David C. Johnson’s experimental findings and openness to new insights have turned him into a champion of microbial diversity as the key to regenerating soil carbon — and thus to boosting agricultural productivity and removing excess atmospheric CO2. His research, begun only a decade ago, affirms the promise of microbes for healing the planet. It has attracted interest from around the world.
Johnson didn’t come to science until later in life. At age 51 he left a rewarding career as a builder, specializing in custom homes for artists, to complete his undergraduate degree. He planned to use his education “to do something different for the other half of [his] life,” though what he didn’t know. He said a path opened up and opportunities kept coming his way. After completing his undergraduate degree, Johnson kept going, earning his Masters in 2004 and Ph.D. in 2011, both in Molecular Microbiology. With his first advanced degree in hand, he got a job at New Mexico State University, where he was going to school and currently has an appointment in the College of Engineering.
He credits a fellowship program that placed undergraduate students in different labs with sparking his fascination with the composition of microbial communities as a graduate student. Johnson, who once farmed as a homesteader in Alaska, says he was once “an NPK junkie” but considers himself to be “13-years reformed.”
Charged with finding a way to process manure from factory dairy farms that would be beneficial to cropland, he and his wife — and behind the scenes collaborator — Hui-Chun Su designed a bioreactor for producing fungal-rich compost. Previous researchers on the project had only been able to make highly saline composts that proved harmful to plants. Johnson went on to demonstrate the remarkable power of his compost to dramatically boost crop growth and carbon sequestration in soil, which correlates with its high fungal to bacterial ratio. Currently, he is experimenting with this compost as a seed inoculant and working to expand the scope of this critical research through collaborations with other interested researchers.
Read the entire article and interview by Tracy Frisch in Eco Farming Daily here.