Creating a Biochar Brigade using the Master Gardener program model

Master Gardening Volunteer (MGV) programs have existed in many parts of the US for more than 40 years. They serve as a train the trainer program for gardening education where interested volunteers learn about many different aspects of horticulture including; how to plan gardens, growing fruits & vegetables, wildlife management, integrated pest management, lawn care, composting and more.  Each State’s Land grant University is responsible for developing and offering the training, and each county then helps to coordinate the activities of the certified volunteers.  While certain information is leveraged across different States, this model allows the curriculum to be customized for regionally specific plants, pests and practices.  Volunteers pay a subsidized amount for the 12 – 15 week training in exchange for committing to volunteering in the year(s) following the training (this varies by County from 50 – 150 volunteer hours). Volunteering opportunities vary by County and may include: giving presentations at schools, libraries, and to other interested groups; organizing workshops; writing articles; answering gardening related questions on hotlines; planning & helping to maintain demo gardens; tabling at farmers markets, festivals and fairs, judging 4-H Exhibits; conducting home diagnostic visits; organizing annual plant sales, and even in some places helping to conduct soil sampling.

Acknowledging the impossibility of providing in-depth training on the vast array of topics that falls under Horticulture, what they do instead is train people on how to access and assess quality information on different topics.  They also focus on critical thinking and communication skills, a must if you are out there speaking to gardeners. 

Each year more than 16K volunteers are trained with nearly 95K active volunteers across the country.  NYS alone has more than 2K volunteers that work roughly 106K hours per year to promote gardening, composting, soil building and so much more. This is an amazing accomplishment when you think about it. A volunteer army corps of gardeneers!

Could something similar to this be created to train and deploy a Biochar Brigade? To understand a bit more about how the program works I decided to ‘embed’ with the Finger Lakes MGV class of 2017. It has been fascinating so far and the reality is that I am learning as much if not more from my fellow classmates. The NYS MGV Director seems to understand this and has now built in to the course, a kind of micro-Capstone project where each student creates some kind of training activity or material to be shared with the class.  These activities are not just shared at the end, but are iteratively shared so that classmates can connect with each other before the end of the class to learn more from each other. This type of cross-pollination is ideally suited to the biochar world, where variations and nuances in crops, soils and other growing constraints is so vast.  No one can ever fully understand all the variations, but getting a group of interested parties together with disparate backgrounds can lead towards better information sharing and regional and crop-based best practices.

My activity for the class will, of course, be focused on biochar education – no surprise there.  But what I am coming to understand from this class is that one of the most important benefits for home or farm scale biochar production may be in mitigating the transmission of both disease and weeds.  The current recommendation for infected plants and trees and weeds seems to be merely to ‘get rid of it’ or ‘put it in the garbage’.  Carbonizing this type of biomass would not only eliminate the pathogens and keep it from the landfill, but it also creates long lasting carbon for the compost and garden.  That’s a home run in my book!

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