The Future of Biostimulants: Closing the Gap Between Performance and Expectations.

Attention on the biostimulant market has exploded over the past few years and the category continues to be at the forefront of many conversations in ag. But with any new category, there are barriers to continued growth. Stratus began tracking biostimulant use, satisfaction and commitment in 2022 across North America and has also conducted several studies in the N-fixing biological space. Three main themes show up across the data:

  1. Growers are optimistic about the potential of biologicals.
  2. Performance is still a barrier and satisfaction is low.
  3. Real growth will depend on reducing the gap between performance and expectations.

Biostimulants have moved past the snake oil label, and they are quickly gaining acceptance with many North American growers. When growers are presented with a new biostimulant, the majority say they are open to trying the product on their farm. Now even growers who tried a product with mediocre results are willing to try again – they believe in the potential of this technology.

However, product performance is not always easy to quantify which leaves a lot of growers uncertain about future use. Some are not satisfied with the brands that they used, and even more indicating that they don’t know if the product is working. Any continued growth for this category will depend on reducing the gap between performance and expectations. Product performance needs to improve; companies need to work towards improving performance consistency, mitigating risk, and setting realistic expectations. And growers will also need to adjust their expectations.

We know from the data that expectations can vary a lot depending on the type of biostimulant and the mindset of the grower. Many growers who are newer to biostimulants are still thinking about these products as they would any other crop input and that is contributing to lower satisfaction.

1. Growers are optimistic about the potential of biostimulants.

We asked growers across North America what their attitudes were towards biostimulants. Almost 40% of the 1,029 growers surveyed in the US had a positive attitude; 8% already say that biostimulants are a valuable part of their operation and 31% are open to trying. On the other side, 31% of growers had a negative attitude toward biostimulants, but only 5% indicated they would never use a biostimulant on their farm.

Retailers are also thinking very positively about the category. Over 52% of the 1,059 retailers surveyed in the US had a positive attitude, while 23% fit into one of the negative categories. Less than 5% of retailers indicated they would never recommend a biostimulant to their customers.

2. Performance is still a barrier and satisfaction is low.

Despite the optimism among both growers and retailers, there is still a lot of uncertainty about performance. The challenge for many growers is defining what success looks like for these products and then quantifying that at the end of the season. Among US growers who used a biostimulant in 2022, 55% were either very satisfied or somewhat satisfied with the brand that they used. 12% were dissatisfied and a third selected ‘Don’t Know’ or gave the brand a neutral rating.

Satisfaction also varied greatly depending on what type of biostimulant was being used. Growers are more satisfied with traditional biostimulants like seaweed extracts and organic acids. The N-fixing category has the most traction but the lowest satisfaction, with almost 20% of users disappointed.

There could be a few reasons for these differing levels of satisfaction. While N-fixing biologicals are getting a lot of attention and becoming one of the biggest biostimulant categories, it also means that many of the users are new to biostimulants and are still learning how to get the best results. But the dissatisfaction is also likely related to the high expectations growers have for products associated with nitrogen; growers associate nitrogen very directly to higher yields.

Growers who are using seaweed extracts on the other hand, are likely part of the earlier adopter group who have been applying biostimulants for several years. Their expectations are more in line with what the product has to offer. It’s much easier to say you are satisfied when the goal is to improve plant health and crop stress tolerance.

From a retailer perspective, there is a similar pattern emerging. Across all brands, about 50% of retailers indicated that the performance of the biostimulants they sold was good or excellent. Only 7% of retailers indicated performance was poor, but 44% gave brands a neutral rating or said they were not confident enough about brand performance to provide a rating. It’s understandable that growers are expressing uncertainty about the category when even the retailers who are selling them these products are uncertain about performance expectations.

3. Real growth will depend on reducing the gap between performance and expectations.

There is a clear gap between the performance of biostimulants and grower expectations. Commitment was higher among the categories with higher satisfaction but many users are still neutral. For the N-fixing category, a third are not committed to the brand they used in 2022. Compared to more traditional crop input categories like corn herbicides, it’s evident the gap biostimulants are up against as an industry. Many growers approach the decision to use a biostimulant in the same way they would a herbicide or a fungicide. Yield and ROI are always going to be the driving forces behind their decisions.

So how do growers make the decision to use a biostimulant? Stratus conducted an in-depth study on N-Fixing biologicals and determined which factors are most important in a grower’s decision to use one of these products. Strong ROI and maintaining nitrogen rates while increasing yield are the most important considerations. Growers like the idea of cutting back on their fertilizer rates but are ultimately choosing the more profitable, lower risk option. In every crop input category, the most important factor will always be performance. It is how growers assess performance that varies from category to category.

But not everyone thinks about the decision to use a biostimulant in the same way. Stratus identified different segments of growers who think differently about their decision to a N-fixing biological. The biggest group of farmers are assessing biostimulants the same way they would a herbicide or fungicide. They put more emphasis on yield benefit and ROI. But there is another segment of growers who look at things from a more agronomic perspective. They are still thinking about ROI, but they take into consideration the things that lead to better ROI.

These growers put more emphasis on things like reducing nitrogen rates and access to season long nitrogen. This is the group where there is the biggest opportunity to grow because they are more likely to be receptive to the story behind biostimulants. This is the group where the industry can start to narrow the gap. By providing the most tangible performance benefits possible there will be a group of receptive growers on the other end.

The potential of the category and growers’ receptivity to biostimulants continues to grow. But even the most open-minded grower is still going to need to see performance to remain committed to using biostimulants in the future. As companies work towards improving performance consistency, conveying the right message will be essential to encourage growers to manage their own expectations when deciding to use these products. Keeping ROI at the forefront while bolstering the benefits that lead to a better ROI is a good example. The optimism from growers may not last if performance consistency doesn’t improve and growers aren’t able to adjust their expectations.

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