MALT’s New Head of Science & Regenerative Agriculture is Ready to Hit the Ground Running

August 17, 2021

Staying true to our mission — permanently protecting Marin County’s agricultural land for agricultural use — requires staying current with the realities of what agricultural use really entails.

The recent Climate Report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) makes it abundantly clear that climate change is forcing recalculations of, well, essentially everything, including agriculture and food systems.

That’s why the timing is ideal to welcome MALT’s first director of science and regenerative agriculture, Ladi Asgill. MALT CEO Thane Kreiner, PhD, and Ladi sat down recently to discuss Ladi’s interesting path to MALT, the connections between agriculture and environmental conservation and some ideas for how MALT imagines serving as a global model for local, regenerative and inclusive agriculture.

Thane Kreiner: This is certainly an auspicious time for you to join our journey, Ladi. We’re so happy to have you here at MALT.

Ladi Asgill: Thanks, Thane. I’m really delighted to join the team. I’ve known about MALT ever since I began working in California’s San Joaquin Valley about 15 years ago. And I know that some of the most active resource conservation in the U.S. is taking place in the Marin ecosystem.

Thane: Your mention of work in the San Joaquin Valley is a perfect opportunity to ask you for a brief synopsis of your career — and what led you to MALT.

Ladi: I guess I should start at the beginning! I was born and grew up in Sierra Leone, in Western Africa. I grew up on a farm — we had a coconut plantation and grew tropical fruits, including mangoes, pitangas and guavas — located next to a forest preserve. Besides helping out on the farm, I also went to horticultural society meetings with my dad. I think it’s fair to say that farming and the environment are in my DNA.

Thane: Sierra Leone is a so beautiful; I was there in early 2016. Would you be willing to share how the well-known civil war in Sierra Leone affected your life and vocation?

Ladi: During the civil war, the forest preserve bordering my family’s farm was destroyed, along with much of the rainforest in the country. Many of the country’s farmers were displaced, too, as they had to abandon their agricultural land. Many horticultural and specialty crops were lost in Sierra Leone in the war, and they’re now grown in Southeast Asia. Although I’ve always been entrepreneurial and view farming as a business, the civil war also made me realize that keeping farms in business long-term is tied closely to larger social and conservation issues.

Thane: You began your academic career in Sierra Leone before moving to the U.S., right?

Ladi: That’s right. I got my bachelor’s degree in general agriculture from the University of Sierra Leone. I moved to the U.S. where I got my master’s degree in agricultural economics from Texas A&M University. That’s where I met my wife and we raised three children, now adults who also love spending time in the great outdoors of California.

Thane: I earned my bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas Austin, so I have to say, “Hook ‘em Horns!” Did you consider pursuing academic research from there?

Ladi: After I got my master’s degree, I was actually debating whether to get a super-academic PhD or to go into something more grounded. I realized I’d rather get my hands in the soil than look at computer simulations all day, so I then got my MBA in agribusiness from Santa Clara University. And that was a really eye-opening time. The environment in California really excited me. So many ideas of what I’d wanted to do were already happening here, especially with the San Joaquin Valley’s almonds, walnuts and dairies.

Thane: You worked for a number of years in the Modesto area of the San Joaquin Valley. Tell us about some experiences that might inform our work together at MALT.

Ladi: I was a senior agronomist for Sustainable Conservation, an organization that’s tackling serious land, air and water challenges in California by bringing together business executives, landowners, community members and government officials. Sustainable Conservation works to steward natural resources in ways that are socially just and that make economic sense. I see that work as having a direct correlation with MALT’s history and future.

Thane: I concur; the correlation is on multiple levels. There’s the idea of balancing agricultural and environmental conservation with racial justice. There’s factoring economic and environmental sustainability into the equation — from the perspectives of agriculturalists, as well as everyone involved in the agricultural value chain, including farm and ranch workers, enterprises that process agricultural products and of course all of us consumers of food. There’s the emphasis on partnerships and a real collaborative approach to land stewardship. And of course, there’s the notion, or first principle, that everyone deserves access to sufficient and nourishing food.

Ladi: I think the emphasis on science is another important point. I really appreciate that the word “science” is in my job title at MALT.

Thane: And the other term in your title is “regenerative agriculture,” which I’m not sure if everyone is familiar with. What does regenerative agriculture mean to you?

Ladi: Regenerative agriculture is farming in a way that takes care of the environment while also ensuring the long-term viability of farming. It’s about preserving the life of the soil, producing food on a more sustainable scale locally, creating buffers from the changing climate, and educating consumers about healthy food.

Thane: Beautiful. While that term might be relatively new to some people, regenerative agriculture approaches and practices have a long history, including among Indigenous communities both here in California and around the world. With the urgency of climate change, MALT’s pioneering vision of protecting vulnerable farmland in Marin becomes even more important. While the first step was to prevent valuable agricultural land from being developed, it’s become even more important to steward that protected land in ways that help mitigate against the effects of climate change while also addressing the economic, equity and justice issues of the people living and working on these lands.

Ladi: MALT has such a tremendous opportunity to work in collaboration with local farming, ranching, academic research and conservation experts to spur and test innovative regenerative agricultural practices. With my background in both the science and the hands-on aspects of farming — and also my direct experience with dairy ranching — I feel I can help local farmers and ranchers, including the new generation, to address key challenges such as water scarcity, methane emissions and becoming carbon-neutral.

Thane: Or even carbon-negative! While climate change and racial justice are serious challenges, I’m energized by imagining how we might leverage MALT’s relationships with local farmers and ranchers to test and scale environmentally and economically sustainable ways to produce, distribute and consume food, fiber and other agricultural products. And to approach it all in a spirit of shared stewardship and collective action toward common good.

Ladi: Shared stewardship. That really captures the essence of MALT’s approach, doesn’t it? You know, I’m always thinking about my roots in farming and where I came from. I’ve learned to adopt long-term thinking for farming and conservation, whether in the San Joaquin Valley or West Africa.

Thane: I know that you’ve been thinking about the connection between food and environmental conservation for a long time, and I think that’s so crucial to what you’ll bring to your role at MALT. Before I let you go, I have one last question. What are you growing in your own garden this year?

Ladi: I love gardening and am looking forward to seeing what different things I can grow in Marin. In my San Joaquin Valley garden this year, I have habanero and Thai peppers, basil, arugula, lettuce and tons of lemongrass. The peaches and nectarines have just finished; the blue jays got their fair share, too! I’ll have golden delicious apples in another month. What about you, Thane? I know you’re a serious gardener at your place.

Thane: Gardening has always been a real passion for me. We focus on organic, regenerative practices and integrate food with native species, flowers and herbs. Right now, the tomatoes, plums, squash, peppers, cucumbers, melon and basil are all in season, with apples, pumpkins, pears and Asian pears starting to ripen.

Ladi: Sounds like a feast in the making.

Thane: And such a grounding reminder, no pun intended, of the importance of everyone being able to enjoy plentiful, nutritious food.

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