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May 21, 2019

CSU, Chico Agriculture Professor Strives to Innovate the Way We See Soils

Close-up of a student holding a large clump of soil at the University Farm.

California State University, Chico gives both students and faculty a chance to research and work on projects relating to their interests. The Center for Entrepreneurship and BlueTechValley specifically seek out ways to innovate the world we live in. College of Agriculture professor Garrett Liles and graduate student Ifran Ainuddin exemplify this ideology by using their research to educate and innovate the way we see soil.

Liles shared some information on one of his projects, the Regenerative Agriculture Demonstration (RAD) Lab. 

“The RAD Lab is the regenerative ag demonstration laboratory which is being developed under the growing Regenerative Ag Initiative, or the soon-to-be Center for Regenerative Ag and Resilient Systems,” Liles said. “It’s going to be a traditional lab facility that will provide data for agriculturalists and managers trying to understand their carbon accounting, knowing that soils are the largest terrestrial carbon reservoir on the planet. Soils hold twice the carbon that all plants in the atmosphere hold combined. There’s a lot of interest in soils as an answer to at least moderating some of the atmospheric carbon that’s been emitted from fossil fuel burns. The RAD Lab is going to be something to support growers and the stakeholders in Chico State’s stakeholder shed.”

Liles has been taking steps to bring the RAD Lab to fruition.

“It’s well on its way,” Liles said. “We reconfigured a greenhouse facility at the University Farm and turned that into a processing facility. Now, we have the front-end of our lab where samples can be accepted, processed, ground dried, separated, and then taken to a lab space we are trying to develop in Plumas Hall where all the basic analytical measurements will be made across those things.”

Liles explains how The RAD Lab will benefit people locally and regionally from today and moving forward. It will be a crucial tool for students, but will also serve as a research facility that will excel environmental knowledge.

Agriculture professor Garrett Liles speaking to a class.

Agriculture professor Garrett Liles.

“The concept is to provide opportunities to students and stakeholders to experience soils and the benefits of management first hand,” Liles said. “So far students have been a driving force in its development and operation by supporting the transformation of physical spaces and making things happen in the lab. Although our analytical services have just started, we expect the RAD Lab to provide an important impact to local farmers and managers with data to document the positive things they do in the field. This centers around C accounting and soil health assessment.”

Liles also works closely with CSU, Chico graduate student Irfran Ainuddin.

“In high school, I was always interested in chemistry, and then I discovered my friends’ dad was a wine maker. That was kind of chemistry-applied,” Ainuddin said. “When I was going to school at Cal Poly, I had to take an entry-level soils class for wine and viniculture. Every day my teacher would relate how soil knowledge could potentially help everyone on the planet. Soils just seemed like an amazing gateway to everything.”

Similarly, Liles’s interest in soil can be traced back to his days attending CSU, Chico as a student.

“I was born in Chico and went to Chico State,” Liles said. “I worked different summer jobs, came back to Chico, and still had no idea what I was interested in. But then I got involved with the AS Recycling and the compost display area that is out by the train tracks. I started being really interested in carbon recycling and decomposition. I took a soils class and it just seemed like the obvious thing. With the position I have now, I actually replaced the person I took the soils class with. Once I realized what soils were, it was so obvious that this is what I wanted to do. I mainly focus on soil carbon and how it cycles through ecosystems.”

Liles hopes to use his knowledge of soils to inspire his students to appreciate them as well.

“One of the main things that I try to stress in my classes is to get people to appreciate how cool soils really are,” Liles said. “Soils sustain life! The entire civilization depends on this ‘excited skin of the earth’. Soils integrate the atmosphere, biosphere, geosphere, and hydrosphere… and so on and so on. Soils are kind of a big deal. Most students that I have in my courses leave feeling that way and realize how important soils are.”

The RAD Lab is not the only project that Liles has been working on. He shared some insight into his other projects as well, such as the  Data Explorer, which is comprised of a soil survey and web tools provided by the NRCS (National Resource Conservation Service) including SSURGO (the soil survery geographic database) and Web Soil Survey (WSS) that are used for diverse purposes in supporting land use management decisions.

“We are trying to create a web-based environment where we will house all type of different soil information,” Liles said. “Right now, we are focusing on some existing soils. We’re just thinking about ways to make soils accessible to most people and finding ways for their natural charisma to come out.”

Please visit the RAD Lab website to learn more about the RAD Lab and other regenerative agriculture projects.

Charlette Daigneault 
Center for Entrepreneurship