What in the World is Biochar?

When I hear the word charcoal, I imagine lighting up our little grill on a summer evening.  Prepping the burgers.  Going out to the garden for dinner-time accompaniments (cucumbers and tomatoes for the burger, raspberries for dessert). Setting the picnic table.  All the while, I smell that poignant summer scent of burning charcoal, an aroma that—in my mind—means delicious food is on its way.

This past year, I learned about another way charcoal is used in food production.  A few Purdue folks–Tamara Benjamin, Kevin Gibson, and Amy Thompson–paid a visit to our farm and asked us to participate in the Biochar Student Mentoring and Participatory Learning project, a project funded by a USDA SARE grant. 

All those titles to say, we’ll be growing some veggies in biochar.  So what is the stuff?

small biochar pic

Photo Credit: Hugh McLaughlin and Doug Clayton

Hundreds of years ago, indigenous farmers in the Amazon would burn forest products to create biochar, or charcoal derived from combusting biomass.  These farmers then used this biochar as a soil amendment, mixing it with fish bones and human waste to produce rich, fertile soil know as terra preta for their crops.

Beginning this summer we’ll be using biochar as a soil amendment on our farm.  But we won’t be using it on everything, only one designated crop each year for three years.  This year we’ll be growing baby red potatoes, which we’ll be planting into three different types of plots:

  • high fertility biochar
  • low fertility biochar
  • no biochar

At the end of the season, we’ll measure produce yields and plant health from a randomized block design, looking for differences among the three types of plots.

Perkins’ Good Earth Farm isn’t the only farm participating in this project.  Five other farms in Indiana are also involved:

Each farm has a different soil type and microclimate, which will be taken into consideration when measuring the data.

Group Farm Photo (resized)

Group Photo: January 5 Meeting at Purdue

 Part of this project also includes the opportunity for us to mentor an undergraduate student who’s interested in small farms, research, and soils.  We’re very excited to be working with Sarah Lindvall of Wheatfield, Indiana, who you’ll get to hear more from later this year.

Sarah picture

2015 Intern: Sarah Lindvall

 We hope you’ll stop by this summer to take a look at the plots and get a closer look at on-farm research in action!  If you let me know you’re coming ahead of time, we just might be able to fire up that grill and enjoy a burger together. 

4 Comments

  1. Wow, Julie! That is so interesting! I’m assuming they will supply you with this biochar, but I am curious how it is made, since most times, things usually just turn to ashes. Andyway, to think they were doing this hundreds of years ago is pretty amazing to me.

    • Julie Oudman Perkins

      January 26, 2015 at 1:41 pm

      Lynn, you’ll have to come out and see the plots once we get the biochar delivered this spring. During our last meeting, Dr. Klein Ileleji gave a brief talk about using a kiln to produce biochar on site, but our biochar will be supplied. Once I learn more about the biochar we’ll be using and how it’s made, I’ll write a post about it! 🙂

  2. Interesting, Julie. When we were in Liberia in June, we watched farmers make the charcoal that Liberians use to cook all their meals. They do it the way they have for generations — all by hand. They clear a plot of forest, pile the wood in a certain configuration, cover it with a specific set of natural materials, and set it on fire. It smolders for a few weeks and is sold by the bundle. The land is then burned to clear for planting. Maybe they working with a concept similar to biochar.

    • Julie Oudman Perkins

      January 26, 2015 at 1:44 pm

      Very interesting, Thriesa! I’ll pass that information on to the others in our group when we next meet and see if anyone’s familiar with that process.

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