Center for Regenerative Agriculture and Resilient Systems

Dr. David Johnson's Research on Fungal-Dominated Compost and Carbon Sequestration

Dr. David Johnson in his cotton fieldDr. David Johnson, past Adjunct Professor for the College of Agriculture at Chico State and Faculty Affiliate for the Center for Regenerative Agriculture, has been investigating the use of biological soil enhancements and its effect on carbon sequestration for the Institute of Sustainable Agricultural Research at New Mexico State University. In particular, on his test plots he found that the ratio between fungi and bacteria in the soil seems to be critical to a plant’s productivity in healthy agricultural systems and most likely to a plant’s efficiency in nutrient uptake. It also—in some cases—seems to increase the rate of carbon sequestration significantly.

Using BEAM, the biologically enhanced agricultural management process he developed to create fungal-dominated compost, Johnson documented that during an agricultural field study lasting 4.5 years, there was a 25-times increase in active soil fungal biomass and an annual average capture and storage of 10.27 metric tons soil C ha-1 year (approximately 38,000 pounds of CO2 per acre per year). That’s 20-50 times the currently observed soil carbon increase in the 40 equivalent no-till soils tested.

Crop yields were also dramatically improved. Johnson reports that the cotton he used in his testing grew 6 feet high and produced over five bales of cotton per acre without fertilizers, herbicides or insecticides. The average in his area is about two and a half bales per acre. Australian farmers using similar methods have seen yields of 3 tons of wheat in areas that produced about 1.6 tons previously.

Man holding a comparison of two different cotton crop yields

Dr. Johnson believes that this method of regenerating the soils could hold great promise for carbon sequestration once it is tested with a variety of soils, climates and crops. That testing is currently happening around the world with mixed results. More study is needed to determine what factors seem to be at play.

Watch Dr. Johnson speak at a seminar at Chico State giving the full background and results of his work.(opens in new window)

Read Dr. Johnson’s white paper on atmospheric CO2 reduction in soils of agroecosystems. (PDF)

Read the documented results of some of his research: "Development of soil microbial communities for promoting sustainability in agriculture and a global carbon fix.(opens in new window)"

Find more of his research documents(opens in new window).

inside the johnson-su bioreactor

The BEAM Soil Compost Bioreactor Project

In the course of his work, Dr. Johnson and his wife, Hui-Chun Su, created a bioreactor for producing the fungal-rich compost used in their experiments. The design improves on most composting systems by allowing the plant material to be composted aerobically without needing to be turned. It reduces water usage up to six times, produces no odors or associated insects, and is inexpensive and relatively simple to make.

The compost created looks different than most compost—more the consistency of clay than mulch. It takes about a year to make but the result is a more biologically diverse and nutrient-rich product that greatly improves the biology and nutrient availability of the soil, improves water-retention capacity, and increases soil carbon sequestration while greatly improving crop yields.

Studies of using BEAM compost in a great variety of climate and soil conditions are underway.  The Regenerative Agriculture Initiative (RAI) at Chico State is participating in these experiments through a grant from the Cal State Agricultural Research Initiative(opens in new window)

The grant will fund a multi-year study on the effects of BEAM compost and compost tea on California rangeland. Additional BEAM studies through CRARS are in the works, including those testing the effectiveness of using the compost as an inoculate to coat the seeds before planting.

Get Involved!

Bioreactors on the Chico State Farm

Here are detailed instructions for building your own bioreactor. 

CRARS is hosting a Bioreactor Registry(opens in new window) where other researchers and farmer participants can share their results. (Join us!) See who is on the registry already(opens in new window) and return again as they share their results and offer their product to other farmers.