Tag: biochar

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!


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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