BASF is set to launch a range of products in the UK which farmers would not expect to see from a business which has grown its roots in chemistry.
AS part of an ‘innovation beyond crop protection’ initiative, the world’s largest chemical company says it will be repurposing some products currently being sold outside of its crop protection division as well as seeking novel products from third parties and offering them to the farming market.
Steven Whittaker, BASF’s UK marketing manager for crop protection, says the new products will fall outside the division’s classic offering of herbicides, fungicides and plant growth regulators, to offer ‘something for everyone’.
He says: “In the agriculture sector, we have traditionally been viewed as a company which concentrates its efforts in cereals, but the products we are working on could benefit small and large farm businesses in all agricultural sectors.
“This will take us into areas we haven’t been before.”
A biodegradable plastic mulch – currently used as a food packaging product – and a silage bale wrap are two products which are currently being tested in the field. They have both been developed by the performance materials division of the company in the two years since BASF’s leadership team identified the opportunity for product repurposing.
It will be the responsibility of the division’s new head of customer strategy Neil Kay to identify further opportunities from the organisation’s 13 other product divisions – each with a turnover exceeding €2 billion – and take the ideas through to delivery.
He says the company has set out a number of ‘mega-trends’ to help steer research and development. Heat management within farm buildings and packaging for transportation are two areas he identifies as having huge potential for the agricultural sector.
“There’s a lot of technology sold by our construction division retrofitting heat management solutions to make buildings incredibly efficient in terms of the energy you need to heat them.
“A lot of farmers will be repurposing buildings for food production or holiday lets for example, so it could be another important product we can sell.
“Using lightweight packaging could also reduce energy use on-farm and lighter transportation means less energy used, which also has an impact on sustainability – one of the core pillars of the BASF strategy.”
Currently undergoing field trials, the biodegradable mulch aims to protect young plants. It is being pitched as a solution for any growers who use plastic protection covers, but is likely to appeal most to maize, sugar beet, ornamental and horticultural crop growers. The mulch disappears into the ground at the end of the growing season, removing the burden and cost of waste plastic recycling collection.
Mr Whittaker says: “One of the issues we understood from talking to farmers is disposing of waste plastic on-farm was an issue.
He says: “It’s at proof of concept stage so we’re testing things like how it rolls out with machinery, how quickly it degrades and whether the plants pop up as they should. We have to test all of these things before we bring them to market.”
The bale wrap concept is also approaching its test phase.
Mr Kay adds: “We also need to look at things such as tensile strength and what thickness it needs to be. If you’ve never sold silage wrap before you have to understand the needs of the market.”
Beyond plastics, the crop protection division intends to investigate a whole raft of products offered around the world by its other divisions and from third parties.
Mr Whittaker says: “We formalised this part of the strategy a couple of years ago and said innovation beyond crop protection was an area we wanted to be focused on and we have spent the last year collecting ideas.
“We put together a long list and have gone through a normal innovation cycle but we already have in excess of 10 products which are at proof of concept stage. We may lose half of those, but in a short space of time we have been able to go to our other divisions and, with a little bit of tweaking, we have a product we can sell in agriculture.
To authenticate the division’s statement of intent, a separate budget has been allocated to this particular area of work and sales targets for the next five years have been laid out.
Mr Kay adds: “We have stood in front of our teams and customers and told them how many non-classic agricultural products we will be selling in this division by 2020 and we believe we will exceed those targets.”
To help steer the direction of travel, the company has teams of people whose job it is to talk to farmers about the solutions they feel they need to be profitable and efficient in tomorrow’s world.
Forums of engaged farmers are also used as a sounding board to evaluate the potential business case and pricing structure a new product could take if launched into the UK agricultural market. Farmers interested in joining one of the BASF discussion forums can contact BASF on Twitter (@basfcropuk).
“We can listen to our customers and respond quickly,” Mr Whittaker says. “Unlike with our crop protection products, we don’t have the regulatory and political challenges associated with many of these innovations. As soon as we have proof of concept we can start selling the product to farmers without having to spend hundreds of millions of pounds on regulatory approvals.
“All we’re doing is drawing on the resources of the rest of the organisation to innovate for our UK farming customers.
For more information about BASF’s future innovation, meet the team at the CropTec event in November.