2011 21.3 Miracle of Biochar

Several years ago Vera Karnofski read a fascinating article in an old Scientific American or National Geographic (she can’t quite remember which) about how the peoples of the Amazonian Rainforest amended their soil using biochar. She showed it to husband Jim who dove in headfirst. The rest, as they say, is history.

“Biochar is a win, win, win,” said Jim. “It can be made from a renewable resource—wood; it reduces carbon dioxide emissions that are causing global warming; and it provides for nutrients in the garden….It doesn’t get better than that.”

Restorative Gardening

“We bought this property in ‘83—it was 80 acres of timberland that had been harvested in 1860, 1901 and 1950,” said Jim. “Now we’ve got 70,000 trees in the back and an experimental garden for the soil.”

Jim points to rows of vegetable beds showing dark chocolate-rich soil on their Ilwaco, Washington property. Despite the cold spring season, Jim and Vera already have chards, salad greens, celery, onions and garlic bursting out from every bed.

“We try to find crops that will winter over well. We like Asian greens and spinach, here is a flowering leek,” Jim said as we wander the garden. “There’s an artichoke. Oh, and I’ve dug up raspberries that are acclimated to our environment. I’ll put some in the back of your car.”

The magic at work here, besides the unstoppable energy of both Vera and Jim, is that they have harnessed the science of soil. Bear with us as we take a small step into the biochar textbook.

Pyrolysis: Fire in the Hole

Pyrolysis is the process of using high temperatures—390–570 Fahrenheit—to decompose organic material in the absence of oxygen. (The word is from the Greek “pyr”—for fire; and “lysis” for separating.) Extreme pyrolysis of organic substances—producing gas and liquids—is called carbonization and leaves a solid material rich in carbon.

Basically, biochar is the carbon remains of wood that have gone through this process which, because of its atomic make-up, provides a stable chemical bonding material that fixes nutrients in the soil.

Jim illustrates how to make biochar by filling an Army surplus ammo can with regular wood pellets and then building an enormous fire in his glass-windowed stove. He throws the ammo box inside the stove and closes the door.

“Watch now and in a minute or so you’ll see the off-gassing begin,” he said as we watched through the glass. “The burn lasts about three hours. Then I’ll let the box cool and take it to the compost pile to be mixed with soil. Biochar comes out of the fire bone dry and sterile.”

Living Green

As we watch, Jim utilizes his microbiology degree by passionately explaining the scientific details of the process. Very quickly we become immersed in 10’s to higher powers, chemical equations, amino acid chains and peptides bonds.

My head is spinning but I don’t have to take Jim’s word for it: the proof is in their garden.

Vera arrives with a plate of homemade bread and raspberry jam (from the garden) while we pour over the many books stacked on their big country table. Jim gathers up some of his favorite passages to read.

From the Organic Manifesto by Maria Rodale he finds, “If you do just one thing—make one conscious choice—that can change the world, go organic.”

And another, a quote from Rattan Lal, Professor of Agriculture, at Ohio State University, “We are dealing with ten global issues at the moment: food security, availability of water, climate change, energy demand, waste disposal, extinction of biodiversity, soil degradation and desertification, poverty, political and ethnic instability, and rapid population increase. The solution to all of these lies in soil management.”

Jim rifles through a stack of papers, “N-P-K [nitrogen/phosphorus/potassium] are petro-chemical fertilizers that actually kill the microbes that are trying to make the soil fertile,” Jim said showing some cards with molecular structures. “Biochar helps them—it’s like the corral reef of the soil. Biochar provides a network for nutrients to bond to and worms love it.”

Waste Not, Want Not

Vera also brings out one of her favorites reads, F.H. King, Farmers of Forty Centuries, “King talks about the farmers of Korea, China and Japan and the superb tilth of their soil and the sustainability of their gardens.”

Everywhere one turns on the Karnofski property, one sees sustainable living. Kitchen waste goes into the large compost bins adjacent to the garden plots. Their stove heats the house at the same time they make biochar. (Jim also has a 55 gallon drum for making larger quantities.)

The “cold house,” as Jim calls their unheated greenhouse, “protects starts from the wind and rain” and serves as the nursery for seeds or for repotting plants that are on their way to gardening friends.

“We’re heating our home, improving the soil and sequestering CO 2,” said Jim happily as we watch the ammo case off-gas.

“And this is our fish,” said Vera of the biochar brewing inside the stove. “We trade with one neighbor for salmon and with another one for eggs.”

This article was first published in the “Chinook Observer,” the weekly
newspaper of Pacific County.

Tags: Amendment, Biochar, Cate Gable, Farm, Farmer, Garden, Karnofski, Methods, Nutrients, Organic, Soil, Soil Management, Techniques, Tilth on the Willapa, Vegetable, Vera, Wood