Center for Regenerative Agriculture and Resilient Systems

The Center for Regenerative Agriculture's Bioreactor Registry at Chico State is Generating a Lot of Excitement

by Sheryl Karas, CRARS staff member

Chico State Adjunct Faculty Dr. David Johnson(opens in new window) has been doing breakthrough work in regards to using fungal-dominated compost for carbon sequestration, improved soil health and crop yields. His method is called BEAM (Biologically Enhanced Agricultural Management) and centers around products made using the compost creation system he devised with his wife Hui-Chun Su (called the Johnson-Su Bioreactor). Compost is usually thought of as fertilizer, a way of adding nutrients to the soil. However, BEAM compost actually addresses soil health through soil biology. It is used to replace soil microbes in ground that has become degraded through previous use. That, along with no-till practices, cover crops and other Regenerative Agriculture methods, encourage the normal symbiosis between these microbes and plant roots to occur. Quite quickly, the soil starts to recover, and striking improvements in crop yields and carbon sequestration have been documented.

Because the need for soil regeneration and carbon sequestration to mitigate the effects of climate change and improve food security is so great, more data is needed to determine whether the results Dr. Johnson was able to achieve on his test plots at New Mexico State University can be duplicated in other climates and soil conditions. Instructions for building your own Johnson-Su bioreactor have been distributed widely including at the Center for Regenerative Agriculture website(opens in new window) at Chico State. And in March 2019, the Center for Regenerative Agriculture started an online registry to keep track of who is participating in this effort and to log their results.

Response was positive and we now have 35 participants registered from nine countries and seven U.S. states with new additions every week. Submissions have come from university researchers, farmers, Master Gardener programs, sustainability-focused nonprofits, and curious members of the general community. What they all have in common is the willingness to build at least one bioreactor and the patience to wait a year for the compost to fully mature before trying it out and evaluating the results. But the reasons they got involved are surprisingly diverse.

The New Mexico State University Sustainable Agriculture Science Center(opens in new window) team in Alcalde, of course, has been working with Johnson-Su compost the longest. They are focusing part of their research efforts on identifying and understanding effective soil health management practices that might benefit farmers in northern New Mexico. Incorporating microbially diverse compost in order to improve soil function and health is one of those practices. But while the general principles of soil health management are deceptively simple, success can be quite site specific and dependent on scale, farm resources and farm systems. They are currently seeking funds to embark on a 4-6 year agricultural trial to compare organic, chemical and Johnson-Su bioreactor compost fertilizer treatments along with other land management strategies such as till versus no-till production, cover crop mixes, and cover crop termination strategies. The plan is to assess soil health under combinations of plot treatments, assess the nutrient content and yield of the crops, and produce an economic analysis of different approaches. In the end, they hope to provide farmers with practical, effective and affordable strategies to improve their success and farm viability.

Bioreactors on the Chico State farm

Bioreactors on the Chico State Farm

The Center for Regenerative Agriculture and Resilient Systems (CRARS) at Chico State is conducting multiple research projects related to BEAM(opens in new window) compost as well. The University Farm has eight bioreactors in progress, each filled with a different combination of mulch materials. We also have received a research grant through the California State Agricultural Research Initiative to fund a three-year study on the effects of BEAM compost on California rangelands. The project will compare bacterial dominant versus fungal dominant compost applications to assess the impact of each treatment on pasture quality and productivity, soil health, and carbon sequestration. The total cost of the compost applications will be monitored to determine rates of return and cost effectiveness of each approach. DNA tracer technology will be used to profile how the soil microbiology changes (if it does) between treatments over time. The plan is to also use this grant to educate ranchers, stakeholders, state agencies, and land management specialists about the results.

A second joint project between CRARS and the Howard G. Buffet Foundation has also just begun on 77 acres in Wilcox, Arizona. This is a five year study under the direct guidance of Dr. David Johnson intended to investigate the effects of soil, crop yield, fertilizer reduction and elimination, pest management, and soil carbon capture using biological soil inoculants. The study will compare three approaches: conventional maize production with full fertilize applications; a treatment with biological soil inoculants along with 15% of normal fertilizer applications; and a treatment using biological soil inoculants alone. Yields, soil carbon capture, insect damage, soil biome changes, and soil health indicators will be monitored evaluated, and summarized for publication as well as for farmer field days to share the results. 

Of course, research in regards to this project has not been confined to soil scientists. Climate change and personal experimentation are prime motivators for several participants such as retired Columbia University professor Stephen Shafer and his wife Lizbeth of Anchorage Farms(opens in new window) in Saugerties, NY. They were introduced to regenerative agriculture and the concept of carbon farming in 2017 when they joined the Citizens’ Climate Lobby. That led them to want to assess their own farm’s carbon footprint and to make changes to improve its ability to sequester carbon. They built their first bioreactor in March 2109 and plan to use half their inoculant late next spring by applying it as a slurry or crumbles by hand to a small test plot of 1/2 acre perennial sheep pasture before the sheep are put in there. They hope to turn the other half into a microbe-rich liquid to apply as a foliar spray to a larger section of perennial pasture, also before sheep go in. Stephen says that even though he has only heard about BEAM being used for crops, he wanted to experiment with how it would do on perennial pasture along with grasses and forbs acting as a cover crop. He’s been sharing what he’s been learning about BEAM, carbon sequestration and related topics on his farm’s website blog(opens in new window).

Love of research and the adventure of trying new things just to see what will happen is inspiring “Henning” from Berlin, Germany. He relates that he became interested in composting after watching a Youtube video featuring soil biology researcher Dr. Elaine Ingham because he wanted to find a use for a few buckets of degenerated fermented honey. He also learned elsewhere that he might be able to use his honey to make bokashi (a type of compost that also works with micro-organisms). Now he’s curious to find out how it will work in a Johnson-Su bioreactor. What does he want to do with it? Look at it under a microscope and see if the fungal-bacteria ratio has changed.

Master Gardeners in San Mateo preparing materials to make compost

Master Gardeners in San Mateo prepare materials to fill the bioreactor, seen in the back left of this photo.

Then there are dedicated home gardeners who want to participate for the purpose of saving the planet while improving their soil health to grow nutritious food for themselves and other people. That’s how four San Mateo/San Francisco County Master Gardeners(opens in new window) and one volunteer from Pacifica Community Gardens describe themselves. They found out about Johnson-Su after they car-pooled together to attend the Cover Crops and Soil Health Intensive at the Chico State Farm in June 2019. One of their Master Gardening projects has been to develop a 5,000 square foot plot at the San Mateo County Event Center. Unfortunately, that led to a fierce battle with Bermuda grass which led them into the world of cover crops to try to eradicate it and improve their soil. They attended the Soil Health Intensive because their cover crop experiments have been successful and they wanted to learn more. But they left so inspired by a talk and demonstration by Dr. Johnson that they built their own Johnson-Su Bioreactor onsite at the Event Center on July 20th and shared photographs of their process and excitement. As Master Gardeners they’ll certainly be sharing what they learn with their community as well.

Likewise, Josh Wright of Lewiston, Montana had a 144 square foot strip of land that he didn’t know what to do with as the local town deer ate anything he put there, including the jalapenos. He’s not a farmer of any sort but a Facebook post about a “Soil Crawl” workshop on composting and organic practices sponsored by the Northern Plains Resource Council caught his eye. There he learned how to make a Johnson-Su composter and decided to do it. He likes the idea of showing others how to sustainably compost within city limits and do it cheaply. And he hopes to use his tiny research plot to open conversations on growing healthy food in a way that will be good for the environment (whether the deer eat it all or not).

Finally there is the largest group, farmers from many parts of the world interested in regenerating their soil for improved crop yields. This is particularly true for those living in regions already seriously impacted by climate change such as in Australia, Africa and the Middle East. Adrian Bignell from Zambia, Central Africa, for example, relates that “our seasons are becoming more and more erratic with bigger more violent storms and longer hotter dry spells.” He needed to find a way to conserve moisture and ensure that the rain from those big storms actually infiltrated into the soil so it was available the rest of the year. He started working with cover crops with significant success. Tests show his soil health has greatly improved and so has his farm’s productivity. He’d like to decrease the amount of fertilizer he needs to buy, however, so he built four bioreactors this year and plans to use the compost as a seed dressing next year. He has already decreased his herbicide and pesticide use and would ultimately like to let go of all synthetic inputs.

You can see listings for all the participants in the Bioreactor Registry(opens in new window). More participants are welcome. Learn more about this project(opens in new window) on the CRARS website. Or start your own project and join the registry here(opens in new window)