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Published August 03, 2010, 09:14 AM

Taking to the fields with Flock Buster

FARGO, N.D. — Can a repellent originally designed to keep geese off golf courses and airports also to keep geese out of farm fields? And can a variant of that product keep blackbirds out of standing sunflowers?

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — Can a repellent originally designed to keep geese off golf courses and airports also to keep geese out of farm fields? And can a variant of that product keep blackbirds out of standing sunflowers?

Yes, and yes, say promoters of Flock Buster, a product sold by a Fargo, N.D.-based company that goes by the same name. Some customers report good results, although the company still is pursuing third-party, replicated verification.

T.E. “Tom” Kenville is president and chief executive officer of the company. He has a large personality with a confidence honed by with a colorful career — first, as a fighter pilot trainer, then as as a political operative and a businessman. At his side in business is Barb Howard, general manager. Howard has been in marketing since 2005, and came on board in 2007 after a career that includes work as a paralegal in “complex” litigation work in district court office and in university instruction.

These two didn’t follow an ordinary path toward agricultural marketing, and that path is a key to the development of the product.

High flier

A native of Grand Forks, N.D., Kenville graduated 1963 in a marketing from the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. With an ROTC commission as a second lieutenant, he went on into the U.S. Air Force. He rose to the rank of colonel, training fighter pilots at Vance Air Base in Oklahoma. He says he invented a “visual simulator” for the Air Force, which helped make it simpler and faster to train new pilots.

Out of the active Air Force in 1969, Kenville worked in auto sales in Grand Forks and then Thief River Falls, Minn., and eventually owned the dealerships. Through that time, he remained in the Air National Guard. In 1984, he went to work in Washington as a staff aide on military matters for Sen. Quentin Burdick, D-N.D.

Retired from the Air Guard in the mid-1990s, Kenville consulted with the Air Guard and the city of Fargo on military and economic development. Among other things, he partly was responsible for bringing Tecton, a division of Marvin Windows, to Fargo.

In 1992, he’d bought Mid-America Aviation, a company that overhauls and repairs critical components for military and civilian aircraft. In 18 years, he says, he took it from “nothing” to $20 million in annual sales. Simultaneously, he and his wife, Carol, formed MidwestAero Holding Co., an umbrella that would cover several other companies they’d start.

In May 2010, the Kenvilles sold the MidAmerica Aviation company to a publicly traded company, but kept Midwest Aero Holding Co., for their other companies, including Flock Buster. Two years ago, Kenville hired Howard, a neighbor in Horace, N.D., where the Kenvilles live.

He only half-jokes that he hired her because she was a person who “never rests.” People like that are handy when you have companies to run, he says.

From bugs to birds

In about 2006, Kenville was visiting Paul Andrecola, of Philadelphia, for a business trip.

Andrecola owns Inventec, a company that invents various kinds of “green” cleaners and repellents.

Andrecola famously was 26 years old in the 1970s when he invented Dawn dish soap for Procter and Gamble. He later invented Febreze, and several other soaps and detergents, sold through Wal-Mart and other big outlets.

Kenville had developed a machine to spray mosquitoes through a lawn sprinkler system. He was looking at Andrecola’s “Bug Slug” solution as an environmentally friendly solution to put through the machine.

The two soon made a deal.

Kenville’s system is called Skeet-R-Gone and he created a company by that name in August 2006. Skeet-R-Gone dealers buy it with Bug Slug. The material is promoted to kill “any insect that breathes through the body” and does not have lungs, Kenville says.

Also, during that first visit to Andrecola’s office, Kenville noticed another product on his desk called Geese Police.

Geese Police repellent was made of natural oils, extracts and grape pumice, and tiny amounts of predator urines. Kenville had some wild turkey nuisance problems at his home near Horace and bought a gallon to spray on some cracked corn.

“Applying that product to our yard, we found it very effect at repelling turkeys,” he says.

“Everybody uses grape,” Kenville says of the bird repellent business in general. “Birds don’t like grape,” he says, noting that birds in the famous grape area of the Napa Valley in California peck the grapes but don’t eat them.

Around 2007, Kenville started selling Geese Police to golf courses — keeping the big birds and their dung off of the greens. Customers expanded to include marinas and airports. Later, he went to Andrecola and asked for a formulation he could apply on food crops,

Andrecola reformulated it, and the new concoction was called Flock Buster. By September 2008, Kenville was selling it.

Targets of opportunity

To sell Flock Buster for sunflower protection, Kenville started looking for specific answers to two questions: First, would it affect the taste of sunflowers and their products? Second, would it work?

For answer to the first question, they went to Northern Crops Institute on the campus of North Dakota State University in Fargo. The NCI is a multi-state entity, designed to promote the value of northern-grown crops to the nation. The NCI conducted gas chromatography tests in 2007 and 2008, to make sure the product wouldn’t carry-over into sunflower products. The NCI also conducted taste tests on sunflower nuts and processed into oils, used in cooking. Those were completed in March 2008.

Meanwhile, the company sought third-party testing for efficacy.

They contacted Larry Kleingartner at the National Sunflower Association. Kleingartner, the longtime executive director of the multi-state organization, referred them to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. These agencies conducted a “caged bird study” in Colorado, to determine whether Flock Buster works. The tests showed no efficacy, compared with controls. The tests were repeated with no substantial change. The company since has reformulated, but no further caged bird tests have been done and no more are planned.

Still, the product has its customers.

Flock Buster has sold product to Richard Wilhelmi, the research specialist for the NDSU’s Research and Extension Station in Langdon, N.D. Wilhelmi says the station previously had tried various products and devices to protect its 1-acre sunflower plot from birds.

“This has been the most effective thing we’ve used in keeping out the birds — especially the blackbirds — from the trials,” Wilhelmi says of Flock Buster. He acknowledges he isn’t doing research on the repellent per se, but says it seems to work. He has it aerially applied about three times a season, about every three weeks.

The 1-acre plot in Langdon is far away from other sunflowers and therefore “vulnerable,” he says. The plot has about 70 different sunflower varieties of both confection and oil types.

“We’re very happy with it,” Wilhelmi says, but emphasizes this conclusion isn’t based on replicated research, just a perception. He says the station is applying it when they see five to 10 birds “hanging around,” and then they may not see any more birds for two weeks. “If we do, we call right away” for a follow-up application, he says. He says sparrows and finches seem to remain near the treated sunflowers but don’t seem to feed on the heads.

Hans Kandel, an NDSU Extension Service broadleaf crop agronomist in Fargo, has not worked specifically with Flock Buster but he has worked with a repellent called Avipel. The active ingredients of the two products are different.

He says Avipel has better success as seed treatments than as a repellent for a standing crop.

While a 1-acre plot, like the one Wilhelmi refers to, it may be easier to protect. Depredation is a “complex issue” when it comes to large-scale commercial agriculture.

“Birds come randomly into fields,” Kandel says, and it’s “virtually impossible” to a high enough concentration to repel the pest but weak enough so that “at the end of the day you have virtually no residue.” NDSU currently doesn’t recommend any of these repellents.

“I’m not saying they won’t work,” Kandel says. “We don’t have any research to say they will.”

For now, Kenville says the product is doing nicely with anecdotal recommendations and testimonials from customers.

And don’t forget — green

It’s a bit complicated to say exactly what may make any of these products — Geese Police or Flock Buster — work.

In product promotions for Flock Buster they say the products have seven modes of action — three scent and four taste. According to Kenville, there are differences among batches, indicating that they include very small amounts of predator urine, mentioning bobcat, weasel, mink coyote and even wolf.

“These things (predators) all eat bird eggs,” Kenville says. The smell of these predators is “a key to affect the females,” which then want to flee and the males will go with them. He also thinks the scent cues may have different effects on “local” vs. migrating bird flocks.

Kenville theorizes that the birds get into Flock Buster and then spread the material into their feathers through grooming. It will “burn” their mouths right away, like a spicy flavor does.

“Eventually, it affects their ‘buccal’ response — their taste and sensory response. It doesn’t happen right away,” he says.

Kenville emphasizes that Flock Buster is a registered product with regulatory agencies in 25 states. He acknowledges that registration doesn’t mean a product works, only that the state knows the contents. The product is registered as “exempt” product, meaning it isn’t classified as a pesticide. It’s an FIFRA 25B product, meaning it’s safe for the environment and is nontoxic and “green,” Kenville says.

For standing sunflower protection, Flock Buster recommends spraying sunflower about three times — roughly Labor Day, then about Sept. 20, and finally about Oct. 10. It can be mixed with a “dry-down application,” or desiccant, or other insecticides, Kenville says.

In any case, the $5-per-acre aerial application cost can be split and assigned among the various treatments.

“Once the sunflower flips its head over, now the seeds are protected from rain,” Kenville says. “The ideal or optimal time is when they’re up, and then they snap, then you have a coat that can last for a month.”

He says when farmers face transient populations of blackbirds, starlings and grackles, the problem is more difficult.

“You may have to spray more often,” he says.

As a side issue, Kenville says the product appears to have benefits when used with a dessicant. Normally, the dry-down of sunflowers with standard desiccants is about seven to 10 days.

“With our product, it happens about three days earlier, and no one knows why,” Kenville says.

Kenville has confidence in the product. He says if there are $30 million worth of sunflower crop standing in the field on Labor Day, he thinks “we could save 20 percent of those from bird damage” through Flock Buster.

Where the buyers are

Customers are mostly in North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota, but also Nebraska, Wisconsin, Missouri, Arkansas and Texas. In their third season, they’ve sold through distribution hubs.

Inventec currently supplies the material in 55-gallon drums, as well as bulk. Flock Buster takes them into West Fargo, N.D., and breaks down to 1-, 5-, 30- and 55-gallon containers. Most farmers buy a single gallon to see if it’ll work, Kenville says. A farmer pays $155 per gallon retail.

One gallon mixes with water at a 75-to-1 ratio to make a ready-to-use product. The initial application is 5 gallons of spray mixture per acre, so the initial gallon is enough to cover 15.2 acres.

The product is effective until there is a heavy rain, or for about two to three weeks, when it generally “runs out of scent,” Kenville says. The secondary “kicker mix” is 2.5 gallons mixed product per acre. So the second application would cover 30.4 acres per gallon.

“We sold over 5,000 gallons last year,” Kenville says, but it isn’t clear how many acres received multiple treatments.

The next step for Flock Buster may be to bring it into North Dakota in a more concentrated formula and dilute it for retail.

“We’re hoping to boost our sales volume enough so we can buy future batches as ‘blenders mix,’” Kenville says. “Currently, I’m paying to haul water from Philadelphia. We want to reduce our cost and offer a better price to farmers.”

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