Jane Fife knew from an early age that she wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps and become an engineer. A high school math teacher noted her aptitude for engineering and encouraged her in that goal.
But it wasn’t until 16-year-old Jane read Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” and hiked for several summers in the Colorado mountains that the Mansfield native realized she had a passion for the environment.
As an undergraduate at Ohio State University she managed to meld her interests, landing in the Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering and eventually emerging with a Ph.D. in agricultural engineering. She didn’t grow up on a farm, but one set of grandparents had a rural background and a huge garden, feeding her appreciation for nature.
Today, she’s the chief technical officer for 3Bar Biologics, a Columbus startup that’s developed a bio fertilizer product that allows just-in-time fermentation for farm use.
“I followed my interests,” said Fife. “I’d always been drawn to research and trying to understand things through research. In college I learned there are more sustainable ways to produce food and I learned about agriculture.”
After graduating, Fife worked for Columbus-based scientific research and development giant Battelle for more than a decade, first in biodefense and then in agribusiness, where her job was to determine if biological products developed by the government could be used in agriculture. Bruce Caldwell, chief executive officer of 3Bar Biologics, lured her away in 2016, two years after he founded the company as a spinoff of OSU research.
“It’s building on an old concept, understanding the microbiome of the soil,” Caldwell said. “It’s understanding how plants absorb nutrients and how to deliver biologics to improve productivity by manipulating that microbiome to be positive for the plant and not negative.”
In other words, biologics increase the health and yield of farm crops by providing them with beneficial bacteria that help increase nutrient uptake and provide natural solutions for insect, disease and weed control.
3Bar’s product — the two-chamber LiveMicrobe package and delivery system — is a new and unique way for farmers to put biologics into their fields as they plant. And it fits right in with Fife’s expertise; her Ph.D. research brought biopesticides and delivery products together.
“Delivery is really important,” Fife said. “You can have the best microbe but unless you deliver it in the right way, you’re not going to have the same results as you do in the lab. My role covers working with our engineers and microbiologists to figure out how we can best package microbes so that when we hand the product to the farmer it’s easy to use and they know the microbes are the best they can be.”
Fife said the position is her dream job, and her main goal at the moment is to convince farmers to trust biologics.
“Farmers want to do what’s right for their land; they just need more tools to do it,” she said. “They know what biology in the soil means, and it’s fun to try to bring the science to life for them.”
A new venture
Ohio Farm Bureau has enough trust in the new venture to invest in 3Bar Biologics, and Fife said 3Bar’s technology is just beginning to be accepted.
“One of the biggest hurdles is asking farmers to do something different,” she said. “Some progressive farmers are trying biologics in different ways.”
Caldwell said as the science of biologics improves and the products improve, he expects biologics to play a role as farmers try to reduce runoff pollution and their carbon footprint.
“There’s a lot of pressure on agriculture to change its practices,” he said, pointing to phosphorus runoff as one issue farmers face. “But the whole idea of our product is to help plants take up the nutrients in the soil like phosphorus, so the farmer doesn’t need to apply as much.”
In addition to her work at 3Bar, Fife is an adjunct faculty member at Ohio State, helping up-and-coming agriculture engineering students develop new ideas through her capstone engineering design course.
“They’re developing new designs to solve real world problems,” she said. “There’s no right answer – they just have to figure it out,” much as Fife has throughout her career.
Exploring diversified revenue
3Bar Biologics is Farm Bureau’s most recent dive into entrepreneurial investment, the result of a realization that the Farm Bureau needed to explore diversified revenue.
“Traditionally we’ve gotten most of our revenue through membership, but we realized a few years ago that in order to be a strong organization now and in the future, we needed other revenue streams,” said John Marihugh, senior director of partnerships and member services for Ohio Farm Bureau.
In late 2018, Farm Bureau established the New Venture Committee to help explore and navigate entrepreneurial revenue ideas, including investment in agricultural opportunities or companies with the potential for high growth.
“We entertained multiple ideas in 2020,” said Marihugh. “We found 3Bar’s product and management team unique. The hope is that it will become a revenue stream in the future.”
Photos by Dave Gore