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Hawaii Biochar Products: Creating a Market for Biochar in Hawaii through Field Trials and Public Outreach

When Josiah Hunt graduated from the University of Hawaii at Hilo with a degree in Agroecology and Environmental Quality, he thought about pursuing his career by traveling to remote areas and conducting scientific research.  He also realized that a way to make a difference in his community would be to practice sustainable landscaping.  While working as a landscaper in 2008, he read a National Geographic article which mentioned biochar.  Josiah became immediately obsessed with the idea, but his initial excitement was met with the disappointing reality that there was none locally available for him to use.  At that time, Josiah was working with a local mill in exchange for wood to build his home.  He noticed the piles of scrap wood, saw an opportunity, and began to make his own biochar to use at home.  Two years later, he is making and selling biochar as a full time job with his company Landscape Ecology—making more money than he was while a landscaper (renamed Hawaii Biochar Products in spring 2011).

Josiah feels that a key to his success has been the personal interactions with potential clients in the area—mainly small-scale farmers, family farmers, gardeners, landscaping businesses —and letting those clients test the biochar themselves before paying for it.  When Josiah first offered biochar to his landscaping customers, most people were skeptical.  To help alleviate some of the skepticism, he felt that customers needed to see the effects of biochar for themselves.  In 2009, he was awarded a grant (Funded through the Big Island Resource Conservation and Development) to create a large batch of biochar amended compost to assess whether the biochar might mature more quickly in a compost system.  Instead of conducting field trials himself, Josiah donated all the material to agricultural businesses and interested researchers.  The idea of donating the material was not merely out of a lack of desire to conduct the trials, but to put biochar in the hands of farmers and nurserymen.  Most of the businesses which received donations have since become clients, many of their friends have now become clients, and pictures from the trials have been used to educate others.

Workshops: Education and Outreach
In addition to donating batches of biochar to businesses and researchers, Josiah felt that the family farmer/gardener segment of the community could also learn about biochar (and potentially become customers).  To this end, he offers anywhere from two hour to full day workshops, often free of charge, to community groups, classes, any anyone else interested in the subject.  Josiah has found that the most successful workshops have four hours of presentation and discussion in the morning followed by three hours of hands on activities and setting up field trials. Josiah said, “Workshops are beneficial for me, beneficial for the company, and for the industry as a whole, and a good way to reach out to the community to teach them about biochar.” He has found it important to include pictures and testimonials which highlight local experiences with biochar. He stresses that the workshops were not originally set up to create a customer base—Josiah teaches participants how to make their own biochar—but to increase the use of biochar in HI for more sustainable agriculture in the area.  Since HI soils require large soil amendments, biochar can help the soils retain organic matter.

Josiah’s photography has helped greatly to portray what much of the present data supports – that biochar can bring about noticeable and often stunning differences in plant health.

On the whole, people in the workshops are very interested in learning about biochar and having the chance to get their hands dirty.  Josiah sells or gives away small samples at the end of the day.  He finds that those who come back for more biochar don’t want bags, they want truckloads; in fact, even though he has bags of biochar for sale in three local stores, he has sold more individual truckloads than individual bags of biochar.

Expanding the Operation
Josiah credits the success of his business to working with the community in testing the product, but also to a dedicated partner in his operation, a retired engineer by the name of Robert “Bob” Ely, P.E.  Bob had not heard of biochar until he saw photos of field trials from a neighbor and was immediately interested in working with Josiah.  Bob has designed and built several grinders to get the biochar to a uniform and desirable consistency (although he is not interested in building grinders for others, he is more than willing to share the design) and is now very busy creating a retort/kiln of his own design to be used by Landscape Ecology which will likely triple capacity.  The project is in part funded by a grant for $23,000 that will pay for the materials.  The design and fabrication labor costs have all been given without charge.  Even with tripling his capacity, Josiah is not certain that he can meet demand.  He is interested in a larger facility that can handle municipal green waste—with the goal of creating a sizable industry in Hawaii.

Overall, Josiah feels that what has made his company successful to date is that he has been able to bring together many moving parts—a feedstock supplier (now 3 local sawmills) who are happy to have someone take their waste, a low cost of shipping (many goods in HI are expensive since they have to be shipped in and products made on the island can sell at lower cost), an active community of people conducting field trials and sharing their results, and the customer base of businesses and farms that want to support a small local company.

Update: as of Spring 2011, the company has changed its name to Hawaii Biochar Products and its new website is: www.hawaiibiocharproducts.com; or for more information, please contact Josiah at: jhunt@hawaiibiocharproducts.com.