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Mike Morris, Fort Nottingham’s ‘Mushroom Man’

Mark Preston-Whyte
Pictures and story by Mark Preston-Whyte

Land owners at Fort Nottingham talk respectfully of Dr Mike Morris, a fellow resident, as The Mushroom Man.

Intrigued, I asked for an interview and found a person who has spent almost his entire working career researching and implementing natural biological control of plant diseases, pests and weeds. And the facility producing some of these products of groundbreaking research is right here at Strathdean Farm in Nottingham Road.

Armed with a BSc. Agriculture Degree in Plant Pathology from Pietermaritzburg University, Morris started working at Cedara. While aiding an entomologist working on Ghost Moth Larvae burrowing into and damaging the greens at Howick Golf course, they discovered a fungus that was fortunately killing the larva. He saw nature at work and became interested to see if these natural mechanisms could be used in agriculture.

Biological Control Unit

Cedara sent him to Stellenbosch University to do Honours and Masters degrees in Plant Pathology, specialising in biological control using microbes, at that time a rather new field of research.

In 1979, Morris was offered a job with the Biological Control Unit of The Agricultural Research Council (ARC), controlling invasive plants. He was told that he had a couple of years to complete a PhD at Stellenbosch and then he and his family would be sent to Australia to research a pathogen to control Port Jackson Willow, an invasive scourge in the Western Cape.

Dr Mike Morris at work. Pictures by Mark Preston-Whyte.

He spent three years extensively researching this gall-forming rust fungus and determining whether or not it would attack any other plants, including African plants. He found that it was very specific to Port Jackson Willow.

Galls absorb nutrients

The fungus was eventually released in the Western Cape in 1987 and a few years later it was found that the life span of the trees was reduced from 25-30 years down to six years. This is because the flower buds are highly susceptible to the fungus. So as soon as the trees reach flowering age they develop many galls. The galls absorb a lot of the nutrients that would normally feed the roots, resulting in the tree weakening and dying.

However, Port Jackson seeds live from 50-100 years, so for the next 50 years at least there will be Port Jackson seeds sprouting… eventually it will die out, slowly but surely. A victory for safe, natural, biological control mechanisms.

Members of the team at Plant Health Products.

After introducing pathogens to control several other invasive weeds, Dr Morris eventually resigned from the ARC and in 1998 formed the company, Plant Health Products (Pty) Ltd with Prof Mike Laing, head of Plant Pathology at PMB varsity, to research and develop biological control products for use in agricultural crops. Prof Laing had been researching, with various students, for 10 years a fungus (Trichoderma asperellum) that enhances plant growth and protects plant roots from root diseases on a wide range of crops, trees and ornamental plants.

They spent the first five years developing and trying to register this initial product with the Department of Agriculture. All crop remedies have to be registered and have to go through efficacy testing, and toxicity and eco-toxicity tests, a lengthy and expensive process.

Registration was eventually approved in 2003 and they could start selling the product.

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Morris said it was tough to get going. They received some funding through the Innovation Fund of the Department of Science and Technology and the Morris family milked a herd of milk goats and supplied the goat’s milk to two local cheese makers to help support themselves.

In the current production facility, they now produce five products, two for plant disease control, one for insect pest control, and two bacteria that supply nitrogen to two legume crops.

The fungus that controls various insect pests and mites is interesting, in that the spores of the fungus germinate on the outside of the insect, producing a germ tube that penetrates through the cuticle of the insect. The fungus then grows inside the insect, disrupting its organs and the insect eventually dies. Usually, affected insects stop feeding within about 24 hours, and die within three-to-seven days, depending on the insect.

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Each organism is different and Morris says that they grow them on different organic substrates, which are first sterilised. They then inoculate the organism onto the substrate, let it grow for a time and then it is dried and harvested. The company supplies the live organisms to the farmers, which are then applied to the crops in much the same way that chemical products are applied.

The company has a team of scientists and is currently developing several new products for both insect and disease control. In 2018 it was awarded an international award for one of these new products which helps control the devasting Fall Armyworm and several other important caterpillar pests.

Where some of the magic happens. Morris says the global interest in biological controls is escalating.

Fungi attacks insects

It is interesting that some of the organisms may multiply once applied in the field and have a longer lasting effect. For example, some of the fungi that attack insects, once they have invaded and killed the insect, they may form a mass of spores on the outside of the dead insect and these spores are dispersed and can infect the next generation of the pest.

Plant-Health is providing an alternative, safe, natural way of controlling plant diseases or insect pests without the unknown health dangers of chemical sprays. This is of particular interest to me as I have lost a brother and cousin to cancer. Both were exposed to herbicide sprays and there is growing evidence of a possible connection to their deaths.

Morris says that global interest in biological control is growing incredibly fast. Plant-Health is now (since 2013) part of the international Andermatt Group with headquarters in Switzerland. It is working with the Andermatt group registering their products worldwide, especially in South America, Europe, North America and Canada. They are planning to increase production at a new production facility in the Dargle.

Madumbi Sustainable Agriculture handles the marketing of the Plant Health products throughout southern and east Africa. Currently the products are mainly used in intensive crops and orchard crops such as citrus, avocadoes and macadamias. But there is also some use in field crops.

International yeast company

For the last 10 years Plant Health has also toll-produced a yeast for an international yeast company. This is applied to apple and pear fruit in the packhouse to prevent post-harvest fruit rots.

In line with the ethos of the company, the production facility has a large number of solar panels on the roof that produce electricity, they harvest the rainwater from the roof and recycle the water, all of which helps contain production costs and move towards a sustainable future.

Morris remarks that several analysts feel that in 10 years, their kind of products may be the go-to systems. That is really exciting and it’s all happening in the Midlands.

By the same author: Tweedie Junction, one-stop everything shops

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