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Lee Benson
Aqua-Yield co-founder Clark Bell consults with plant technician Emma Kroon Van Diest.

DRAPER — Picture this scene: Son walks into his dad’s office at the family sod farm business.

Clark Bell, still in his 20s, clears his throat and says to his 50-something father, Warren, “There’s this new fertilizer technology I think we should try.”

Warren Bell rolls his eyes. Bear in mind, he has been growing grass ever since his father, T.H. Bell, started BioGrass Sod Farm way back in 1979 — a year before T.H. left for Washington, D.C., to serve as secretary of Education in Ronald Reagan’s Cabinet.

Warren Bell has heard his share of fertilizer sales pitches.

Lee Benson
Clark Bell, left, and his father, Warren, co-founders of Aqua-Yield.

Clark Bell keeps talking. This isn’t fertilizer, per se, he explains. This is technology that infuses purified water into a product, creating nano particles that render the product considerably more potent. Applying it to fertilizer means you’ll need less fertilizer, not more, and you’ll get better results.

He goes on to explain that a friend of his in the dry-cleaning business added nano particles to his steam-cleaning mixture and it made a big difference in his production capability.

“Dry cleaning?” the father replies, now even more skeptical. “What does dry cleaning have to do with agriculture?”

But Clark Bell is persistent. What could it hurt to give it a try? Finally he gets his father to agree to an experiment. They’ll do a blind trial. They will put standard fertilizer on one field — the usual 200 gallons. On the second field they’ll use part standard fertilizer and part fertilizer with the new technology — about 100 gallons of that. And on the third field, they’ll use fertilizer with only the new technology — a mere 20 gallons.

Six weeks later, Warren Bell receives a call from his foreman at the turf farm: “You gotta get out here and look at this. What the heck did you do in field No. 22?”

That was the third field.

Not only did the Bells discover they could grow grass faster (about three months quicker) with less fertilizer (about 80 percent less), but they realized that this nanotechnology could work on a lot of other crops as well.

Plus, it would benefit the soil and help the environment.

That initial sod experiment was in 2012. After that, the Bells got busy. They took a nano technology that had been around since 1968, refined it for their specific agricultural purposes, secured the necessary patents, found investors and started a company they called Aqua-Yield (aquayield.com), featuring Nano-Shield technology.

Ever since, quietly and effectively, the research and work being done in a little warehouse just off the I-15 frontage road in Draper has spread to farms and farmers in 46 states and half-dozen foreign countries — with more to come.

Looking back, Warren Bell is glad he let his son talk him out of his initial reluctance — and not just because it resulted in a revolutionary new product.

It allowed them to stay true to his famous father’s family motto.

“Always keep an open mind,” was T.H. Bell’s mantra.

“Dad was fascinated by learning,” says Warren Bell, remembering a father who rose from humble beginnings on a farm in Lava Hot Springs, Idaho, to go on to get his Ph.D. in education from the University of Utah and serve, at various times, as Utah commissioner of higher education, United States commissioner of education under Presidents Nixon and Ford and secretary of education from 1980 through 1984 under President Reagan.

Every year, the U.S. Department of Education presents a Terrel H. Bell Award to educators for “the vital role they play in guiding students and schools to excellence.”

“He told us life is a constant learning promise,” says Warren Bell. “We should always be willing to explore new things, always be open to new ideas.”

T.H. Bell died in 1996, but his son and grandson have no doubt he’d be pleased with the way they’ve carried on the family tradition.

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They point to customers who grow citrus, potatoes, wheat, alfalfa, pecans, peanuts, pistachios, sod, tomatoes and virtually anything else you can name with greater abundance and less waste.

“By 2050, studies project that the world will have to feed 9.7 billion mouths,” points out Clark Bell. “And 75 percent of arable land won’t be farmable. We need to speed up efficiency and improve the soil.”

A technology tested and proved on a Utah sod farm can help with that.

Correction: An earlier version quoted Clark Bell as saying studies show the world will have to feed 9.7 million mouths by 2050. It should have said 9.7 billion mouths.