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Alaska Biochar

Delta Junction wheatA new group has formed in the State of Alaska in the United States to focus on biochar trials in the far north. You may wonder if we can grow food in Alaska. The answer is “yes” we have a short growing season but we have very long days in the summer. Currently, we have 15 hours and 58 minutes of day light. The soil is thawing and growers are getting ready to start their planting for this growing season.  Alaska soils are silty soils derived from glacial loess and glacial fed river sediment. These soils have low nutrient content and organic matter which is due to low decomposition rates because of cool temperatures. Additives to the soil are really important for plant growth and provide new ways for improving soil fertility through sustainable farming practices. This is a major interest among farmers in the state.

This summer we are going to start our first biochar trial in the village of Ruby which is located in the interior part of the state in the Yukon-Koyokuk watershed. The shipping cost for food to the villages is very high and the need for residents to grow their own food during the summer is a growing necessity with the high cost of fossil fuels. We are going to make biochar using a simple pyrolysis –gasification system utilizing local woods and compost. We are excited to see our results.  We will keep you posted and if you have any suggestions.  

Photo, Delta Junction wheat fields, courtesy of Sunny Castillo

August 2010 Update

In the small village of Ruby, Alaska harvest of moose, bear and salmon are part of a subsistence lifestyle. However, people are becoming more interested on growing fresh vegetables to supplement their diet due to the high cost of importing fresh produce to their villages. Gardeners in Ruby and the rest of Alaskan villages are looking for ways to improve their soil quality and fertility using local renewable products. In these remote locations soil fertility is an issue and the use of soil enhancers are necessary. This summer, Ed Sarten a resident of Ruby AK, made his first batch of biochar using white spruce and moose bones  using a 55 gallon barrel. Ed is going to try a germination test before applying his biochar into his garden next year, and a sample of the biochar has been sent to a lab to determine the available nutrients. We hope to improve our systems for producing biochar in small scale for gardens in Alaska and help other residents to learn about this technology to ameliorate the soil. Biochar Alaska will send updates on this work as they are available.

One member's story, from Ed Sarten

Ed SartenI use biochar in a small organic garden on a south facing slope in Ruby, Alaska. I use food waste, fish, chicken manure, leaves and straw as the bases of my compost pile that I use on my garden.  I also burn bones from my subsistence hunting for calcium & phosphorous and add Kelp for trace minerals. I grow potatoes in my newer plots and grow peas, cabbage, carrots, lettuce, zucchini, turnips, bush beans flowers, different herbs outside and cucumbers, peppers and tomatoes in a greenhouse.

I have also recently been Bee Keeping for pollination and Honey. I have been storing my moose and bear bones to blend with spruce along with Birch wood to create biochar for my first trial this June.

I will be using a 55 gal drum to make the charcoal in and then grinding it and apply it to my garden in different ratios on different plots. I first heard of biochar through reading the book 1491 and later in permaculture articles which sparked my interest. I will keep reporting on my results.

Photo: Ed Sarten in his garden