Category: Biochar

Recipe: Chicken Sausage, Kale, and Peaches on Corn Tortilla

This year’s biochar crop is Red Russian kale, a variety of the once-obscure, now-seen-everywhere garden green.  


Dan talking kale with a Purdue student.


Farm intern Matt and neighbor Luke harvesting kale for research, not eating. 🙂

Even though some foodies argue that kale has reached its popularity peak, plenty of others see kale as a kitchen staple that is here to stay.  (Despite the dismay of comedian Jim Gaffigan, and, yes, Dan and I did find this clip really funny even though we love our kale!)

Anyway.  Here’s a quick kale recipe I often make for lunch for just myself.  This can also easily be made for a group of family or friends.  

Preheat a cast iron skillet over medium heat.  As it’s heating, slice a sausage in half–I used Gilbert’s Craft Cheddar Chicken Sausage.  Once the skillet is hot, fry the sausage or 3-4 minutes on each side, until browned.  

While the sausage is cooking, chop up 1 cup of kale and one small yellow peach (half a peach if it’s large). Once the sausage is done, remove it from the skillet and chop it into 1-inch pieces.

Add a little bit of olive oil to the skillet–you can skip this step if there’s enough fat from the sausage–and turn up the heat to medium-high.  Once the fat is hot, throw in the chopped kale and peach and saute 1-2 minutes.  Remove the peach and kale from the skillet.

You’re almost ready to eat!  Keeping the heat at medium-high, place one corn tortilla in the skillet and fry it for 20 seconds or so on each side.

Using tongs, put the tortilla on a plate, then pile on the chopped sausage, kale, and peaches.  Enjoy!

Chicken Sausage, Kale, and Peaches on Corn Tortilla
Serves 1
A quick and easy meal for lunch or dinner.
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  1. 1 chicken sausage
  2. 1 cup kale
  3. 1 small yellow peach
  4. 1 corn tortilla
  1. Preheat a cast iron skillet over medium heat. As it’s heating, slice a sausage in half. Once the skillet is hot, fry the sausage 3-4 minutes on each side, until browned.
  2. Chop kale and peach.
  3. Once the sausage is done, remove from the skillet. Chop sausage into 1-inch pieces.
  4. Add olive oil to the skillet if needed. Turn up heat to medium-high.
  5. Once the fat is hot, saute chopped kale and peach 1-2 minutes. Remove the peach and kale from the skillet.
  6. Keeping heat at medium-high, fry one corn tortilla for 20 seconds or so on each side.
  7. Place tortilla on a plate, then pile on the chopped sausage, kale, and peaches.
  8. Enjoy!
Perkins' Good Earth Farm

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.


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!


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.


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.


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 cĂłrdobas 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

Biochar Update: Potato Harvest and Data Collection

One of my favorite crops to harvest is potatoes.  I love pushing my hands through the soil, searching by feel for the little spuds, and grabbing just enough for a batch of oven-baked fries or sausage, potato, and greens soup or red onion-potato-feta frittata. 


Sounds kind of romantic, pastoral, right?  And it is.  Until you need to harvest pounds and pounds and pounds of potatoes.  That’s when reinforcements and machinery come in pretty handy.


Last week we entered the final phase of this year’s biochar project: harvesting potatoes.  The goal was not only to harvest but also to collect data about what was harvested.  As I’ve talked about before, the biochar potato patch was divided into 12 plots in a randomized block design: 4 plots with no biochar; 4 with 10 tons/acre of biochar in Year 1 and Year 2; and 4 with 20 ton/acre in Year 1 only. From each of these twelve plots, we needed to harvest 10% of the potatoes, record the weight, and grade for quality.



From this data, we’ll get an idea of how the applied rate of biochar affected the growth of the potatoes.  Dr. Kevin Gibson from Purdue also gathered the potato plant foliage so he could weigh the plants and have them analyzed for nutrient deficiencies.


This first round of potatoes of was harvested by hand by Dr. Gibson and two of his students, my cousin Dirk, our 10-year-old neighbor Luke, and, of course, Dan and Sarah.



The rest of the potatoes could be harvested by machine.  We used our BCS walk-behind tractor with the Root Digger (also known as Potato Digger), an attachment we purchased from Earth Tools with some of the recipe contest prize money.



This was our first time using the potato digger, and we discovered pretty quickly that for it to work effectively, we needed to cut back the foliage of the potato plants before harvesting.


Once all the potatoes are harvested, Dan will sow a cover crop (oats and peas) on the biochar plots.  The other five farms participating in the project will do the same to prepare the soil for next year’s crop: cabbages!

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet.  We’ve still got potatoes to harvest and, just as important, potatoes to sell.  When garlic goes on sale in less than two weeks, so will lovely Red Norland potatoes, so get out those recipes: fries, soup, frittata—and whatever else you love to cook with these fresh, delicious orbs.


Biochar Update: Soil Sampling

Since my last update on the Biochar Student Mentoring and Participatory Learning project, we’ve made a lot of progress.  First, we planted the Year 1 crop of Red Norland potatoes on Thursday, May 14.

Sarah Planting

Potatoes in the Ground

After planting, Sarah used the tilther to weed the paths between the potatoes. (Fun fact on the tilther: We also use this tool to incorporate compost or other soil amendments just below the soil, to a depth of about 2 inches.)


Once the potato plants were large enough, we hilled the plants, this time with the aid of a couple helpers.

Hilling - Chaco and Harper

Hilling - Dan and Sarah

But what I really want to focus on is soil sampling.  Professor Tamara Benjamin from Purdue  joined us last week Friday, June 19, to work with Sarah on taking soil samples, one sample from each of the plots in the randomized block design (review: 4 of the plots have a low rate of biochar, 4 have a high rate of biochar, and 4 have no biochar).  They used a soil probe to take the samples.

Taking the Sample

Sample Close-up

Sarah with Sample Bag

These samples will be sent to A&L Great Lakes Laboratory in Fort Wayne, where they’ll be analyzed for soil nitrates, or nitrogen.  We’re looking at nitrogen for two reasons: 1) to make sure there’s enough nitrogen in the soil for the potatoes 2) to see how the different rates of biochar affect how much nitrogren is plant available.  

Field ShotThis round of soil nitrate test results will offer useful information, but not enough.  However, by taking a number of soil samples over the three years of the project from each of the six Hoosier farms spread out over the state, and by testing for a variety of nutrients, we’re hoping to get reliable data that will offer clear insights about biochar’s value to soil and plant health.

Photography: Julie Oudman Perkins

Back to Biochar: Application

This week, our friends from Purdue braved the storms and the rain to deliver the much-anticipated biochar.


Group Photo (resized)

Back in January, I posted here on the farm blog introducing our involvement in the Biochar Student Mentoring and Participatory Learning project with an overview.  Now we’re getting into the specifics, beginning with application of the biochar.

Bucket of Biochar (resized)

One of the primary goals of this project is to determine the efficacy of biochar on different types of soils and crops, keeping constant as many variables as possible.  Two of these variables are soil texture and nutrient levels.  Consequently, in April, Purdue’s Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resources Scientist Tamara Benjamin traveled to each of the involved farms to take soil tests for analysis.  The test results determined how much fertilizer—in this case, composted chicken manure—each farmer would need to apply to his or her fields.

So on Tuesday, when Tamara and her husband Allan came to our farm, they brought along both composted chicken manure and biochar.  Dan had already prepared the 16×80 foot research area for the randomized block design, so they were ready to get to work! (And just look at that smile on Dan’s face—yay for biochar!)

Application - Dan smiling (resized)

Application - Tamara 2 (resized)

Even though you can’t tell by looking at it, there are two different rates of biochar being applied on the plots: 10 tons/acre and 20 tons/acre. Why two rates?  Because we’re trying to find out the proper agronomic rate, or, in other words how much biochar is needed to increase crop yields.  To answer this question, we’re using a randomized block design with four plots, each containing three treatments: 1) no biochar; 2) 10 tons/acre of biochar in Year 1 and Year 2; and 3) 20 ton/acre in Year 1 only.  Throughout the growing season, our intern Sarah will record data about the potato plants, such as pest, disease and weed impacts on the plants.  Each of the other five interns will be doing the same thing at their respective farms, as will the future interns in years two and three of the project.  The goal is to acquire data that shows how the biochar affects plant growth and health.  

Now let’s get back to our field.  Didn’t they do a great job?

Before Tilling (resized)

But there’s one more stop.  After saying goodbye to Tamara and Allan, Dan applied the appropriate amount of composted chicken manure (0.9 pounds per plot, in our case), then broke out his BCS walk-behind tractor and tilled all that lovely biochar into the soil.  The biochar needs to be tilled into the primary root zone of the crop, since, in theory, that’s where it will provide the most benefits to the soil and crops.

After Tilling (resized)

That’s the biochar update for now.  In a couple weeks, our intern Sarah will be joining us, and we’ll plant our Year 1 crop, Red Norland Potatoes.  More on that soon!

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. 

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