What is Biochar?
Biochar, or biological charcoal is an organic soil conditioner. It’s a carbon rich product made by putting any kind of plant material into a slow burning, oxygen-deprived environment.
Viewed through a certain lens, the greatest deficiency in Australian soils is carbon. Charcoal, “biochar,” is the stablest, longest lasting form of carbon available. And, charcoal just happens to be a by-product of the wood gasification process. German expert Dr Jürgen Reckin was recently sharing with us how he makes rich, black, fertile soil using biochar.
The creation of biochar is a carbon-negative activity. Every time biochar is put into the ground more carbon is sequestered, thus, providing a remedy to the harmful effects of fossil fuel emissions.
Biochar may represent the single most important initiative for humanity’s
environmental and agricultural future. Dr Tim Flannery
While attending South West Catchment Council’s Biochar Gathering at Bridgetown, Professor Paul Blackwell of DAFWA taught us that,
Throwing a handful of charcoal in each time you add to your compost is a good idea.
It’s the simplest thing you can do, and very effective.
Charcoal is a compost “accelerator”. The charcoal actually helps the beneficial microbes and fungi to get going, and keep going in your compost, and afterwards in your soil.
So where do you get the charcoal?
Dr Reckin, the world-renowned soil scientist we met in Germany simply buys BBQing charcoal from his local hardware store, and has created a backyard paradise.
Of course, the best source is always off your own land, so non-compostable materials like eucalyptus branches, walnut shells and “diseased” materials can be good feedstocks to be turned into charcoal at home/on farm.
How do you make charcoal?
That’s what Paul Blackwell demonstrated, with his 44 gallon drum home-made charcoal maker called a “Top Lit Updraft” (TLUd) cooker. He modified the 44 gallon drum with strategic cuts to allow just the right amount of air to come into the right places, and then fills it 3/4 with very dry, rough-cut woodchips. Next, he adds 1/4 of kerosene- soaked woodchips, and lights these on the top.
A very slow burning process begins to move down through the woodchips, and once it’s going properly, on goes the lid, and the top and the bottom are sealed with builders clay. You leave it to “cook” overnight, and in the morning hose it all down, add it to your compost, allow 3 months, and “hey presto – Biochar”.
Dung beetles, feeding biochar to cows, carbon sequestration
We also heard from innovative Manjimup farmer Doug Pow, who is feeding his cows charcoal, and employing dung beetles to completely transform the fertility of his land. The beetles naturally sequester dung, along with the charcoal, deep underground. Doug barely lifts a finger, or spends much more than a cent in the process. Like to hear more?
Here’s a great vid featuring Doug Pow chatting more about how he’s improving soil for grazing without having bought fertiliser in years.