An ongoing biochar project in Southern Oregon might clarify the agricultural role of a product and technology that has been talked about for years and has fervent backers, but hasn’t yet broken through to commercial success.
Coordinated by the Umpqua Biochar Education Team (UBET) and funded with a two-year, $75,000 grant from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, 10 farmers have spent the past year learning to make biochar and combine it with compost for application on pastures.
“The idea was to work with farmers who have livestock and take two waste streams — manure and woody debris — and combine them to make a really valuable soil amendment,” said Kelpie Wilson, a biochar consultant who helps coordinate the work.
The farms involved range from a century farm of almost 1,000 acres that raises grass-fed beef to a small hobby farm of perhaps five acres, and producers who raise dairy goats, pastured pork and sell eggs at farmers markets. The farms are in Douglas, Jackson and Josephine counties.
The UBET team is documenting the work and at the end of the grant period will produce technical papers that can be shared by extension offices and followed up by NRCS.
The Umpqua work will increase understanding of biochar and its benefits, said Todd Peplin, Conservation Innovation Grant program manager for NRCS in Portland. Small farms may be the first avenue for its agricultural application, he said, and the conservation grant program is well-matched to support that work.
Biochar is essentially charcoal produced by burning material such as logging slash or field straw in the presence of little oxygen. The resulting material retains moisture and nutrients, sequesters carbon and has shown great promise to improve soil, boost crop yields, cleanup old mining sites, capture pollutants from stormwater runoff, absorb odor and other uses.
However, the technology’s advance has been stop and go.
To some degree, the diversity of biochar sources and potential applications works against it. “It’s too spread out, so it doesn’t have a sector that’s really a champion for it,” said Tom Miles, who chaired an Aug. 22-25 biochar conference hosted by Oregon State University’s College of Forestry. About 300 people attended the conference, including researchers, educators and producers.
Wilson, the consultant, said biochar production could be a natural for small farms that have burn piles and manure they need to deal with.
The project has resulted in spinoff activity at Umpqua Community College, where welding students are making farm-sized steel kilns that provide the controlled burning necessary to produce biochar. Students also participate in the kiln design process, Wilson said.
“That was part of our goal in the (NRCS) grant,” she said. “We wanted to see if this could stimulate a new small industry in the area.
“I think a lot of rural landowners would like to have one of these,” she said. Farmers “spend a lot of time burning things, and with this they can do it with very little smoke and get something for their effort.”
The project is online at http://ubetbiochar.blogspot.com