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Wednesday
Feb262014

earth. air. water. fire

According to the Sonoma Biochar Initiative (SBI): 

Biochar is simply a specialized form of charcoal that is suitable for use as a soil amendment (typically combined with compost) to increase agricultural crop yields and conserve nutrients and water. Biochar is able to fulfill these functions because of its unique physical structure, with literally millions of tiny pores that hold the nutrients and water for the plants’ roots to access and enjoy. In many ways it’s akin to a coral reef in the ocean, acting as a natural attractant, sanctuary, and incubator by creating infrastructure for billions of organisms to thrive.

This is our second year experimenting with the production of biochar, and this year we have quadrupled the size of the pile we are working with.  A supber form of recycling/upcycyling, we have taken the debris and unusable elements from our forrest restoration effort and created the ultimate carbon sequestration and long term soil amendment.

Again, to quote the SBI:

Biochar is made by heating woody waste materials (of many different types) in the absence of oxygen, in a process called “pyrolysis.”  The wood is not burned, but at temperatures of about 450 to 700 degrees C  gasses are produced that feed the pyrolysis process, leaving behind essentially pure carbon with its millions of microscopic pores. This is “biochar.”


photo and quotes from Sonoma Biochar Initiative website.

Under the wet safety blanket of the blessed incoming rainstorm, we have ignited the pile.  Some people have been working on mobile commercial applications for producing biochar at multiple sites, but here at our own burn, we have opted to take advantage of a large hole lefover from the removal of some douglas firs that were shading out the farm to act as a “container” for the fire, adding to its anaerobic nature.  While the fire does not technically need a “container”, as the SBI website demonstrates, it is a decision we made based on our own experiments last year, and I will, of course, let you know how it turns out.  

As you can see from the video, or maybe you can’t, there is very little actual smoke coming off of what is a pretty sizeable fire--most of what you see is steam releasing from the earthen banks.  Check out the size of it when Juan walks by the pile--The flames are over 20 feet tall (the pile was just ignited prior to this filming).  It will die down and soon glow like an ember.  At the end of the process, what we are left with is a blackened version of almost it’s original self, more or less melted down a bit.  The gasses cook and escape while the majority of the plant matter remains in the pile, much like the product you encounter after vaporizing as opposed to smoking.  This carbon pile is then crushed and mixed with compost.  As the SBI photo above shows, the microorganisms in the compost pile have plenty of surface area to latch onto in the porous biochar.  This not only sequesters a huge percentage of the carbon usually burned off in brush piles, but it turns that debris into our most valuable resource:  long term soil quality. 

Standing in the pasture, where we will be producing high quality fruits and vegetables for our guests in just a couple year’s time, it was really powerful to witness the metabolic forces of fire, and time, and compost, and soil playing out on such a grand and dynamic scale.  The water soaking in, the air and the smoke swirling overhead, the soil beneath my feet, and the spirit of it everywhere.  

Thank god for the rain.  Its’ slick lubrication has been missed by all the cogs and gears of the forest. 

The creeks will rush today.

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