University of Virginia Team Working Towards A Better Way to Implement Pesticides

Nov 29, 2016

Virginia is for lovers... of fruit. Last year farmers sold more than $63 million worth of apples, grapes, peaches and melons.  That makes us a magnet for hungry bugs and a major user of pesticides, but as Sandy Hausman reports, a team of college students may have a new method for preventing the problems those chemicals can cause.

101 years ago, in the rolling hills of Nelson County, five brothers from a family of 11 kids started a business growing apples and peaches.  They learned early that you could lose a crop  to bugs, and over the years new insects have arrived from overseas.

“Stink bugs are terrible pests for peaches, and for any of the fruit we grow there are problems. I mean how many people like to get an apple with a worm in it.”

That’s Bennett Saunders, a descendent of the founders and a modern farmer who understands that consumers are nervous about pesticides.

“Everyone wants fruit with less pesticides, and I might add that me number one – I don’t like pesticides because they cost a lot of money, and we have to have special application tools and tractors and sprayers to put them on with.”

He doesn’t worry about eating fruit that’s been sprayed, because the chemicals degrade over time.  Take malathion, for example.  After a couple of weeks, the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture says it’s safe to pick and eat fruit that’s been sprayed with that pesticide, but UVA engineering grad Payam Pourtaheri says the stuff doesn’t degrade as fast if it washes into rivers, lakes or streams.

The Agrospheres Team (from left to right): Jerry Frank, Ameer Shakeel, Dr. Mark Kester, Payam Pourtaheri, and Zach Davis
Credit agrospheres.com

“Once it gets into bodies of water, that half-life can go up to 21 weeks, and then it can really linger.” 

And because workers must wait for the chemical to degrade before harvest, business partner Zach Davis says a farmer can be faced with difficult decisions.

“He has a tough choice to make if there’s a storm or something like that coming or if there are a lot of bugs present close to harvest , he has a choice to make.  Do I spray now and do I potentially lose some of my crops waiting for the pre-harvest interval to go away, or do I not spray and risk the pests damaging the crops.”

That’s why he and Davis joined with Professor Mark Kester, students Ameer Shakeel, Joey Frank and Sepehr Zomorodi to come up with a harmless substance they call agrospheres – a fatty membrane that surrounds pesticides and causes them to degrade in just two hours. 

They have scientific data to support that claim, but they won’t publish until they have a patent on the product. In the meantime, Pourtaheri says they’re winning all kinds of awards.

“Our first big victory was the University of Virginia Entrepreneurship Cup.  We won that and the audience award, so that gave us $22,000.  Then we won the Virginia Velocity Tour which was held by our governor, Terry McAuliffe, and just last week we won the National Collegiate Investors Competition.”

Of course the awards they need now are approval from the FDA and EPA.  The students are hopeful, and the Saunders Brothers are allowing experiments on their farm to promote fine-tuning of the product, but the founders of Agrospheres concede government approvals could take years.