Revive the soil

Valentyna Bolokhovska, Co-founder and R&D Head, BTU-CENTER group of companies, Ladyzhyn

Ukrainian farmers also follow global trends. Taking care of living soil, healthy ecosystem, and the quality and safety of grown products in Europe is becoming increasingly urgent and relevant. Although slowly, this trend is also being spread among the Ukrainian agricultural companies. The rise in the price of fertilizers, the development of resistance, and the influence of climatic conditions push for the use of biological preparations. For 22 years in Ukraine, the trademark Zhyva Zemlia reflects the idea and mission of BTU-CENTER, a Ukrainian manufacturer of microbial and enzyme preparations for agriculture, that includes improving soils, gardens, reservoirs and, finally, people themselves.

Almost all farmers know the woman who always smiles and is distinguished from other businesswomen by a calm, balanced character, without aggressiveness in the dialogue. She subtly combines scientific and businesslike manner, being a businesswoman and a poet, who breathes family comfort. This woman created a family-friendly business, where a large family of the company with more than 400 employees is united around the Bolokhovskys.

We interviewed the co-founder of the company Valentyna Bolokhovska, R&D Head at the BTU-CENTER group of companies, winner of the State prize of Ukraine in science and technology, PhD in Technical Sciences, in the companys office in Ladyzhyn, Vinnytsia region, where their business began and where the companys production facilities are located.

October is the middle of autumn, an important month for you, Valentyna, as I understand it, and this year it is your anniversary as well. You are the kind of person who always looks to the future. It is especially pleasant when you see and feel the success of your own company. Of course, 22 years is not yet a century, and yet, against the background of the decline of domestic science, you have managed to create a successful business based on science. What is at the heart of your success?

Science and a team of like-minded people, our thirst for work. Also understanding the beneficial effects of bacteria and microorganisms invisible to a human eye on the environment, plants and people. As for October, you are right, this is a special month for me, just like autumn itself, by the way, I recently celebrated my seventieth birthday, Im Libra, Valentyna began to smile. Im not shy about mentioning my age. The main thing is that I am a happy person, and I started one of my poems: I love every my wrinkle. To feel that the business you have created with joy and love is bearing fruit is a great happiness!

Start with oil workers

You started with cooperation with oil companies

Yes. The first order was for the needs of OJSC Ukrnafta in 2001. To increase oil production, the first industrial batches of unique biopolymers were produced. At that time, we worked at leased facilities and only dreamed of our own production.
Did the bacteria help to increase oil production? How?

Thats right. This is my specialization. In order to be preserved in nature, certain microbial cells synthesize natural mucus, and we proposed to intensify oil production with our preparation based on such bio-mucus. When the oil is pumped out, some residues of it remain in inaccessible pores. If you apply water with acid and our polymer in the form of an effective composition of bio-mucus, it, like a sponge, draws out the residues of oil, which is then pumped out. Thus, each ton of this polymer provides an additional production of 30-50 tons of oil.

Another topic in working with oil workers is bioremediation, or restoration of soils of mature fields. We learned how to restore oil-contaminated and saline soils using biological preparations and our own biotechnologies, and worked out a lot of patterns. In 1.5 years, we handed over the soil that was previously dead to the customer. These were our first challenges to work in the agricultural market.

Where do scientists have a business sense from?

When our Ladyzhyn plant of enzyme preparations went bankrupt and we did not receive salary for three years, we had to somehow survive, feed our families, and adapt to the market. The plant was divided, so save yourself as best you can. The best life strategy is to do what you know how to do best. We were able to produce only biological preparations, before that we had been doing this for 19 years.

I headed our workshop, a laboratory of microbial biopolymers with about 100 people, and we went on a free float. We hung around in search of orders, made various experimental batches. One example. At the poultry farm, there was production waste that needs to be disposed of. We took some of the offal, isolated the enzyme pepsin from it and offered it to dairy factories and then received cheese and butter from them, as well as chicken and sausage from the poultry farm, at that time barter was at the heart of the relationship. The main thing is that we have gained new experience, learned to listen to the market, see its challenges and look for solutions to them. For three years, we earned UAH 1.5 million, at the rate of 1:2 this amounted to 750 thousand dollars, of which no more than 40% in real money.

Suddenly we were again united with a bankrupt factory. For the next two years, we again did not get a salary. There was no prospect. Therefore, we decided to start our own business. In this way, our BTU-CENTER was created. In 2006, we entered the agricultural market. At the next stage, we realized that we need our own production facility, and not place orders at leased facilities.

We gradually implemented our dream - in 2012 we started the first production line, then the second, and now we already have 4 of them! So we closed our own production chain: from the laboratory to manufacturing in the factory and production field experiments and sales networks. This scheme has become full of life we rely on our own possibilities and do not depend on anyone, and produce as much as we need.

How many members of the original team continue working with you?

15-20 percent retired, the rest continue working with me. 20 of them are now our Gurus, leading their areas, in particular: Olha Nahorna, Deputy Director for Scientific Affairs and one of the co-authors of the work, for which we won the State prize of Ukraine in the field of Science and Technology. Alevtyna Blahodir is also one of the Deputy Directors, who has been working for 20 years to develop new preparations and improve existing formulations.

My special pride is my children. Son Vladyslav, PhD in Agricultural Sciences, General Director of the BTU-CENTER group of companies, his wife Alla, Marketing Director, my daughter Tamara together with my son-in-law Pavlo manage an important area of our business abroad.

There are also many capable young people in our team. For example, Dmytro Yakovenko, who is only 28 years old, is actively developing the Foreign Economic Activity Department. Recently, the interview with him was published in the international magazine New AG International (it is issued in 152 countries in English, Spanish and Chinese). Tatiana Khomenko, who is 34 years old, successfully develops all commerce. There are also many talented young people in our team. We have a strong scientific base 5 Doctors of Science and 25 PhDs in Sciences. In total, BTU-CENTER employs more than 400 employees, and the Kyiv representative office has more than 120 employees.

Path to the field

How did cooperation with farmers begin?

At the stage when we actively cooperated with the oil companies, we thought about the fact that we have only one customer Ukrnafta. Its risky. In addition, competitors have begun to appear, and their presence always gives an impetus to development. In 2007, we registered three products Azotofit, Fitotsyd, Liposam and entered the agricultural market with them. In the following year, 2008, we already worked out model preparations and patterns with scientists from Mykolaiv and Vinnytsia National Agrarian Universities and Uman National University of Horticulture.

Further, in the experiment with wheat germination, we additionally used Paenibacillus polymyxa, my almost dear bacterium a producer of exopolysaccharides and a phosphorus-mobilizing bacterium, with which I worked for a long time. The bacterium easily and synergistically adapts in the rhizosphere of the root system, and most importantly, we see that the root system is much better there! The effectiveness of using Organic-Balance in seed treatment and during the growing season has been proven. Responding to the needs of the market, we gradually expanded the range of products, now the company sells more than 60 biological preparations, 57 of them are certified by Organic Standard, and 5 top products have been registered with the Swiss certification body FIBL. In Ukraine, preparations produced by BTU-CENTERare applied on an average on 4 million hectares per year, abroad on an area of more than 0.5 million hectares..

We have our own museum of beneficial microorganisms: 90 strains have been deposited, another 100 strains are being studied, and their selection continues. It is breeding and selection of the most active effective strains that is the main thing in this work, and then our special feature: professionalism and 40 years of experience in scaling such strains to large volumes from a flask to a cubic meter apparatus, then 10 cubic, 30 cubic and more for spring orders, primarily for sowing. This is the peculiarity of farmers, both Ukrainian and other they think to the last, do not contract in advance and put us in such a situation. It is difficult to overcome inertia. It is very important to work on creating effective stable formulations of our biological preparations!

Healthy model of the soil

You realized that agriculture has moved forward. However, chemistry solves basic defense problems, not biology. Although a certain movement in this direction is observed and more and more chemical companies themselves are entering this sector. Therefore, chemistry is not omnipotent and it rests on certain limitations, doesnt it?

The omnipotence of chemistry has been imposed for decades, as if everything is fine treat with an aggressive active substance and sleep well. Then resistance began to manifest itself more and more often, the application rates have to be increased all the time and you need to look for new active substances. And its not easy. Most importantly, the corporations kept silent about the effect of their preparations on the soil biota, they conducted studies and showed only the effectiveness against a disease or pest, and what is done with the biota was not disclosed. Farmers didnt worry about it either they thought about their profit, and todays result was in the first place.

The latest research has shown that if a few decades ago there were more than 150 thousand different types of microorganisms in the soil, today after intensive use of chemicals, at best, there are only 30-40 thousand of them left - the biodiversity of the underground, and not only the underground world has decreased. A chemical fungicide barely recognizes friend-foe and affects other organisms that do not harm. In addition, the place of affected, even harmful microorganisms, is occupied by others that are no less harmful.

There are also bacteriosis, which are not affected by chemical preparations, there are viruses that are unattainable by chemical effects. The biggest problem, which is also hushed up, is the poor quality of the grown products! Its hidden inefficiency affects the morbidity of people. The impact of climate change is added, and in extreme conditions, aggressive chemicals do not work as it is written in the leaflets. I think that this year many people burned their fingers on this.
However, these factors further affect your products as well. Biological preparations are even more dependent on conditions... Right? No moisture nothing works! And if it rains?

Under such conditions (exposure to temperatures and chemicals), the natural condition of the microbiota is already disturbed. There is no natural nitrogen fixation, at least in the right intensity. The ratio of nitrogen and carbon is broken. Organic matter is not applied to 90% of the areas, crop rotation is disrupted, the factor of assimilation of mineral fertilizers is becoming less and less, because there is not enough beneficial biota, and more and more ballast is applied to the soil. Can our biological preparations work effectively under such conditions?

Experience shows that under different conditions, our preparations, like chemical ones, work differently. If applied in terms of hot weather, biological preparations will not work immediately, but, unlike chemicals, they will not harm the plant. Here it is important to work ahead of schedule in case of lack of moisture or hot weather and introduce biological products on time, or even earlier. Biological preparations improve the condition of biota in the soil and this allows the plant itself to better withstand challenges. After our preparations, the plant will not burn either in the hot weather or when they are washed in depth, as it will be with chemical ones.

I believe that the decomposition of stubble and its colonization with beneficial microorganisms, that is, the improvement of the soil, is simply uncontested. We can talk about the advantages of our plant residue destructor Ecostern, for example, it also works under temperature changes, survives in sub-zero temperatures, and has UV protection. However, we never criticize our competitors; everyone chooses for themselves, the main thing is to understand the importance of the event. How many opponents did we have in the beginning? They say that there is no point in introducing a destructor, because there is no enough moisture or it will freeze out in winter. Thousands of studies, both laboratory and field, have proven that saprophytes colonize, overwinter, and contribute to ensuring that organic matter does not feed pathogens. With our biome, in addition to a wide range of selected microorganisms, active saprophytes, fungi and high-titer bacteria, very active growth hormones are introduced, i.e. biologically active substances synthesized by a cell. They activate the friendly biota, the helpers of plants, and this army becomes larger. Unlike chemicals, we do not kill pathogens, they are displaced by saprophytes. In addition, destructors remove the toxicity of crop nutrient residues and pesticide residues. The role of microbial metabolites is underestimated. And I remind you there is no resistance to biological preparations!

We have studied and proven in practice the effectiveness of seed treatment with our latest preparations. We restore the rhizosphere and colonize it with beneficial microorganisms, improve phosphorus mobilization and nitrogen fixation. Even in conditions of total drought, seed treatment is the most affordable and economically feasible part of technology! This is always a contribution to the yield!

Many people believe that nitrogen fertilizer applied to straw is more effective than a destructor it helps to decompose and nourishes the biota.

Decomposition of stubble after nitrogen application is activated, no doubt. Some people also call some humates as destructors, replacing the very concept of destruction. Usually, with an intensive short crop rotation, pathogenic microflora prevails. If such soil is destroyed with humates or nitrogen fertilizers, it is not saprophytes that multiply, but pathogens. In other words, organic matter is not used by those to whom it is intended. Then it will be necessary to introduce more fungicides, this technology is definitely more expensive. With our products, recovery is underway.

Even mathematics, without improving the soil, is on our side. According to the classical technology (without destructors), it is recommended to use 10 kg of the active substance of nitrogen fertilizer per 1 ton of by-products. The destructor is used in the rates three times lower. Recently, the cost of 1 ton of ANP fertilizer was 16 thousand UAH ($ 600), and nobody knows how much it will cost next season. The cost of the destructor is approximately $ 9 per 1 ha. As a result, the use of Ecostern guarantees at least $ 35-100 profit per 1 ha (depending on the amount of residues). Add to this an increase in yields after using destructors. On average, it is +300 kg/ha for sunflower and soybeans, +400-470 kg/ha for winter wheat and corn. Here is additional $ 70-200 per 1 ha of cereals.

We followed the path of improved formulas, in particular compositions with spore-selected bacteria that are not afraid of temperature changes. Our nitrogen fixers in the form of a gel have a protective capsule; Trichoderma is also used in a spore form. Mycologists of the Institute of Applied Biotechnology at BTU-CENTER kept this Trichoderma for 5-15 days in a freezer at -18C, after which they checked its viability. Fungi grew, multiplied, and sporulated. That is, Trichoderma can overwinter quite well. It was also tested with ultraviolet light. We have dispelled all these myths. At the same time, in all preparations, we give a much stronger adapted formula, such an additional safety net. There are already thousands of efficacy studies with positive results.

I have a long-standing book from my former supervisor called Soil Microbiology by a French author, since 1960 and it is amazing! You open it, and it tells about the soil and what happens in it, carefully describes and explains. Unfortunately, many farmers do not use this knowledge, although the situation changes every year and everyone wants to use their funds efficiently!

At your anniversary, I saw many farmers your partners from both large holdings and small and medium-sized farms.

Someone was able to come, someone could not. Autumn is a high season for farmers! Our regular partners are Kernel, Ukrlandfarming, MHP, Harvest, Epicenter-Agro, Dibrivka Agroservice, FE Niva 2008, FE Don and many others. We cooperate with about 24% of Ukrainian farmers of various forms of ownership. In particular, with 21 agricultural holdings that cultivate more than 50 thousand hectares of land, and with 20 agricultural companies that cultivate from 20 thousand hectares to 50 thousand hectares. We have an incredibly large number of agricultural enterprises that support no-till technology. Even today, representatives of organic crop production have become less likely to buy biofungicides, because their crops are healthy with fewer pathogens.

We have conducted a number of studies with many of the companys clients. For example, Kernel has been cooperating with us for a long time. In the first year, increase in about 1 t/ha of corn was obtained after applying Ecostern; in the second year, 400 kg/ha was obtained in the same field without the introduction of a destructor, and we observed a good aftereffect. After that, we started working together on inoculants as well.

By the way, Ukrlandfarming also uses our inoculants. There were years when we produced about 100 tons of inoculants for soybeans, peas and other crops. It depended on the number of crops and weather conditions. Now, on average, we sell about 50 tons of inoculants per year.

Since 2013, we have been working with MHP. At one time, I had such a good experience with them. After applying EuroLightning, winter crops were sown there with an increased seeding rate, they were afraid of gaps in rows, so they used Ecostern on 40 hectares in different branches. Our agronomist, observing tillering, added Organic-Balance during the growing season. Everything worked out so well without limiting factors and the result surprised everyone. We received excellent yield increases. Today, MHP is also actively implementing biological preparations, and our cooperation continues.

May you tell us about the recognition and demand of the company's products abroad

This fall it is two years since we opened our representative office in Germany. Since then, we have been registering our preparations there and exporting about 600 tons of products annually. We are already working with 18 countries Slovakia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Moldova, Romania, Germany, Austria, Poland and other mainly European countries. Registration is underway in 10 other countries. We are a member of the International Biocontrol Manufacturers Association (IBMA), where we share our best practices, experience, and developments together with other players. We test about 70 different preparations every year. We have patented almost 100 brands in Ukraine and other countries.

What about tops?

Ecostern, Liposam, Mycofriend, Sclerotyd, Azotofit, Fitotsyd which of them is the brightest star?

Biological preparations work in a complex, they do not work alone. If there is Sclerotinia, along the way you should beware of Fusarium and Alternaria. Therefore, our preparations should not act selectively and it will be wrong to single out one star all of them together make up our tops, once again Valentynas eyes shine. Ecostern, Liposam were the first. Mycofriend is produced in various forms, in liquid and peat forms, sales are constantly growing. Groundfix has clearly proven its effectiveness, primarily on sunflower. Application for cultivation at the rate of 3 l/ha provided an increase of 300 kg/ha, 5 l/ha 500 kg/ha, and 8 l/ha 1 t/ha, along with application of NPK, but at the reduced rate by 30 %. The effect on corn is also visible. Demand increased, and a new fourth line had to be launched at the factory.

Sclerotsyd is a new star, this spring, when we saw how all the conditions developed for white rot and it really progressed, our novelty went into all technologies. In the fall, too. In particular, Ukrlandfarming bought Sclerotsyd for treating 70 thousand hectares in all regions in fall, and will also apply Groundfix. In Europe, the growth stimulator Azotohelp is very well sold (in Ukraine it is Azotofit). But at the heart of our tops is Ecostern. I think this year we will break the record for its sales. In 2020-2021, we finalized the Ecostern formula and expanded the line of this brand. Now we have five Ecostern destructors from specific-purpose to universal one.

We are also improving the insecticidal group of preparations, working on new preparation forms and concentrations. We have 64 products for the Ukrainian agro-industrial complex, namely adhesives, destructors, biofungicides, biofertilizers, organo-mineral fertilizers, humates with microorganisms, which allows us to cover all the needs of the field at this stage. Therefore, we are concerned not so much with expanding the range as with improving existing products and finding new ways to use them. This year, microbial preparations were widely used for row fertilization. For example, together with starting fertilizers, the phosphorus and potassium mobilizer Groundfix was used, which provided a very good start, prolonged nutrition and, accordingly, higher yields.

I'm listening to you and I find myself thinking that you have created a successful business, gathered 400 professionals who have jobs, prospects, and the number of people who have used your services and preparations is incalculable. And it all started with a small bacterium

Youve simplified the conclusion a bit, but its true, the woman in the office laughed. Could I imagine back in 1982, when I was assigned to deal with this polysaccharide for drilling, that in 10 years I would defend PhD on this bacterium, thousands of tons of products would be produced -polysaccharides to increase oil production, then detergents, starching and other household goods. Paenibacillus polymyxa is an incredible bacterium that has been with me all my life. It is this polysaccharide that is at the heart of our star Liposam. This bacterium has a huge water retention capacity, namely cell P. polymyxa in the soil creates the desired lumpy structure. Enposam, for which I and my co-authors were awarded the State Prize, is also the active ingredient of Liposam! We did not radically move away from these substances, but simply adapted them for agricultureThis polysaccharide is an excellent immunomodulator, in simple words it helps to overcome stress, i.e. an anti-stress agent. It would be more correct to say that it is not the bacterium that is at the heart of success, but our scientific experimental work with these microorganisms.
And if its not a secret, what prompted the native of Vinnytsia region to go to study to Ufa, even if its a well-known technical university?

The reason is simple - she went for her love. My boyfriend Viktor was originally from there, from Ufa. He visited his grandparents in the Vinnytsia region and we met there. When it came time to decide on an educational institution, he told my parents: If Valia goes with me to Ufa, she will be able to enter a university there without cheating. And so it turned out. At first, my mother was against it, did not want to let me go so far from home, but my father supported me, he was a road master, my mother was a housewife, my family is simple. In 1968, I entered the Ufa Oil Institute, and five years later Viktor and I got married. So I got my favorite profession and my favorite husband and life partner. Viktor and I have been together for 54 years.
When the reins of the company are in the safe hands of children, you can find time for your personal life and hobbies. I know you write poetry and draw. When do you write or draw? When you feel good or are sad? What do you like?

Im still full-time at work. My husband and business partner Viktor, who together with his team of designers and mechanics designed and built all these capacities, have extensive experience and knowledge, which we share with young people, and they, in turn, inspire us with their energy and ideas. The most important thing is to feel that people, the team, the family need you. BTU-CENTERis our lifes work, so it is important and very pleasant for us that children share our views and continue to develop and expand the company. I dont like dishonesty or deception. In my free time, I like to travel to other countries, sea, ocean, from where I always bring new paintings and poems, in October I published my fifth collection of poems. I love flowers, especially wild ones, and I draw them. My works are honest and simple, they are about me, about my family, how I feel, about everything that surrounds me and gives me an impetus to move on. I write both when I am happy and when my head hurts. Most of all, I am inspired by the time spent with my family, when relatives from all over Ukraine and the world come to our house this is the happiest days for me!
Interviewed by: Ihor Samoilenko

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