Home Grown: The Agriculture Industry

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Bringing in almost $50 billion in 2018 and producing 400 commodities, California's agricultural industry is one of the largest and most important sectors in the state. It employs nearly 420,000 people and provides a third of the U.S.'s vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts.

But the agricultural industry has been under fire for its contributions to climate change and the unsustainable practices it relies on. To mitigate the industry's environmental impact, the researchers at the Center for Regenerative Agriculture and Resilient Systems (CRARS) at California State University, Chico are finding ways to change agricultural methods—all while teaching these new methods to agriculture students.

“What we have done in agriculture was to completely disregard the mechanisms that nature developed over the last 500 million years for fostering life on this planet and proclaim that we had a better way," says David Johnson, Ph.D., adjunct professor in Chico State's CRARS. “We've spent over a century of breeding plants to enable them to grow in poor soils when we should have been focusing on efforts to improve our soils. We need to get back to mimicking the mechanisms nature developed for growing plants and reintroduce them into our agroecosystems."

To this end, Dr. Johnson, who is also the director of the Institute for Sustainable Agriculture at New Mexico State University, is working to improve the health of soil naturally by restoring the populations, diversity and function of microbiomes (that is, the microbes like bacteria and fungi in the soil) that have historically been wiped out by traditional farming methods. He does this using two techniques that are part of his biologically enhanced agricultural management (BEAM) process (developed with his wife, Hui-Chun Su): treating the soil with a fungal-based vermicompost that relies on worms for decomposition and implementing cover crops to feed and provide energy for the soil food web.

His work, as well as that of other researchers, has resulted in the development of healthier soils that require less water, fertilizer and pesticide application while providing greater agricultural production and better quality crops. In some cases, productivity saw a five-fold increase.

To help farmers and ranchers adopt these regenerative methods and reap the resulting benefits, CRARS hosts a variety of workshops and demonstrations.

“The farmers' livelihood is on the line here, and they know that going down the conventional road is leading them to destroy their soils and not make money," Johnson explains. “Adoption of the BEAM approach will allow farmers and ranchers to increase their productivity, substantially reduce their input costs and water use and become more profitable, all while benefitting our environment and producing healthier food."

CRARS is also introducing students to this biologically minded and regenerative approach on Chico State's 800-acre farm. In their future work, students can employ these methods to both improve production and protect the environment.

“We have so many students come up to us and say, 'We were never taught anything about soil microbiology,'" Johnson says. “That's a component that's been missing that we're trying to instill in the system we have now."

Lastly, much of Johnson's work has focused on applying these methods to growing cotton, corn and chiles. Cotton, in particular, requires a significant amount of fertilizer, insecticide and herbicide and is grown worldwide. Applying the BEAM approach to cotton production could mean a cleaner fashion industry that could rely less on microplastics like polyester—but it also shows this process can be applied to other crops globally, providing more food and fiber to regions that need it.

Read “The Farm of the Future" series to learn more about how the CSU is preparing the next generation of agricultural leaders.

Dr. David Johnson builds a bioreactor used to make the compost for fertilizing during a workshop demonstration.
Dr. David Johnson builds a bioreactor used to make the compost for fertilizing during a workshop demonstration.
 Johnson and farmer Daniel Unruh add black cloth to the bioreactor during the workshop.
Johnson and farmer Daniel Unruh add black cloth to the bioreactor during the workshop.
Johnson and his wife, Hui-Chun Su, who helped develop the BEAM process.
Johnson and his wife, Hui-Chun Su, who helped develop the BEAM process.