Biochar’med: A One Stop Shop to Improve Soil Fertility, Improve Water Absorption, Filter Water and Repair the Climate

Finally, an answer I can dig my hands into. It arrived wrapped in a canvas bag with the words BLACK REVOLUTION and an image of a hand making a peace sign stenciled in red. Inside, a plastic gallon ziploc containing a mix of compost, coir (shredded coconut husk) and biochar, the secret sauce of terra preta, the rich black earth that helped pre-Columbian cultures thrive in the otherwise nutrient-poor soils of the Amazonian jungle.

Ever since I first read about terra preta in a National Geographic article by Charles (1491) Mann, I have wanted some. And now here it is, an ancient tech that might just help save us all.

Although the ancients, who created it by burning plant wastes in low-oxygen environments such as buried pits, were interested only in creating more fertile soil, biochar is not just carbon neutral, but carbon negative, absorbing atmospheric CO2. In other words, it is exactly what we need lots of right now.

Unlike modern petrochemical fertilizers that must be applied each season to give a jolt of nutrition to crops (and, collaterally, to the algae blooming in “dead zones” downstream), biochar helps soils become more fertile by creating friendly habitat for microbes, starting a virtuous circle of soil-building that only gets better over time.

Writes Mann:

…Much as the green revolution dramatically improved the developing world’s crops, terra preta could unleash what the scientific journal Nature has called a “black revolution” across the broad arc of impoverished soil from Southeast Asia to Africa…

… Tropical soils quickly lose microbial richness when converted to agriculture. Charcoal seems to provide habitat for microbes—making a kind of artificial soil within the soil—partly because nutrients bind to the charcoal rather than being washed away. Tests by a U.S.-Brazilian team in 2006 found that terra preta had a far greater number and variety of microorganisms than typical tropical soils—it was literally more alive.

A black revolution might even help combat global warming. Agriculture accounts for more than one-eighth of humankind’s production of greenhouse gases. Heavily plowed soil releases carbon dioxide as it exposes once buried organic matter. Sombroek argued that creating terra preta around the world would use so much carbon-rich charcoal that it could more than offset the release of soil carbon into the atmosphere. According to William I. Woods, a geographer and soil scientist at the University of Kansas, charcoal-rich terra preta has 10 or 20 times more carbon than typical tropical soils, and the carbon can be buried much deeper down. Rough calculations show that “the amount of carbon we can put into the soil is staggering,” Woods says. Last year Cornell University soil scientist Johannes Lehmann estimated in Nature that simply converting residues from commercial forestry, fallow farm fields, and annual crops to charcoal could compensate for about a third of U.S. fossil-fuel emissions. Indeed, Lehmann and two colleagues have argued that humankind’s use of fossil fuels worldwide could be wholly offset by storing carbon in terra preta nova. (emphasis added)

—Our Good Earth / National Geographic

There’s more.

And now, thanks to a small but sparky start up called re:char and a Kickstarter campaign, I have got a bag of this wonderful stuff. I can help my garden grow and help the planet, too—really, truly.

Of course, one bag won’t make much of a difference. But if were possible to scale up production through a global network of small manufacturers using local feedstocks, and if biochar were adopted at even a hundredth the rate of cell phones, the world might be a noticeably better place in the not so distant future. Pretty flowers, nice veggies and a climate under repair. Really, why wouldn’t we try this?

—J. A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews

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Everything Old is New Again: Time to Get Growing with Biochar and Victory Gardens

Finally, thanks to Kickstarter, I am going to get my very own bag of biochar and couldn’t be more thrilled. If you hurry, you can get some, too.

Biochar (a.k.a. “char,” “agrichar”) is charcoal made from plant waste burned in a low oxygen kiln called a pyrolizer. It really truly is a better answer: a rare “two-fer” that improves soil fertility while absorbing CO2.

First used by pre-Columbian Amazonians, layers of terra preta (literally “black earth”) are proof of a richer past, the vibrant black in stark contrast to reddish nutrient-poor rainforest soils of today  Terra preta was literally the ground upon which great prehistoric cultures developed.

If we are lucky, it may just help save ours. James “Gaia” Lovelock is a fan. So is paleontologist-turned-climate-crusader Tim Flannery.

Jason Aramburu is the founder of a small company called re:char that has focused most of its efforts on small-plot farmers in Kenya. His team has prototyped a manufacturing facility in a shipping container and developed a “home-brew” pyrolizer, dubbed a  Climate Kiln, sold in the US through its website,

Even at this modest scale, results are impressive. According to Aramburu, Kenyan farmers have seen their crop yields double.

Now, Aramburu wants to take the “Black Revolution” global, looking to crowdsource funding and research for a US-based field test aimed at gardeners and small farmers:

We want to find out how well biochar can work in domestic gardening and small-scale farming. We seek growers of all sizes (potted plants up to small farmers) and all skill levels to test out Black Revolution on their crops and report back to us. By backing our campaign, you will become part of the biggest trial in the US to evaluate the effectiveness of biochar for domestic farmers and gardeners. We will ask backers to measure the height and yield of their plants at multiple points for publication into a comprehensive study. We will also determine how much carbon we have all offset through the use of Black Revolution. All backers will receive results of the study upon completion and name recognition in the full-length draft of the study.

Depending on your desired level of participation and pledge, you will receive a corresponding supply of Black Revolution (see rewards for details) along with planting instructions and support during the study. You will receive your bag in time for the fall season of planting. A limited number of rush bags are available for spring and summer planting. We expect to publish the results of our study by January 1st 2013.

Although fall planting is a bit hit and miss here in Chicago, who knows? Given the recent streak of 80 degree days this past March, perhaps we have shifted into milder Mediterranean mode.

However I can help, I am excited to be a part of this. Biochar is one of the few bright spots on the climate horizon—one that could actually help turn the tide.

Straight biochar can be a little tricky for the novice to use, so Black Revolution is a blend of biochar, nutrients and sustainably harvested coconut husks. Compared to conventional growing media, which is made from composted factory farm manure, Bornean peat moss and Kenyan vermiculite, it has a better carbon footprint right out the bag (the recycled burlap coffee bean bag). According to Aramburu, each bag contains enough carbon negative goodness to offset emissions from 60+ miles of driving.

There’s more! Biochar creates a matrix for soil microbes, so soil gets better and better over time. And, unlike chemical fertilizers, there is no run-off problem. The goodness continues downstream where giant algal blooms are not triggered and massive hypoxic “dead zones” are not created. Indeed, biochar may be a fish’s best friend.

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URBS IN HORTO: THE CITY IN A GARDEN’S GARDENERS

LaManda Joy has also found inspiration in the past.

During World War II, Chicago led the nation in the Victory Garden movement. This was a shock to almost everyone in the country because not only was Chicago the second largest urban area in the nation, but 90% of its citizens had never gardened before.

Of course, Chicago has always been a foodie city, so maybe it shouldn’t have been a complete surprise…

In any case, over the last couple of years, Joy has become a Pied Piper of urban gardening, spearheading The Peterson Garden Project, which includes the largest community garden in the city along with several neighborhood “pop up Victory Gardens.” Let there be lettuce!

Now, just add a little Black Revolution.

Jason, meet LaManda…

—J.A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews

RELATED:

International Biochar Initiative / website

Sustainable biochar to mitigate global climate change / Nature