By Julie Rawson
Tim LaSalle is the Co-Founder of The Center for Regenerative Agriculture, Director of Outreach & Development, and Adjunct Professor at the College of Agriculture at California State University, Chico, California. He will be keynoting our 2020 summer conference and also participating in the workshop program.
Tim grew up on a conventional peach, walnut and hay farm in the Central Valley of California. He got his degrees, both undergrad and advanced, in conventional, high input, scientifically based agriculture. He became a professor of dairy science at Cal Poly State University teaching thousands of students this kind of agriculture for 12 years. Traveling to China, India, Africa and South America he grew to realize that the ecological degradation all over the world was significantly affected by how we were farming. That coupled with increased population had us on a destructive trajectory far overshooting anything that could resemble sustainable.
A very slow movement of his own critical thinking brought him to join the Allan Savory Center of Holistic Management as Executive Director working to stop the spread of deserts globally. From there he became the CEO of the Rodale Institute for some time but he remained concerned about finding better ways to stop the need for tillage with its inherent soil destruction properties. Tim then moved to Africa working with Howard Buffet, on food security with a focus on conservation and agriculture and soil health. The Warren G Buffet Foundation was investing in issues of hunger and food security. Tim developed a research and demonstration farm with no outside inputs creating no till rotational biologically produced food. Buffet was interested in an agricultural system that didn’t use fertilizers and LaSalle developed that system using heavily intensive rotations. Using biomass and nutrient cycling they found that soils that originally had not enough nutrients like adequate phosphorous were found to be adequate after one growing season.
Tim was practicing with the threads of what he had been picking up along the way. He had to engage a lot of critical thinking that involved whole systems and the wisdom of nature. How do we work with her? Tim and his wife were living and doing research in the northern part of South Africa. He and his wife worked with many refugees from Zimbabwe and Mozambique – refugees who sadly didn’t have access to indigenous wisdom of their ancestors. His wife spent time with the village helping them to produce food for themselves.
With the continual loss and degradation of soil and the impending threat of climate change, Tim and his wife knew some of the main drivers to high input degrading agriculture had its roots in the policies, universities, and global special interests rooted in the U.S. Therefore they came back to see how they could help to shift paradigms to a robustly regenerative system that can reverse climate change, reverse soil loss and degradation, improve farmer profits, and clean up the water ways from nutrient runoff.
Joining forces with Dr. Cindy Daley at California State University Cbico, they started the Center for Regenerative Agriculture in 2016. Regenerative research has now been established on rangelands, orchards, row crops, and vegetables with a significant emphasis on the Johnson-Su BEAM inoculant. “We are having an impact. We are doing way too much. We have multiple research projects. We are replicating Dr. David Johnson’s work to increase carbon capture for net primary productivity at almost no cost to the farmer. This can increase farmer profitability, and increase ecosystems services while robustly supporting nature. We can improve photosynthesis efficiency.”
“Dr. David Johnson’s BEAM is a fungally dominant aerobically developed compost. He is also now an adjunct professor at Chico State but still lives in New Mexico where he is managing several test plots. He is a genius and he can see and look into what is occurring with a fresh set of eyes. He was trained as a microbiologist and is tracking what was occurring.” Tim related that soil tests are not meaningful once you start feeding the biology because the biology takes care of itself. Johnson found no correlation between N, P, K numbers on soil tests and primary productivity, in great contrast that biological life was directly correlated to the productivity.
What drives Tim LaSalle’s work and enthusiasm these days is the desire to understand and go more deeply into why biology and no to low input systems are the most efficient and profitable and how grossly we are underestimating the potential of carbon capture as a solution to climate change.
To create social change according to Tim LaSalle, “Language matters. Using the word organic narrows the audience to 1% of the farmer audience. We don’t say organic because we have to include all farmers. The organic word has to go away in this discussion. My wife and I eat and grow organic, but we can’t have that conversation in the general realm because a lot of people will dismiss us. Therefore we focus on profit and building soil health. Whether they believe in climate change or not does not really matter, but all farmers understand profit and soil health. We need every farmer to solve the crisis we find ourselves in. Every farmer. And to help them to a more regenerative orientation we can show them how they can make more money and help their families be more secure. This is how language matters.”
Regarding equipment for no till and low till systems on vegetable farms, CSU Chico is working with UC Davis and 5 organic farmers who are large scale. These organic farmers are the ones interested in strip and no till and the use of cover crops to help build soil health. This project is experimenting with equipment, cover crops, and altering practices. It is a farmer directed study done in a collaborative and open sharing methodology.
Tim and his wife are headed back to Africa this month to share the knowledge on how these regenerative systems work for the small holder to large scale grower. Part of the purpose is to explore ways with a continent-wide effort to incorporate the regenerative biological framing to farmer training as well as research centers. There is a lot of collaborative potential. Perhaps African soils are generally as degraded as anywhere in the world. To build these soils will greatly mitigate the tension between growing populations and food shortages. He feels the truth of the matter is that regeneration is the only way to move forward.
He states, “Basically this work of regeneration of soils and the added benefit of carbon capture is our only possible future. Without regenerative agriculture, all of the indicators predict we don’t have much of a future. To act and engage this critical method of restoring healthy soil globally gets me up every day.”
The Center for Regenerative Agriculture is starting a Journal for Regenerative Agriculture. This particular investment will provide a forum for peer reviewed research looking at whole systems with a focus on biological understandings of healthy soils. It will also provide farmer friendly articles about successes in the field as well as summarize the most current regenerative research. Together we can begin to shift the paradigm away from high input and soil degrading practices to ones that support the health of the soil, farmer profits, and climate repair. That does describe a future for those who are to follow us.