Sonoma Ecology Center gets biochar project grant

Earlier this month, the Sonoma Ecology Center and its partners received a grant from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and additional funds from the Sonoma County Water Agency to launch a biochar project.

The $75,000 Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG) is allocated to states by the USDA National Resource Conservation Service, and is awarded to groups undertaking sustainable research-based projects. The Sonoma County Water Agency worked with the ecology center to secure the grant and matched the funds with the $75,000 needed to buy an Adam Retort, the machine used to create biochar.

Biochar is a specialized charcoal soil amendment that is made in chemical process called pyrolysis, during which wood is burned in special machines like the Adam Retort in the absence of oxygen, leaving behind inorganic carbon. One ton of waste wood can produce 500 to 600 pounds of usable biochar, according to Dr. David Morell, a specialist in global environmental and energy policy who will be managing the project and serves on the ecology center board and the Sonoma Biochar Initiative.

Research for the project, which will focus on how biochar builds soil, retains soil moisture and improves agricultural productivity and forest practices, will take place at three area farms, Swallow Valley Farm in Valley Ford, Oak Hill in Glen Ellen and Green String in Petaluma.Together, the farms have volunteered to dedicate $83,000 worth of time and work to the project. The Adam Retort will be located at Swallow Valley Farm and the initial biochar will be made from the groves of eucalyptus trees on the property, providing a true example of sustainable biochar creation, notes David Brin, a development associate at the ecology center who was involved in writing the grant. The biochar created will be used on each of the three farms to allow researchers to study the effect biochar has in different soils.

“The grant helps us explore how biochar can help farmers build soil, help land managers deal with waste as they improve water quality and supply, and help the region sequester some of its carbon in an era of alarming and rapid climate change,” ecology center Executive Director Richard Dale said.

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