What’s that burning smell, Sonoma? Biochar…

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With the severity of the drought and the threat of wildfires on the horizon as the calendar heads into summer, El Nino-disappointed Californians might be looking to the skies to alleviate the ongoing water shortages. But the Sonoma Ecology Center is looking to the ground – specifically, to something called “biochar.”

Biochar is organic matter that has been burned at such high temperatures in the absence of oxygen that only the elemental carbon remains and once put in the ground, say Ecology Center officials, it can be used as an extremely water-efficient form of fertilizer.

Unlike fertilizer, however, biochar needs only to be applied once and it can stay in the soil for decades.

The Ecology Center has been experimenting with biochar since launching its Sonoma Biochar Initiative in 2009; SEC also received a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to study its effects in 2014. Currently, the Ecology Center is conducting biochar testing at three farms around Sonoma County and have received positive data about its effectiveness in the soil.

There are multiple ways to produce biochar. If one is lucky enough to have a machine known as an “Adam Retort,” you can burn as much as 500 pounds of biochar per day from locally available waste wood. Another method, which the SEC is working with local vineyards to initiate, is by doing a “conservation burn.”

A conservation burn happens when one lights a pile of waste wood from the top, and the flame on the top eats the flame coming up from below, says SEC communications manager Don Frances.

“This [biochar] is ground into a powder and tilled into the soil where it forms a coral reef in the soil,” said Frances. “Microbes take up residence in the numberless nooks and crannies of the carbon and do their work creating and retaining nutrients. And the biochar, which is a like a microscopic sponge, retains water like nothing else can.”

David Morell, project manager for the Sonoma Biochar Initiative, says the SEC’s findings suggest that biochar could save up to 25 percent of the water used by farmers.

“The value of the water savings in dollars would be enough to cover biochar going forward,” said Morell. “We’ve had some excellent results at Oak Hill Farm on Highway 12. We found water savings between 30 to 50 percent.”

Not only does biochar save water, according to the SEC, but it gives farmers another way to burn their wood, which is more efficient in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, while reducing the risk of wildfires.

“So right away that’s several wins for the state, which is trying to reduce carbon emissions, save water, conserve energy,” said Frances. “The hard part is getting farmers to pick up on it, and in getting all the myriad state regulatory agencies to smooth the way for this.”

To that end, the SEC on April 7 hosted two visitors from Gov. Brown’s office, Patrick Nevis and Michael McGuire, who were briefed on the SEC’s biochar research, the future goals of the initiative and toured a farm to see the Adam Retort in action.

“It was a great meeting, they asked a lot of questions and they learned a lot,” said Ray Baltar, director of the Sonoma Biochar Initiative. “It benefits jobs and benefits the planet so there’s good reason for them to be interested.”

Morell hopes the farm testing will make the local agriculture industry feel more familiar with the process.

“The more we can test it, the more farmers will want to use it, the more water we save, the more carbon we reduce,” said Baltar.

According to Morell, the latest grant proposal to the California Department of Water Resources is test biochar water savings for eight large farms – some local, others stretching down near the Mexican border.

“It looks like little Sonoma is leading the state in this regard,” said Morell, “which is kind of fun.”

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