MSU alumnus looks to the future of farming

MSU alumnus Larry Walker credits the university for his multidisciplinary approach to solving agriculture challenges.

Larry Walker

For Michigan State University alumnus Larry Walker, giving back means coming back to East Lansing – at the bare minimum, to visit. “MSU is near and dear to my heart,” he said. Walker retired three years ago from Cornell University, where he worked for 35 years – most recently as a professor and director of the Biofuels Research Laboratory.

When he thinks about agriculture, he thinks holistically.

“I blame MSU for that,” he said jokingly. “During the ’60s, MSU offered an innovative program in systems science and engineering that very much shaped how I pursue research and development problems. Also, from my major professor, Dr. Fred Bakker-Arkema, I learned the value of building multidisciplinary teams to address sustainability challenges.

“There are shifting needs in agriculture, people are becoming more sophisticated about their food, quality, diversity of foods, health benefits of food – it’s all on the radar. However, climate change, finite resources and demographic trends will challenge how we provide food, fiber and energy for a global human community.

“Given the intensity and extent that these challenges will impact Michigan and global communities, we need to look at innovation in a whole new way,” Walker said. “The social aspects, markets, policies, all the way down to the smallest molecular level – it all has to align.”

Fortunately, the rapid pace of scientific discovery and technological innovation is leveraging the ability to address these challenges.

“I’ve always loved the Rene DuBois saying ‘Think globally, act locally’,” he said. “Thus, it is important that MSU continues to be very active in addressing global challenges through research, education and outreach. Yet we need to also keep a focus on how MSU addresses Michigan agricultural and natural resources opportunities and challenges.”

And Walker thinks it can. He points to precision agriculture’s ability to plant crops more efficiently, better manage water and spread the word about weather events. He said that’s all part of smart agriculture, or, as he likes to call it holistic agriculture.

“I like to focus on the biology and to what degree we can use microbes to regenerate nitrogen, enhance crop production, identify the key players and understand these,” he said. “I went into agricultural engineering to work on real-life problems and I’m still doing that. Agriculture has to look at things from a systems perspective.”

He is passionate about STEM education as a vehicle of generating the next generation of “terraformers” – individuals altering the landscape with an eye on sustainability – and problem solvers, especially around water issues. 

  • Name: Larry P. Walker, Ph.D.
  • Title: Retired professor, Cornell University, and adjunct professor, MSU, Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering
  • Education: Physics, B.S.; and M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in agricultural engineering from MSU
  • Hometown: Detroit, Michigan
  • Muse (person who has most influenced and/or inspired me): Nadine Walker, my wife; James B. Hamilton, MSU chemistry professor; and F. W. Bakker-Arkema, MSU biosystems and agricultural engineering professor; Norman R. Scott and Jean Yves Parlange, professors emeriti, Cornell University.
  • On a Saturday afternoon, you would find me: Either gardening or walking in the countryside.
  • Favorite food: Difficult decision, probably French dry sausages.
  • Best part of my job: Working with noble people on noble projects.
  • Favorite Book: “Only One World: Our own to make and tokeep” by Gerard Piel.
  • Favorite Musician: Thelonious Monk
  • If I wasn’t a professor, I would be: An industrial innovator
  • Something many people don’t know about me: I am passionate about fly fishing and being in nature.
  • I went into this field because: Interest in environment and natural resources issues.
  • On my bucket list: Fly fishing in Patagonia and snorkeling in the Galapagos
  • Person (living or deceased) I’d really like to have dinner with: Martin Luther King Jr.

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