Thoughts on this article from Treehugger: : “Does Biochar live up to the hype?”
If you haven’t heard, Biochar is the charcoal that results from burning cellulose like woods or other plant stalk materials in an environment without Oxygen. This kind of burning is called gasification, since, when heated, many of the more volatile compounds leave the wood structure as gases, leaving the skeleton-like Carbon structure behind. The black biochar remains can be combusted again, like charcoal, but that’s not what we’re interested in here.
There is a buzz about biochar being the answer to the CO2 sequestration woes of the modern world as well as the cure for degraded soils all over parts of the world that rely heavily on subsistence farming. That’s right, reduce C02 levels and feed the world, it’s not a hard sell…if it works.
The Biochar Buzz got started when some researchers found what is believed to be the remains of intentional human intervention in the Amazon Rainforest’s soils in the form of a layer of black, nutrient rich carbon material called Terra Preta. Terra preta is a richly fertile mixture of microorganisms, low temperature charcoal, possibly bone fragments, feces and other ingredients that really make how and why it was created rather mysterious. Since low temperature charcoal seems to be present in terra preta, the theory follows that adding enough low temperature charcoal, aka biochar, to your soil will yield the remarkably stable platform for nutrient exchange and microorganism wonders that is terra preta.
Well, that’s what the buzz is about anyway. In the years since this buzz has begun, people have come out on both sides, some saying that at best, biochar is hit or miss in effectiveness, others saying that it is truly miraculous.
I am intrigued by it, but have yet to dig up a 50 gallon steel drum to dedicate to my own gasification of cellulose materials. Why not, you might ask? Well, the same decomposition process that takes place in a flash of smoke and gases during biochar creation is available to you, me and everyone else willing to wait on a compost pile or a good layer of sheet mulch. Will I have crystalline charcoal as a result of my compost? No, but I will have a good thick layer of organic material chock full of microorganisms that can help dynamically mitigate swings in soil pH and moisture while exchanging nutrients with my crops. Do I feel that something miraculous is happening in the soil. Yes, there is still magic in compost and nature’s patient decomposition, even if it’s not at Presto Change-o Internet Lightning speed like biochar.
What the buzz around biochar really shows me is a lack of belief in or understanding of the permaculture idea that the only true resource is a healthy system that contributes to the production of valuable thing like clean water or healthy food.
So, biochar is cool, the tinkerer in me wants to rig up a gasifying stove and try it out, but the sooner we accept that Mother Nature plays the long game, the better off we will be. And the best time to start a long journey like that is today.
“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” – Chinese Proverb
Until next time, keep growing, find your rough edges and plant something wild there.
Check out other defenders of the Soil in Dirt: The Movie