Biochar as Soil Insurance?

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!

Blog Pics - Biochar as Soil Insurance

2013 Biochar Symposium

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…

Balancing Hope & Hype

CHARpe Diem!

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!)