THE NORTH CAROLINA FARM CENTER FOR INNOVATION AND SUSTAINABILITY: SETTING UP LARGE SCALE BIOCHAR FIELD TRIALS

The North Carolina Farm Center for Innovation and Sustainability (NCFCIS), a 501(c) (3) nonprofit sustainable farming organization has developed and employed one of the larger scale farming models in the US which focuses on the effects of biochar use on the sandy soils found throughout the Southeast coastal plain region (Southeastern North Carolina). Efficient and strategic introduction of biochar for agricultural use requires farm-scale production using locally available feedstocks.

Biochar has received a lot of interest and press as a soil amendment due to the apparent ability of the material to enhance crop productivity and sequester carbon in soil (biochar normally contains in excess of 60% carbon on a dry basis, with a very long and stable soil retention time, suggested to be in thousands of years!). While an ancient product, dating back thousands of years to use in South America, called “terra preta”, the functional and critically important characteristics of biochar are only recently beginning to be identified and understood. The refinement in the understanding of this very interesting material is literally in its infancy, and thus almost any new data can play a critical role in building an understanding that can enable this ancient product to emerge once again as an important tool in our efforts to achieve ever improving environmental sustainability for the future.

Use of biochar along with other complimentary technologies and processes relating to its use have the potential to impact the local and national economy in a positive manner, by allowing what once was deemed unusable or underutilized farmland to become productive.  Economic stimulation begins with the creation of jobs and the influx of expendable income into the marketplace. As a land-area scale-neutral component, biochar has the potential to become a catalyst that could jump start that process by helping farm operations to expand and become more profitable, creating a need for more labor and opening the door to new business opportunities related to the production, application, and marketing of amendment-based materials. It may also serve to help regulate the availability of nutrients for crops, resulting in the possibility of achieving excellent yields with reduced inputs, a point that will be made subsequently in this report.

The landscape of agriculture, especially in the Southeastern United States, is changing rapidly. Smaller family owned farms are not as prevalent as they once were, giving way to larger units depending on economies of scale to compete in commodity-based agriculture. The demise and waning popularity of tobacco production within the state of North Carolina, especially, has significantly changed the patterns of land use as well as economic viability of the rural communities in the region.

What follows is the final report of the three-year study involving field trials utilizing biochar and presents results and insights that relate to potential benefits from biochar application as a soil amendment. This project should be considered a starting point in what should to be a modern national effort, modeled after the historically successful “Regional Research Project System” in USDA/CSRS (subsequently CSREES/REE), to apply a national need to an integrated and coordinated effort to understand and subsequently provide recommendations for when and where to most effectively use biochar as an AGRICULTURAL soil amendment. NRCS is encouraged to take the lead in developing this initiative, and the budgetary support to fund it.

A 2009 national Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG) award from USDA provided funding to enable adding biochar as one of these promising technologies. As a result, the Farm Center is now assessing biochar’s potential for improving soil conditions and agricultural productivity in practical ways to reach the widest range of rural beneficiaries. Please click here for the full report authored by Len Bull.

Please see the conclusions from the report below:

The three year trial in agricultural biochar conducted by the North Carolina Farm Center for Innovation and Sustainability is finished.  As you read the final report you will note some of our surprises and challenges.

But the consensus of everyone involved in this project is that biochar as an agricultural soil amendment has a bright future—and may be the driver that brings the biochar industry of clean energy, carbon sequestration and conservation into the common nomenclature of the marketplace.

The next and very important step is to take lessons learned in the sandy soils of North Carolina and translate them into a national initiative that can be regionalized to local soils.  If the beneficial impact of agricultural biochar on crops in larger field trial is not pursued it would be a disservice to farmers, conservationists and taxpayers.

Equally exciting, however, are the opportunities agricultural biochar offers in conservation and sustainable practices and agricultural entrepreneurship. Going forward biochar has implications that include:

  • the relationship between agricultural biochar and microbial soil (qauntum) application to increase crop yield.
  • the entrepreneurial challenge to develop cost effective and efficient ‘economies of scale biochar equipment.
  • the remediation effect of field biochar application to reduce nutrient run-off and water pollution.
  • the determination of the value of agricultural biochar in the developing carbon markets.

Climate, water, food security and carbon are moving once again into discussions that will determine national policies. Agricultural bichar has a place in each of these arenas.

The North Carolina Farm Center for Innovation and Sustainability feels privileged and honored to have had the opportunity to have participated in these trials and in doing so have opened the door to finding solutions to issues critical to us all.

For more information, contact Sharon Valentine at svalentine@ncfarmcenter.org or visit the website at: www.ncfarmcenter.org.