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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.

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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. 

Guest Post: Biochar Production in Nicaragua

Over the past 8 months, I’ve been writing about our farm’s experience with biochar.  Here I’d like to offer a different perspective on biochar by sharing a post written by Dordt College graduate Danielle Zuidema, who studied biochar production, soil benefits, and marketing in Nicaragua.

Ever since my older sister studied abroad in Belize, I decided that, if granted the opportunity, I too was going to study in a different part of the world. My wishes came true when two years ago this month (August, 2013), I left the security of my home to study abroad for three months in Leon, Nicaragua. The classes I took were organized through the Nehemiah Center, which is a Christian center that focuses on holistic, transformational development of Nicaraguan communities. There I studied Spanish, Nicaraguan culture, literature, art, history and agriculture.  I also did an independent study on the benefits of biochar on soil composition and crop production and its marketing potential in the region of Leon.

Biochar Stove & Production

For two months I worked once or twice a week with Carlos Aker, a Nicaraguan graduate student, and Karina Fast, another Dordt student.

Danielle and Carlos

Danielle and Carlos

 A year prior to our coming, Carlos had researched the benefits of biochar and designed and created a biochar stove. The idea behind the biochar stove is to produce an organic fertilizer exempt of gases and water and able to last for a long time in the soil. This is achieved through the process of pyrolysis: the thermal decomposition of wood in the absence of oxygen that reaches temperatures between 300 and 1000 degrees Celsius. The cookstove design accomplishes that.

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Dry organic material is placed into a reactor, which is closed to prevent the entrance of oxygen so that no oxidation of the wood and ash occur.

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The reactor has holes, which allow the escape of gases that are consumed by the fire inside the stove.

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After filling the container with the biomass, a heat source must be created around the container so that the reactor reaches a temperature higher than 300 degrees Celsius. 

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In addition to developing biochar, we were curious about whether someone could use the stove in the kitchen for more efficient and environmentally-friendly cooking. In the average rural Nicaraguan kitchen, water, beans, rice, etc. are all heated over an open fire stove. Our tests were all designed around in-home making of biochar, which caused a lot of excess heat in the home. To take advantage of this extra heat, we attempted to create three circular burners on the stove lid.

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We tested and adjusted several stove tops until settling on burner holes with a vent-like structure that could be opened or closed at any time. Between 1-3 items, such as coffee, soups, tortillas, and pots of food, could be cooked at a time on the stove top.  We discovered that by using the heat created by the biochar stove, we could heat water and cook beans in a portion of the time it took to do the same with an open fire set up. Once finished cooking, we closed the holes in the lid to avoid accidents, reduce heat loss, and redirect fire towards the reactor. The disadvantage of using the stove for cooking was that the stove got incredibly hot, even on the outer edges, which created a risk for injury.  

Biochar Market in Nicaragua

Karina and I also researched the potential for a local biochar market in Leon. We created a simplified version of a break-even sheet, which we presented to a group of local farmers at a field day gathering we held in early December.

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The cost of production of biochar in Nicaragua is between 500 and 600 córdobas per 100 pounds, which is equivalent to $20-25 USD, depending on the quality of biochar. The stove itself costs $100 USD, though there is potential for farmers to receive a loan from Carlos to cover a portion of the initial cost. These loans are then paid off with the first few productions of biochar the farmer makes.

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Farmers attending the field day

 Biochar is an agronomic soil amendment that could be adopted by many producers in the Leon region of Nicaragua and in the country in general to benefit both the environment and the farmer. 

Danielle is a 23 year old graduate from Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, with a degree in Agricultural Business and a minor in Spanish. She is the second oldest of five children in her family and currently the only one directly involved in the agricultural industry. Her hobbies include baking, playing games, gardening, drinking tea and doing whatever possible to keep her mind off her student loans. 

Photo Credits: Danielle Zuidema

Farm Update: Building Projects, Fall Shares, New Intern

I feel a little bit like spring busyness snuck up on me this year, maybe because we were gone for the week of spring break (yay for Legoland and Manatee Springs State Park in Florida!), or maybe because I was picking daffodils a this past weekend in a snowstorm.

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Photo Credit: Anne Kingma

No matter the weather, I’m always happy for spring, even though this spring will be a little different for us here at Perkins’ Good Earth Farm.  The only thing we’ve planted so far is–gasp–our garden!  That’s right, the high tunnel is empty of green except for my winter kitchen herbs.  Why, you may ask, this dearth of spring produce?  

Our goal for this spring and summer is to build another high tunnel and a packing shed/walk-in-cooler, two structures we need to expand our Fall CSA program and move us closer to Dan transitioning into full-time farming.  And since there are truly only so many hours in a day, we decided to focus our energies on building structures for a season so that we can grow more delicious veggies for many seasons to come.  (Okay, okay, we are growing early cherry tomatoes, lunchbox peppers, and green beans for Valley Kitchen this summer.  We couldn’t help ourselves.)

So even though we won’t have spring produce, we will have garlic scapes in June, garlic for sale in late summer, and you can sign up for a fall share right now by visiting our storefront.  Oh yes, and we will also have kale for sale this summer!  Remember that biochar research project we were part of last year with Purdue University?  Well, we’re on to year two, and this year we’re growing Red Russian kale with the help of our new intern, Matthew Ford, who will be starting in mid-May after school gets out.

2016 Intern: Matthew Ford

Matthew, originally from Valparaiso, is a sophomore Economics major at Wabash College.  He’s the Social Chair of his fraternity (Beta Theta Phi), VP of the Outdoorsman’s Society, a Committee head of WAR Council (Wabash Acts Responsibly)–and farm intern at Perkins’ Good Earth Farm!  We’re really looking forward to working with Matthew, and we hope many of you get a chance to meet him throughout the spring and summer.  He has large shoes to fill after the wonderful intern we had, Sarah Lindvall, but we’re confident he’ll do a great job!

 

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