Valley News – It’s a good burn: Biochar helps farmers breathe more life into dead plants


WOODSTOCK — Dorie Seavey watched Ken Scherer throw loads of barberry, along with dry, downed branches of maple, red pine and ash, into a massive metal oven in her yard.

What looks like a pile of yard waste Scherer considers it “biomass,” a catch-all term that includes forestry and agricultural residues — such as those Seavey collected — as well as animal and food waste. It’s the world’s most abundant source of renewable carbon, and people like Scherer think it’s time to put it to good use.

Scherer will burn the biomass in the oven, rather than as a smoky open fire. Burned at high temperatures with little oxygen, a process called pyrolysis, the biomass becomes “biochar,” a substance that can be applied to farmland to improve soil quality.

That’s why Seavey invited Scherer, an organic farmer from upstate New York, to his property in late June. Making biochar and teaching others how to do it and why they should do it is his bread and butter.

“With a hotter, cleaner burn, this results in charcoal that can be ground up and returned to the ground,” Scherer said of the combustion product that collects in the bottom of the kiln.

Biochar is porous and very absorbent. When applied to pastures and croplands, it can act as a soil amendment and buffer that increases a soil’s ability to hold water, resist erosion, and filter pollutants.

“More space in your floor means more life,” Scherer said.

Seavey, a climate economist who moved from Cape Cod, Mass., to 47 acres in Woodstock last June, is interested in forest management strategies that capture carbon, thereby mitigating climate change.

“As far as emitting the least harmful compounds, I want to learn how to make the burn as clean as possible,” said Seavey, who turned to biochar as an alternative to smoky open burning piles.

Seavey had spent several hours pulling barberry, an invasive bush that looks like barbed wire, out of his garden. Now in the oxygen-limiting kiln, which requires more than 1,600 pounds of woody debris to fill, it has found new life.

The oven is portable: it can be taken apart and laid flat in the bed of a truck or in a trailer. Scherer travels the country organizing protests similar to this one for the Biochar Coalition, a Nevada-based organization aimed at spreading awareness of the benefits of biochar.

When he’s not on the road, Scherer runs K Organics on 17 acres in Boston, NY, near Lake Erie, where he makes natural fertilizers like “bug droppings” or bug droppings.

“I make about 60 pounds a week of bug shit,” Scherer said.

Biochar mixed with dung makes a nutrient-dense fertilizer and is just one of the many ways gardeners and farmers are experimenting with creating closed organic farming systems.

Seavey’s neighbor, Amy Halley, came with two of her children to watch Scherer work in the oven.

Halley and her husband, Ben, own and operate Second Wind Farm down the road, where they raise about two dozen cattle on a rotational grazing system, another process that sequesters carbon by keeping carbon stores in grass healthy and intact.

“We really thought about soil health and reducing emissions from the start,” said Halley, who sometimes incorporates Seavey land into her grazing rotation.

A common way to incorporate biochar into soils is through cattle grazing, where cattle trample and grind the organic mixture into the soil.

“Animals are just perfect for biochar,” Scherer said.

Burning for biochar most commonly occurs in the western United States, where the process thins woody debris on the forest floor that contributes to wildfire risk. While certainly still a benefit in New England, biochar would probably be most useful for building productive soil without the use of chemical fertilizers.

“The tree is dead; it had its effect. How can we keep this tree’s legacy alive? Scherer asked, nodding at the pile of biomass he was feeding into the oven.

“We use the things that are around. This closes the loop. »

Frances Mize is a member of the Report for America corps. She can be reached at [email protected] or 603-727-3242.


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