the product while helping to break the cuticle of insects/mites, allowing the metabolites and enzymes to penetrate and kill. The essential oils in each blend cover the targeted organism to kill it by suffocation and leave a slight film on the leaf that gives the plant a sheen or luster. The blends of oils also agitate and excite the targeted insects and mites while having repellency, anti-feeding, and anti-oviposition properties.

Costamagna incorporates bio-brews into the irrigation water at American Color. He says he purchases latent inoculum of EM-1 from TeraGanix so he has consistency from batch to batch. It is used to make AEM (Activated Effective Microorganisms), which are sold ready to use as AG1000. This is primarily used in growing media but can also be sprayed.

A scouting program is critical to the success of a bio-brew program, Costamagna says, because growers need to have a good idea of where pest populations are trending (detectable, increasing, or decreasing). In addition to bio-brews and other pest and disease control measures, there are times when they must make the shift to using conventional tools (e.g., synthetic pesticides).

“At the end of the day, we need to produce quality plants,” Costamagna says. “When making this transition, we must choose wisely, assessing the risk and considering compatibility and that a knee-jerk reaction is not made qualitatively, but quantitatively, which is the result of a good scouting program.”

Although American Color internally produces its bio-brews, Costamagna says a majority of the products applied are available commercially. And for those worried about the complexity of implementing such a program, they shouldn’t be.

“The biggest thing growers need to realize is that they are not alone in going down this path,” Costamagna says. “There are companies and consultants out there that do not manufacture a commercial product and have the best interest of growers in mind. They are all about solutions that make economic sense and result in the desired control growers need.”

Here’s Why You’ll Want to Attend Tom Costamagna’s Presentation at the 2017 Biocontrols Conference

Tom Costamagna, Director of Growing at American Color in Orange, VA, worked for 10 years in the Department of Entomology at University of California, Davis (UC Davis) with Dr. Michael Parrella, one of the key researchers early on studying the implementation of biocontrol and biopesticide use in floriculture. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Horticulture and Landscape Architecture, Costamagna worked as Senior Superintendent of Agriculture for UC Davis, where he continued to run Dr. Parrella’s research programs in developing applied pest control strategies in commercial greenhouse production to ultimately lead to a reduction in pesticide use by the environmental horticulture industry.

After leaving UC Davis, Costamagna worked for a year at Aldershot Greenhouses in Las Cruces, NM, before taking a position as Director of Plant Quality for Mid-American Growers in Granville, IL, which is now part of Color Point. Here he developed a bio-brew microbial spraying program as part of his integrated pest managment strategy.

Costamagna served as the National Production Manager for Dümmen Orange upon leaving Mid-American Growers. He took up his current position at American Color in 2016.