Ken Ballinger of Arkion Life Sciences holds corn seeds covered with a bird repellent.
Written by Cori Anne Natoli / The News Journal
NEW CASTLE — Scarecrows Beware!
Scientists at a New Castle startup have discovered an animal-friendly harvest-helper that they hope will help farmers chase away hungry birds for good.
It’s called Avipel, and its active ingredient, an old molecule named anthraquinone, provides the red in rhubarb, pigmentation in paint and color in dyes. That same naturally occurring compound is being used in a formulation patented by Arkion Life Sciences.
In one form, it protects cornfields from ravaging cranes, crows and blackbirds. In another, it keeps troublesome Canada geese off lawns and golf courses.
“Our (product) doesn’t kill anything,” said Ken Ballinger, vice president of development of Avipel and Flight Control Plus, the goose repellent. “Our feeling is let’s not take the life of an animal or a single cell if we don’t need to get the same results of saving our crops without killing our birds.”
For a bird gorging on corn seed or a lawn, the trouble starts with an upset stomach and ends in a decision to forage for food elsewhere.
“It’s not really a taste,” said Earnest Porta, president and chief executive officer. “It’s a very strong gut reaction. The environmentalists love it.”
The former DuPont employees developed technologies in agriculture and, in 1997, bought a cluster of small businesses jointly owned by DuPont and ConAgra. By 2001, they had formed Arkion Life Sciences with 15 employees in Delaware and another 15 leading a biotech research team in Wisconsin.
“We sold off the commodity pieces and took the technology businesses out to become Arkion Life Sciences,” Ballinger said. “The money allowed us to pay off banks and venture capitalists.”
“And we’ve been very selective in what we’ve done, so we’ve been our own cash generator, using that money to grow our business,” Porta added. “The bulk of it is in agriculture. We’re also in animal nutrition, but the seed piece is the fastest-growing.”
On the farm, giant tumblers mix corn seed with Avipel at 100 pounds per minute before it is planted. Recently, the firm expanded its application to sunflower and rice seed.
So far, 18 states, including Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York, have approved the treatment under emergency labeling. Arkion is optimistic the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will approve the crop protector for everyday use by late 2013. Until then, it’s a state-by-state approval.
While Flight Control is already approved, the EPA is assessing the food tolerance level of Avipel before approving use beyond emergencies. Ballinger said it will be tested in two areas: Is it safe to be eaten? And at what concentration is there no effect to human health?
“Flight Control can sell millions of product, whereas Avipel, that’s a product that can sell tens of millions,” Ballinger said.
In 2006, Avipel was approved for emergency use in Wisconsin after a petition was filed in desperation because crops were being destroyed. The EPA allowed its use, and soon after, Michigan and Minnesota followed.
In Wisconsin, cranes were seeking out corn seed as a source of liquid starch needed for reproduction. Those same cranes and their voracious appetites were wreaking havoc in cornfields, swallowing 800 seeds a day. During three weeks, they devastated a half acre. Juvenile flocks hit the fields at dusk, and by dawn, farmers had lost entire fields, Ballinger said.
“People are trying it out this year in Delaware,” Ballinger said of a state that planted 190,000 acres of corn this year. Arkion’s product covers 15,000 acres, or eight percent.
Arkion expects that will soon double.
In Delaware, blackbirds and crows are the main offenders.
A single blackbird eats about an ounce of seed a day. A flock of 272 can eat an acre’s worth, Ballinger said.
“And crows eat more than that,” he said.
“The typical introduction of the product is when farmers will protect a portion of their fields to test out the effectiveness,” Ballinger said.
Avipel is sold to distributors who sell it to farmers. It costs $4-$7 per acre.
The firm’s first product — Flight Control Plus — is sprayed on turf to deter pesky Canada geese, which produces two pounds a day of waste.
The bird repellent is in use at about seven locations in Delaware and is applied by lawn care services, including TruGreen.