Portland botanist takes another shot at launching natural pesticide formula

Botanist James White, 71, is bringing his EPA-certified pest repellent for plants he first mixed in his basement more than a decade ago back to the market.
Darren Fishell | BDN
Botanist James White, 71, is bringing his EPA-certified pest repellent for plants he first mixed in his basement more than a decade ago back to the market. Buy Photo
Posted July 25, 2014, at 10:24 a.m.
Last modified July 25, 2014, at 2:40 p.m.

FALMOUTH, Maine — About 15 years ago, botanist Jim White’s involvement in the all-natural pest repellant business he founded was put on hold.

“I was coming in from lunch one day, and my leg wouldn’t go to the next step,” White, 71, said.

He was having a stroke.

He let another partner take over management of the business, Holy Terra Products, but it foundered. Then White spent the intervening years helping to raise his young granddaughter to schooling age. But the concoction he created in his basement over two years of tinkering hadn’t left his mind.

“It was a typical Maine operation,” he said of his business’s basement-level beginnings.

This year, he’s back with a new business partner and is entering a market for organic products that has grown substantially since the product’s first commercial launch in 1999.

In June, the concentrated mix of capsaicin from habanero peppers, garlic and an extract from neem oil, or azadirachtin, took a spot on shelves at Lowe’s stores in Portland, Scarborough, Sanford, Windham, Auburn and Brunswick. He’s hoping for trial runs in each of the store’s 1,700 locations across the country by year’s end. White said Thursday a company representative was negotiating expansions to Bangor and Brewer Lowe’s locations.

The product is distributed locally through Falmouth seed and garden supplier Allen, Sterling and Lothrop, which gave Anti-Pest-O its first audience back in 1999.

Shawn Brannigan, general manager at the Falmouth store, said sales have had a slow start — he said there are fewer pest complaints this year in general — but he thinks the company’s recent repackaging and price drop, to $14.95 for eight ounces of concentrate and a 32-ounce spray bottle, will help. And he says the market is there.

“The whole organic craze is stronger now than before,” Brannigan said.

Figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture regarding organic foods, not all organic products, bear out that trend. Sales of certified organic foods were just more than $10 billion in 2004; this year, they are estimated to reach about $35 billion.

In Maine, USDA census data show organic farm sales rose about 56 percent, to $36.4 million, from 2007 to 2012.

That growing agricultural sector and consumer demand for organic products is part of what White hopes to tap into, whether that’s at big-box stores, lawn and garden supply stores or with commercial property management companies.

To get started, the company’s brought on five part-time employees, leased about 1,000 square feet in a Falmouth business park and produced about 1,800 gallons of the concentrate that’s ready to ship. This fall, they’re courting contracts for 2015, and White said he’s eyeing an expansion to three spaces that would give the company up to 10,000 square feet for manufacturing.

Becoming official again

White’s re-entry into the business started with a phone call to the consultant who gave him his start. That consultant remembered the product, White said, and resurrected the testing done to get pesticide approval from the Environmental Protection Agency in 2004. Having that testing done saved tens of thousands of dollars, White said.

By 2011, the concentrated form of the product received EPA approval again, which White said is key to protecting the company’s formula. It also has been approved for use on organic farms by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.

Jacomijn Schravesande-Gardei, MOFGA’s associate director of crops, said in an email she could not provide information about whether or how many similar products also received that approval.

White said he’s still awaiting EPA approval for the diluted, ready-to-use formula. For now, the company packages its concentrate with a spray bottle and instructions for diluting the spray, which mostly smells like pressed garlic.

White said it can be used to repel insects and worms, including aphids, beetles, budworms, thrips, whiteflies and others. He said it also will keep deer away from plants.

In October, the concentrated product made its way back into production after White connected with Bill Whitmore, a new partner in the venture who runs commercial financing business Gold Beacon Capital.

Startup costs for the business were more than $100,000, White said, and so far it has been supported by investment from Whitmore, the company’s vice president who is working to find other capital. Whitmore said that process is aided by having a product that already was on the shelves and received EPA approval.

What’s different

This time around, White said the company is doing things different. Around 2001, after White handed over management of the company, about $1 million in investment was raised to purchase an industrial mixing machine from Kady International, which White said sat for about a year before it produced any repellant.

This time, they leased a machine for one month to make their first batch, then they returned it.

While demand for organic products has risen since the last batches of Anti-Pest-O hit the shelves, that developing market also has meant the introduction of new, similar products in the interim.

According to Google’s database of U.S. patents, examiners have cited White’s formula in four other published patents issued between 2007 and 2012. And an article in the Journal of Biopesticides, a peer-reviewed publication published by Manonmaniam Sundaranar University, in 2012 examined the agricultural applications of neem oil, which comes from neem trees that are native to India, saying the oil is a growing focus of researchers worldwide.

That’s because of some of the same reasons White and Whitmore are putting renewed efforts behind the product they said does multiple things to protect plants.

The mixture of peppers from Bailey Farms in North Carolina, garlic from the New England produce market in Chelsea, Massachusetts, and the neem oil extract, or azadirachtin, from the Maryland-based biopesticide supplier Certis USA works to reduce pests’ hunger, inhibit their reproduction and repel them from plants.

While natural products that repel pests — rather than kill them — are in line with changing consumer demands, White said that aspect of his product has other practical benefits, too.

“People ask me, ‘If it doesn’t kill the bugs, then where do they go?’” White said, turning up a smile. “They go next door, and then I sell it to the neighbor.”

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