By Cecilia Chan, GSN Managing Editor

Grower Enrique Garcia has seen robust improvements with his crops – higher yields and improved quality – thanks to microscopic algae grown in Gilbert.

Garcia, who has farm land in Yuma and California, used a product called PhycoTerra, a proprietary whole-cell pasteurized liquid containing algal-based solids produced from microalgae.

“By using PhycoTerra on our foliar applications on broccoli, our yields and quality improved dramatically,” he said. “By using the organic blend our snow peas, instead of two passes per harvest our fields yielded thee to four passes extra.”

PhycoTerra promises to naturally boost soil microbiome, which results in healthier dirt that yields bigger and better tasting vegetables and fruit with a longer shelf life.

The company behind this product is Heliae Development, which runs a state-of-the-art facility and a greenhouse for all research, testing and production on about 20 acres in southeast Gilbert.

Heliae, which has about 60 employees, is all about soil.

“We naturally stimulate the biological population in the soil so it creates healthier plants similar to probiotics for soil,” said Doug Ranno, vice president of sales and marketing. “This technology is the future of ag.”

Microalgae found in the wild in fresh and salt water is brought back to the facility’s in-house laboratory for testing to see which works best for the company’s sustainability goals, according to Matthew Olson, technical sales account manager.

Ranno calculated Heliae has 500-plus strains in its inventory.

“Once we identify those strains, we grow them, propagate them,” Ranno said. “And after we propagate them and bring them out and farm them in large, completely contained growing areas…we harvest them and we extract the goodness, the biomass and turn it into product like PhycoTerra.”

Ranno said the product, registered as a soil amendment, is being tested or used on 40 different crops. PhycoTerra has been on the market for less than two years.

The company ships out thousands of gallons each week all around the country with each order batch-tested. It is currently establishing relationships in Latin America and other countries to bring the product there, according to Ranno.

Although PhycoTerra might cost a bit more, it’s a wash at the end because growers find they may be able to eliminate other products, Ranno said.

“So many of the growers have experienced from a few hundred dollars an acre to a few thousand” in savings on top of lower water bills, Ranno added.

The product makes plants more resilient to common stressors, such as stem rot, and produce cleaner water runoff.

It also helps the soil retain water – important for Arizona, which is currently experiencing a drought since 2000.