Ground Up

" This is where biochar is today in agriculture. Its a better mousetrap in the midst of a huge rodent epidemic and still, most people can’t even buy any. "

Ever since William Woods, Wim Soembroek, Bruno Glazer and other dirt dorks started revealing the miraculous capacities of terra preta do indios, the dark earths of the Amazon, the story of climate change and our species impending extinction became all about agriculture. By the time Johannes Lehmann and Stephen Joseph published Biochar for Environmental Management, it was clear (and validated by excellent science) that reinvigorating agriculture with ancient practices involving biochar, taken to scale, could restore Earth’s atmosphere to pre-industrial health.

Native stewardship of the Americas was all but invisible to the sensibilities of European conquerors. Worse, 500 years of unremitting ethnic cleansing destroyed unknowable riches of ecological knowledge, along with much of the rich, deep philosophy of how humans can inhabit Earth as citizens, not pirating rapists.

We confess we were among those who took the pilgrimage to Brazil, returned baptized in the soil, and predicted that billions of hectares would soon be biochared, drawing gigatons of carbon into eternal sequestration.

So what happened?

Decades on, you still can’t buy biochar fertilizers in most garden stores. The entrepreneurial landscape is littered with the corpses of companies that ramped up biochar production, or packaged microbial mixes, and then couldn’t find enough buyers to pay the office rent, never mind their payroll.

In the animal probiotic supplement area, federal laws were passed banning biochar.

A few gardeners and farmers made their own, tried it out and were sold. They evangelized their neighbors. But the vast majority were skeptics or took clueless Master Gardener courses and took no notice. While those with relatively good soils, typical of the temperate zones, saw 40 percent productivity gains, those in the tropics and other areas of poor soils, saw gains of 400 percent and more. And yet, the nascent industry continued to tank.

This past week we have been hosting a workshop at The Farm Ecovillage Training Center called Biochar from the Ground Up. We are taking biochar up from the ground and putting it to other uses that might have better business potential.

Over and over again during the workshop we heard that “farmers are conservative,” “nobody is going to pay for something that takes years to show its worth,” and “unless you spend the time to make it, you won’t even be able to get any.” This is where biochar is today in agriculture. Its a better mousetrap in the midst of a huge rodent epidemic and still, most people can’t even buy any.   

Because we are busy with the workshop we can’t easy cut out the time to pen a blog, so we taped (feebly, using a collection of devices such as phones and voice recorders) a segment of one talk we gave during the week.  Enjoy.   


Danny C said…
One of the things that struck me, and it has movement in how it things can cascade, is to "keep on keepin' on" with regards to any, not just climate change, but all that affects how we move forward. I volunteer at an Arboretum in Nevada and it bothered me enough to mention to the head horticulturist that the throwing away of leaves to keep areas "clean" were counter-productive and we needed to find a way to retain this resource and make all volunteers aware of the valuableness of leaves even in the built environment. I did this with humbleness and a little trepidation that I was overstepping my boundaries. It just so happens that he had read a study from an Missouri Arboretum that detritus (leaves and twigs) were essential for a healthy forest (imagine that, I thought self righteously). So slowly, the focus is shifting in these embedded institutions, and, judging from my reactions, we must foster patience and humbleness as we move forward. All our lives depend on it.
Joe said…
Are you aware of any studies on the economics of energy/biochar cogeneration? Mauna Loa Macadamia uses the pyrolysis gases from macadamia nut shells to generate process heat, but stops short of combusting the carbon so as to leave biochar, which is then sold. I have purchased that biochar through Pacific Biochar.

For conventional BECCS the expense of capturing the CO2 from exhaust gases would greatly reduce the value of the power obtained by the carbon combustion, not to mention the loss of the potential sales value of the biochar. It would seem that BECCS by using biochar as the capture method could already be commercially viable, especially in the tropics.
Cam said…
We have found high carbon boiler ash to contain sufficient biochar to make its use worthwhile. The source is untreated sawmill waste and the presence of some ash and unburnt chip is not a problem for our purposes. It is very affordable and the heat is certainly used.
Anonymous said…
So...the video that is supposed to be the essential part of this post is a replacement forthcoming?
Albert Bates said…
New Link

Popular Posts