I am a complete and udder (cows roaming around in my brain!) utter newbie to the world of hydroponics so when I toured a hydroponics facility in Western New York this week I was like a kid in a candy store: all new stuff to learn and touch and taste (including the yummiest arugula I have ever tasted!).
My naïve assumption was that the biggest opportunity for biochar in the greenhouse world might be as a growing medium. It still might be, but I learned that the ideal pH for plants in this particular greenhouse is between 5.5 – 5.8 which is lower than the average pH for most chars so we’ll have to figure out a process for lowering it. However the farm manager actually pointed out a much more interesting opportunity for biochar within the context of hydroponics that has to do with the greenhouse effluent. Apparently this stuff is loaded with phosphorous and nitrates. In excess these nutrients can harm local ecosystems and even lead to eutrophication (which can turn lovely blue water into nasty green algae laden, oxygen starved cesspools).
Now I’m thinking that we need to first use the biochar as a filtration medium for the effluent. Not only would this mitigate the damage to the local ecosystems but most likely the biochar will adsorb the nutrients and effectively charge the biochar with valuable macronutrients. Then the grower will probably have a great little fertilizer that can be used in the hoop houses where they grow directly in the soil.
Having grown up on a beef farm, I am no stranger to the need to medicate cows but honestly, do we need to sprinkle this stuff into their daily feed rations? A recent study by the John Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, called ‘Industrial Food Animal Production in America”, highlights concerns that make my stomach feel like I might need antibiotics! Their number one recommendation calls for phasing out and banning non-therapeutic use (i.e. weight gain and prevention of disease) of antimicrobials. They are definitely not happy with the FDA’s (rather toothless) ‘voluntary plan’ that would promote the suggestion that Big Pharma should phase out the use of 200+ antibiotics used for animals over three years (there are over 600 antibiotics in use).
But let’s be pragmatic for a moment, shall we? The reality is that the owners of large feedlots (aka CAFOs) are capitalists at heart. Most are focused on producing the most meat at the least cost and since the cost of feed can vary with the wind (well more accurately with the rain), any way to minimize feed costs is given more than a once over. Enter the ‘miracle’ of antibiotic feed additives. Not only do they act as a prophylactic and stave off illnesses which the crowded conditions often promote but they also improve feed efficiency! Needless to say the longer term consequences of daily antibiotic intake such as the impact on the environment (i.e. contamination of air, water & soils) as well as on humans (i.e. increased resistance to antibiotics) are largely being ignored or blurred by the suggestion that the jury is still out on these long term impacts (sounds a lot like climate change in general!)
OK enough depressing news. The GOOD news is that there are some tantalizing studies that show that biochar could be a more natural substitute. These studies suggest that biochar could provide similar benefits AND more, not least of which is that biochar is not only not damaging to the environment but is restorative, nor does it have a negative impact on human health.
Last week I wrote about the study that indicates improved feed efficiency has been found as a result of feeding char to cows, but this study from the Ithaka Institute has shown significant health related improvements when biochar is added to livestock feed. So with a healthier alternative available and an increasingly savvy and vocal consumer base, perhaps the ‘hay day’ of feeding antibiotics to cows may soon come to an end and Char-gain (or whatever names the producers come up with) may soon be found in every cow’s trough!
Recently I spoke with a local organic dairy farmer that is interested in testing biochar as a component of the total mixed rations (TMR) that she feeds her lactating ladies. I learned a lot in speaking with her and this got me started ruminating about some recent biochar research that has caused quite a stir in the biochar community (check it out here)
According to this study adding small amounts of biochar to livestock feed can lead to increased feed conversion rates (cows get fatter on less food), but it can also lead to substantial methane (CH4) emission reductions. Bovines are notorious sources for CH4 which has recently been found to be even MORE lethal to climate change than had been previously thought. (When this topic comes up at your next dinner party, make sure to make everyone aware that you know that these bovine emissions mostly come the front end of the cow and not the other end, as is commonly believed!) Since CH4 only hangs out in the atmosphere for a few decades, reducing it could really help mitigate global warming potential. While I would think most of us would like to see these cow related emission rates reduced, an entrepreneurial bunch of Argentine scientists have figured out an ingenious, if rather unwieldy way to convert the CH4 into something useful. I can’t quite picture cows sporting these gadgets …but I think I may be digressing.
The main point here is that cows emit methane. Lots of methane. Up to 300 liters every day per cow! Some of that is attributable to the diet that we humans make them eat which is often a far cry from their traditional diet. This has the unfortunate side effect of upsetting all four of their delicate tummies and so they have gas which needs to be gotten rid of! And according to this study biochar, kind of like an antacid, helps calm the tummies and reduce the gas (that is my non-scientific interpretation!).
All of this is all well and good EXCEPT that that benefit on its own, is not going to get farmers to dash out and buy biochar since we don’t currently have any kind of incentive to reduce methane no matter the source (i.e. fracking is another BIG source). The other benefit, more efficient weight gain, is far more compelling at least for certain livestock populations (I can’t say too many women would want to take it for that reason though!).
Weight gain for a dairy herd is really only important for the first two years of life for replacement heifers (young lady cows). After that, they try to maintain their girlish figures for the most part. So for dairy cows and brood cows in the beef world, the efficient weight gain angle probably won’t work. There are indications of other positive impacts that I’ll get into in future posts which could still make adding biochar to feed for dairy worthwhile from an economic perspective. I would imagine those livestock farmers that would be most interested in the improved feed conversion aspect would be those that are finishing steers into burgers, those raising hogs or those in the meat poultry world.
Tons more research is needed but I’d like to see if by adding biochar, farmers could eliminate bentonite clay or sodium bicarbonate (think baking soda) or probiotics from the TMR thereby offsetting the cost of biochar. I’m still learning about the costs and environmental impacts of these products as well as all of the benefits they are supposed to provide to see how biochar stacks up as an alternative.
If you have any ruminations of your own on this topic, please share!
There are a growing number of biochar production models emerging. No one really knows which ones will ultimately survive and thrive – but my guess and hope is that more than one model will be triple bottom line successful! So what does the evolving Char-o-sphere look like these days? I’m glad you asked…
First there are large scale biomass energy producers that generate biochar as a by-product of energy production. I think we will start to see more and more of these that are capable of creating an enormous amount of biochar. There is a delicate balance between optimizing generation of energy (e.g. bio-oils, syngas or thermal energy) and the yield and quality of the biochar. As I understand it, some of these producers are able to shift this balance as the markets for the different products changes.
Then we see a few producers emerging that are really more focused on the quality of the biochar versus the other co-products of biochar production. At the moment their market focus seems to be on the retail gardening market although there are other interesting niche market opportunities that are evolving in things like remediation. Some of these are beginning to expand in the US, while others are still fairly local or regional in focus. (I can’t say with any degree of authority, what is happening beyond the borders of the USofA, but certain countries are marching along at a much faster clip!)
A third model that is beginning to emerge is the livestock waste conversion biochar production model. Though this model solves the waste management issue in an environmentally friendly manner, there is the question of what to do with the resulting biochar that has posed some challenges as most large livestock producers don’t necessarily want to be selling biochar! [Ideally off-take agreements will be set up….but that may take a while to sort out.]
And then there is my favorite, the holy-grail IMHO: the closed loop biochar production model. In a nutshell, this is the model where the farmer or grower converts their own organic waste into biochar and then uses the char on-site. Why is this so compelling and why will this go the furthest in terms of making Mother Earth happy? First, in line with Wendell Berry’s ‘solving for pattern’ thinking, this mode of production addresses multiple problems in tandem such as waste management, depleted soils, nutrient leaching, etc. Second, this type of production environment involves minimal transportation and therefore maximum carbon sequestration! Ultimately I think this is the model that could be most affordable for farmers as well…but time will tell!
I am a huge Malcom Gladwell fan and I recently reread his book “The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference”. As with nearly all of the non-fic books I read, I tend to think about how the information presented could be applied to the world of sustainability. More specifically with this book I was mulling over how Gladwell’s thinking could be used to help biochar reach a Tipping Point. Below are my mulled upon musings:
There are three overarching themes Gladwell promotes as being necessary for something to reach a tipping point which are:
- The Law of the Few – a few key people are needed to launch an epidemic (specifically Connectors, Mavens and Sales People)
- The Stickiness Factor – i.e. you can’t get something out of your head
- The Power of Context – conditions need to be right
Connectors tend to be people that participate in a variety of different niches. For biochar I think an ideal type of Connector could be Extension Agents or the folks at the USDA. They are connected to Academia as well as Farmers. I think we (biochar community) need to be working much more closely with this group!
Mavens are people that tend to know a lot and share their information easily. Hans-Peter Schmidt from the Ithaka Institute (nicknamed the CH’artist) is a fantastic example of this, as is my research buddy ‘Charchemides’(also known as Christian Pulver) to whom I owe a huge debt of gratitude for educating me on the underlying science of biochar. Folks like Albert Bates, Erich Knight and Dolph Cooke are also invaluable biochar sherpas (Charpas?).
Salespeople are charismatic, powerful negotiators that can influence people. I think there are a few individuals that are effective at promoting biochar but we don’t have nearly enough yet. One critical component for selling biochar is trustworthiness and sometimes I think ‘truthiness’ has been more prevalent. That could be detrimental to the long term prospects for biochar.
The Stickiness Factor is where I think the biochar world needs to focus a bit more attention. Many love to tout the carbon offset potential of biochar. Yet while this is one of the aspects that I find most promising about biochar for the planet, carbon offsets don’t make too many people swoon. So how to make biochar sticky? Therein lies the challenge…(perhaps we could engage the Ylvis brothers to write a song about biochar…?). We need more clever minds to help us ‘Dig the Change’ as I like to say.
And finally there is the Power of Context, which is the notion that improving small things may lead to epidemics or rapid broad-scale change (e.g. removing graffiti led to reduced overall crime in NYC). When I think of this for biochar, the first thing that comes to mind is that perhaps focusing biochar’s impact on climate change is the wrong lever. Even the focus on yield improvement is a bit of a slippery slope because while biochar has been shown to improve yield incredibly in depleted soils, in other trials yield impact has been minimal or even negative (Gasp! Yes it has happened. This is why I always pipe up and counsel people to ‘know what you sow’!.). Maybe if we focus on some specific things that farmers struggle with that biochar can address such as arsenic or e coli in their soils, odor problems in their lagoons, then biochar will begin to take off in other directions in the farming community. These are things that can have positive environmental, financial and social implications for farmers so they may be more persuasive and compelling than the focus on saving the planet.
Based on some of the stuff I’ve been learning and doing over the past year, I decided to design the ultimate fantasy/future biochar related job and have bestowed upon it the title of “Carbon Planner – Biochar Specialist”. I could see this working at all sorts of levels including municipal, state or federal government, corporations or even at college campuses. I would really love to see this kind of role catch fire…er, take off that is.
Using GHG emissions benchmarks for (city, county, company, campus, etc.), develop strategies for ambitious annual emission offsets and reductions using biochar. Collaborate with generators of underutilized biomass to determine viability for biochar production, optimal end use, including quantification of economic and environmental impacts. Liaise with federal, state and local government agencies (e.g. FEMA, Soil & Water Conservation Agency, DEC, etc.) to prioritize uses of biochar including but not limited to: ameliorate brown fields, augment carbon levels in depleted soils, reduce or replace the use of products which cause high carbon emissions (e.g. activated carbon, fertilizer, concrete, etc.). Prioritize end use markets according to geographic proximity, GHG impact and environmental improvement. Working with academia, keep abreast of potential new uses for biochar, best practices for applications and regional issues for consideration. Maximize all related co-products from biochar production including thermal energy, bio-oil, syngas.
Many farmers in the US buy federally insured crop insurance every year as a way to stay afloat when weather, insects or other disasters take a chunk out of their yields or revenues. Perhaps there is a case to be made for biochar as a risk management strategy as a kind of ‘soil insurance’. My thoughts du jour on this are as follows:
Minimize negative weather related impacts. Droughts are increasingly common and have been the cause of enormous loss of crops in the past few years. Biochar has been shown to improve soil’s water holding capacity which can help plants survive longer and reduce the need for irrigation. The frequency of heavy rainfall is also on the uptick and often carries off large amounts of productive topsoil. Floods can leave toxins on soils rendering crops unfit for human consumption. Biochar can help neutralize such unwanted deposits.
Improve yield. While the impact biochar can have on yield varies widely, generally speaking and used properly, biochar can improve yield, especially in poor soils or under challenging weather conditions
Improve soil health. Pests can take a toll on crops. Research has shown that biochar improves microbial activity in soils which can help improve resistance to pests which could mean fewer pesticides are needed. Bacteria such as e coli in soil can be deadly to humans and costly to farmers. A few studies have indicated that adding biochar to soil is effective for inactivating certain pathogens (e.g. EHEC, STEC and Salmonella) in soil. Also some soils have toxic levels of arsenic or copper from previous pesticide use (abuse!) which can be taken up by crops. Biochar is able to render these toxins unavailable to plants.
Decrease negative environment impacts. Nutrient run-off from farm land has caused massive dead zones in rivers, lakes and oceans to the extent that many regions are now beginning to regulate the amount and timing of nutrient additions. I would guess that fines will eventually be assessed once those regulations are rolled out. Biochar placed in swales or added over fields can reduce this run-off which not only helps local water bodies, but I would think local communities would be happier too if their lakes have less algae so they can get back to swimming or fishing in them.
Now if only there was a way to get the government to subsidize this kind of soil insurance like they do for crop insurance!
The 2013 Biochar Symposium held last month in Amherst was charrific with over 300 attendees from academia to agriculture, from non-profits to biochar businesses and consultants with plenty of newbies balanced by many who have been in the biochar world for a decade or more. I fall somewhere in the middle these days …(i.e. I work a lot with academia and ag, I feel like I am a non-profit instead of a consultant some days and I’ve been around the biochar world for nearly 4 years!).
I had been part of the Symposium Planning Committee heading up the Benefits & Uses Track for over a year so it was gratifying to see things go so well. The event kicked off with a Farmers Workshop at the New England Small Farm Institute, which is a wonderful place in Belchertown where I first learned how to make char out of a TLUD. Judy Gillen does an amazing job running NESFI and she acted as our very gracious hostess for the workshop. I had asked some very capable PhD students at Cornell, Rachel Hestrin & Thea Whitman, as well as the indefatigable David Yarrow to create biochar content that would be relevant to farmers. “Charchemides” and I also did a presentation on “The of Anatomy of a Biochar Trial” [you can download the presentation here – warning though – my presentations tend to be more pictures than words so you might not get the whole jist from this deck!]. We had standing room only attendance and lots of great dialogue throughout the workshop.
The Symposium was filled with amazing content covering four different tracks: Feedstock & Production; Benefits & Uses; Policy & Community; and Sales, Scale & Marketing. For better or for worse I only saw the presentations in the Benefits & Uses track but they were really, really interesting and diverse. There is so much going on in so many different research fields these days, it is exciting. A majority of the Symposium presenters allowed us to share their presentations which are now up on the conference website. Some are not able to share the content as their research is still in the peer review stage but they were able to describe and discuss some very interesting research.
Presentation videos will be added to a youtube channel that we created for the Symposium once the video editing is completed – which turned out to be quite the arduous task! You may even get to see my IGNITE talk called “Balancing the Hope & Hype of Biochar”…I’m sure you can’t wait! I’ll post more on that later but here was the title slide…
Who is ready to change the world? The world below our feet needs help as does the atmosphere surrounding us. Believe it or not there is a “soil-ution” almost as easy as changing your lightbulbs…only this has a more long lasting impact. Allow me to introduce you to BIOCHAR (aka Terra Preta), a (relatively) low tech carbon sequestration method that is actually beneficial…unlike some of the other rather scary and expensive sequestration ideas being tested out there.
First let me confess that I am not a scientest – not by a long shot. I am a mom first and foremost that went seeking some hope for postive climate change mitigation news. Well I do believe biochar fits that bill. I am in the process of setting up Finger Lakes Biochar, a local small scale biochar production company focused on coverting agricultural waste, maybe even forestry waste as I live near a community college with a kick-ass Woodsmen Team that generates rather a lot of that, into biochar.
As time allows, I will be updating this site with various information that I hope will help inspire others to learn about it, use it properly and help spread the word. But I warn you I, like most other moms, am juggling so posting may be somewhat less than regular.
CHARpe Diem! Make your soils excellent! (Who can name the movie this is ripping off!)