HomeBioCharBioChar and Soil Fertility

Several years ago, I read an article on something called terra preta. Intrigued, I looked for information out on the Internet and found very little, other than the fact that terra preta is Portuguese for “dark earth” and that the pre-historic inhabitants of the Amazonian rain forest had manufactured it and used it as a soil amendment.

Fast forward two years: a big, big change. Suddenly, terra preta, now called “biochar”, is touted as the solution to global warming by some. Others are not so sure, so the truth likely lies somewhere in between. In its December 4, 2008 issue, Time Magazine had a piece that featured Josh Frye, of Wardensville, West Virginia, who was burning chicken litter to produce biochar. As usual with the mainstream press, there was more to the story than met the eye. Articles in The Mother Earth News and in BioCycle gave lots more information and revealed that biochar wasn’t something that the home gardener could easily produce in the quantity needed. The Gardening With BioChar wiki has a great deal of useful information about how to use biochar in the home garden and I intend to peruse this source in depth when I have the time. You can make your own biochar, but you can also buy regular charcoal from Cowboy Charcoal in 20 pound bags or you can buy a whole pallet of the stuff if you want to apply it to your entire garden. The TreeHugger site has an interesting article that documents up to a 17% increased yield by using biochar as compared to a control plot.

The International Biochar Initiative website also has a great deal of information on the subject. I’m not sure how I got to this particular page, but biochar is not a light topic. There is some very serious research taking place.

Here is a video that features Johannes Lehmann, of Cornell University, which offers an overview of this complex and fascinating subject. The truck spreading biochar and the pyrolysis unit are on Josh Frye’s farm:

Is anyone in Virginia or the Carolinas using biochar in their gardens? BioChar has “permaculture” stamped all over it – how many other folks out there are investigating its use?


BioChar and Soil Fertility — 4 Comments

  1. I didn’t know what you meant when you mentioned BioChar in a comment on the story I wrote about Bill McKibben’s visit to Floyd, but today I read Will Bason’s article on it in the latest Museletter. Do you get it? Here’s a link http://floydmuse.com/wils/blog.html If you make some maybe you should invite some of us to watch and learn.

  2. Biochar will be a black revolution in the Shenandoah Valley. Biochar, the modern version of an ancient Amazonian agricultural practice called Terra Preta (black earth), is gaining widespread credibility as a way to address world hunger, climate change, rural poverty, deforestation, and energy shortages simultaneously! This technology represents the most comprehensive, low cost, and productive approach to long term stewardship and sustainability. Terra Preta soils are the end result of a process that creates bio-fuels, carbon sequestration from the application of biochar, 10X lower methane and nitrous oxide soil emissions, and 3X fertility too. This virtuous energy cycle converts one ton of biomass to 30% charcoal for soil sequestration, 25% syn-gas and 25% bio-oil.

    Biochar viewed as soil infrastructure. The old saw,
    “Feed the Soil Not the Plants” becomes:
    “Feed, Clothe and House the Soil, utilities included”!

    Free carbon condominiums with carboxyl group fats in the pantry and hydroxyl alcohol in the mini bar. Build it and the Wee-Beasties will come. As one microbiologist said on the Biochar list; “Microbes like to sit down when they eat”. By setting this table we expand husbandry to whole new orders of life.

    This is what I try to get across to farmers, as to how I feel about the act of returning carbon to the soil. An act of pertinence and thankfulness for the civilization we have created. Farmers are the soil sink bankers; once carbon has a price, they will be laughing all the way to the bank. Several biochar programs are now happening at Virginia Tech and at James Madison University. Months ago VA Tech demonstrated the first ever mobile pyrolysis unit at the Heatwole farm in Dayton VA, converting a ton of chicken litter into 1/3 ton biochar and the rest into bio-oil and syn-gas.

    I spoke with Jon Nilsson of the CarbonChar Group, in their third year of field trials. He said the 2008 trials at Virginia Tech showed a 46% increase in yield of tomato transplants grown with just 2-5 cups (2-5%) “Biochar+” per cubic foot of growing medium. Go to: http://www.carbonchar.com/plant-performance for more information.

    Biochar is the only carbon negative energy system. Farming is carbon management. Farmers should embrace carbon taxes; they have the greatest ability to capture and store it. No-till practices are now granted carbon credits for increases in soil carbon content. Increased soil carbon means increased yields. This soil amendment is unlike any other in that it is organic carbon yet biologically inedible and remains in the soil for thousands of years. If American farmers were paid what the Europeans pay out in carbon taxes they would receive $300 for every ton of biochar spread on their fields. The increased crop yields would be icing on their black earth cake.

    I have involved (at James Madison University) Wayne Teel (Environment/ISAT, my field study) and Rob Prins (Engineering), who is building a reactor at the James Madison University farm. There is also a planned 10 acre permaculture/composting/biochar, fruit, herb and produce farm at the new campus of Rockingham Memorial Hospital to feed patients and James Madison University students. Six professors of agriculture at Virginia Tech are doing work or following biochar. My biochar field trials in McGaheysville are with James Madison University, Dr. Paul Hepperly of the Rodale Institude in PA, Houff Feed & Fertilizer Co. and local farmers.

    Carbon to the soil, the only ubiquitous and economical place to put it.


    Erich J. Knight
    Eco Technologies Group Technical Adviser
    University of California Riverside advisory board member
    Shenandoah Gardens (Owner)
    1047 Dave Barry Rd.
    McGaheysville, VA. 22840
    540 289 9750
    Co-Administrator, Biochar Data base and discussion list TP-REPP

    I will be speaking at the first North American Biochar Conference, in Boulder Aug 12-15, about my efforts to network the many disciplines and organizations researching and implementing biochar systems.

    Keynote speakers: Secretary Tom Vilsack and Dr. Susan Solomon (NOAA’s head atmospheric scientist) at:


    My attendance is thanks to the folks at EcoTechnologies Group.
    ( http://www.ecotechnologies.com/index.html; they have also fully funded my field trials with the Rodale Institute and James Madison University)

    • Erich,

      Thank you so much for taking the time to write such a detailed comment! I’ve noticed that this post has gotten a lot of “hits”, so I’m sure that your comments will be widely read.

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