Operating ‘Microbreweries’ for Crops
Paul Zorner BS ’76
In spring 1973, first-year student Paul Zorner ventured into the woods north of Lewis & Clark’s running track.
He eyed an old decaying tree stump and set up a rudimentary experiment for his introductory biology class. Using a Berlese funnel, he extracted and examined living organisms from the rotted wood and was amazed at the diversity he found.
“Don McKenzie, my biology professor, taught me to observe and respect the environment and to understand that all life is important to a healthy ecosystem,” says Zorner, now president and CEO of Locus Agricultural Solutions. “Over the years, I’ve applied those principles to make products I’ve hoped would help humans and our environment.”
Throughout his multifaceted career, Zorner has delved into the fields of food, agriculture, industrial biotechnology, and venture capital. Along with his position at Locus, he’s currently involved in two San Diego–based companies: Sensorygen, specializing in natural broad-spectrum insect repellents, and Finistere Ventures, providing venture capital to agricultural endeavors. Zorner is also director of Godavari Biorefineries, a Mumbai-based sugar, power, and sustainable chemistry company. In addition, he’s been an adjunct professor in the horticulture department at North Carolina State University since 1987.
At Locus, Zorner and his team have developed a proprietary fermentation system that delivers high-density beneficial microbes to crops. “Plants are no different than humans,” he says. “They require a healthy balance of beneficial bacteria to thrive. Think of it as probiotics for plants.”
Plants, especially their roots, are highly populated with billions, if not trillions, of bacteria, explains Zorner. Some are beneficial; some are not. Locus extracts and amplifies the good bacteria to stimulate plant health.
Historically, biotechnology companies shipped similar products in containers that might take months to reach growers. During transport, they generally lost potency, resulting in inconsistent performance. At Locus, the microbe-enriched liquids are produced and used immediately in small batches near agricultural sites, where growers apply the living elixir using drip irrigation systems. “We operate like a microbrewery for crops,” says Zorner.
Zorner’s philosophy of work and life took root at Lewis & Clark, along with his appreciation for agricultural ecosystems. “I truly would not be who I am today without the professors who guided me,” he says.
Legendary track-and-field coach Eldon Fix coached Zorner. “Eldon took me under his wing and taught me the importance of teamwork and goal setting … of appreciating my intellect as well as my physical health,” says Zorner, who still runs five kilometers almost every day—but now with his dog, Charlie.
Zaher Wahab and Vern Jones, two professors from the Graduate School of Education and Counseling, significantly influenced him as well. Wahab taught him to read extensively and to understand the psychology of what is now called “flow”—being immersed, energized, and focused in the moment to fully enjoy life. Jones, a proponent of early childhood education and volunteering, showed Zorner that caring about people’s welfare has value. He demonstrated methods of reaching students with vastly different learning and communication styles—a skill that’s served Zorner well managing companies in Africa, India, and the United States.
“I grew up without a father, but the professors at Lewis & Clark filled that void—they had my back,” says Zorner. Of all his achievements, he’s most proud of raising “four great kids” with Nancy, his wife of 38 years. Making a positive impact on the world through biology and education comes in a close second.
“Hunger can lead to anarchy,” he says. “Teaching people to grow food and create sustainable energy locally provides economic and political stability. Ultimately, agriculture is a pathway to peace.”
—by Pattie Pace