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Enhancing Soil with Biochar & Wood Vinegar

As part of our monthly free speaker series, we recently hosted Allegany native Jeff Wood who spoke about energizing soil with Biochar and Wood Vinegar.

What is Biochar?

Biochar is a soil amendment material made from the pyrolysis of biomass. Pyrolysis is the decomposition of something by high temperature. Biomass is organic material from plants and animals (like grass, leaves, bones, wood). Biochar stores nutrients and releases them as needed by the surrounding soil/crops. Biochar has an 87% rate of carbon sequestration, which is the storing of carbon so it does not release into the atmosphere. In this way, biochar reduces greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. Biochar is not charcoal, fertilizer, or ash.

What is the origin of Biochar?

Biochar has been created and used for over 1000 years in the Amazon area of Brazil where the soil has a lot of clay and very little nutrients. There it is called “terra preta.” Biochar usage in the US is 10 years behind that in Europe.

How is Biochar made?

Biomass is heated to high temperatures by a special burning process. When you see a wood fire, what is really burning is the gas contained in the wood. In the biochar process, this gas is extracted from the wood and then used to raise the temperature in the system so the feedstock wood is transformed into biochar.

There are some small-scale set up designs such as a “Barrel in a Barrel,” “Kon-Tiki Kiln,” and “Pit” style. Using these is labor intensive and requires constant monitoring and adjustments. They are used in developing countries and for small batch processing.

What is Jeff’s method and setup?

Jeff has assembled a “Modified Adam Retort” system which is the best since it produces less pollution (it is smoke free most of the time) and results in the most consistent finished product. The retort system pulls the gas and moisture out of the feedstock (wood) and then puts them through a condenser. The condenser separates the gas from the liquids. The gas is returned to the burning process under the wood container, reaching very high temperatures. The condensed liquid is wood vinegar (pyroligneous acid), which has beneficial uses, as described below.

Jeff provided a schematic of his system and photos and videos of the actual equipment. He plans to have this information available on his web site soon. A typical burn lasts 8 to 12 hours, depending on the liquid in the wood and how compactly stacked the wood is in the retort (more air around the wood helps the process). 1500 pounds of wood typically produce 500 to 600 pounds of biochar.

Jeff gets the wood feedstock from waste sources such as tree tops left after harvesting, blowdown, and waste edging from lumber processing. He uses no construction material (like pallets) or chemically treated wood. He cautions anyone thinking of using biochar to research what your supplier uses for feedstock. Some use materials that may have dangerous chemicals. Sewage can be used, but has bad stuff in it. Know what is in your biochar before buying or applying it to your crops.

His system is automated via the use of the use of a Programmable Logic Controller (PLC). The PLC controls the process and displays progress and temperature metrics for monitoring.

What happens after the burn is completed?

Biochar itself is does not have nutrients that will help gardens or crops. To add nutrients, the raw biochar needs to be inoculated. This is the process of adding micro-organisms to the biochar. These can be added by mixing in compost, compost tea, leaves, livestock or poultry bedding, worm castings, urine, and other materials.

How is biochar used?

Un-inoculated (raw) biochar:

· Can be added to soil, but will actually absorb nutrients from the soil at first. After 6 to 12 months, it will then be ready to give back these nutrients to a garden or crop

· Can be used to remove bad chemicals (like PFAS and heavy metals) from contaminated soil, since it absorbs these toxins

· Can be used as a feed additive to help animals absorb nutrients and improve digestion

· Can be added to animal bedding (for example in chicken coops and runs) and will reduce or eliminate odor

Inoculated (enriched/charged) biochar:

Is used for high-end improvement in agriculture applications such as farms and gardens. It is added to soil once, and can reduce the need for future fertilizer in the soil by as much as 50%. This need for less fertilizer application can reduce chemical runoff that is often a problem near farms using nitrogen-based fertilizers.

Use of biochar can convert a low-producing field to a successful one by providing nutrients and improving crop production.

Biochar has an acidic pH, so this should be factored in when planning for its use. Other additives can be used to change the pH as needed to fit the crop planned. Test kits can be used to determine the pH of soil (with or without biochar).

Jeff has a colleague using his immunized biochar in a food plot this growing season. Biochar is just getting started in the US, growing 600% a year as an industry.

How is wood vinegar used?

The wood vinegar that is condensed out of the feedstock can

· Be used to improve soil quality

· Eliminate pests like termites, ants, mosquitos (it smells like wood smoke)

· Fight fungus and mold

· Improve seed germination and root development

· Stimulate compost development

· Improve fruit production in orchards by increasing photosynthesis to make bigger and sweeter fruit

· Help with fungal issues common with tomatoes and cucumbers

Wood vinegar is officially “organic” so it can be used on food crops that are certified as organic.

A good rule of thumb is to mix wood vinegar to water in a 1:50 ratio to add to soil and in a 1:200 ratio to spray on soil or plants.

Where can I learn more about biochar?

Jeff provided many resources for anyone interested in the topic:

· US Biochar Initiative: https://biochar-us.org/

· International Biochar Initiative: https://biochar-international.org/

· New England Biochar: https://newenglandbiochar.com/

· Wood Vinegar: https://www.woodvinegar.org/home.html

· On YouTube, Living Web Farms has some nice material on biochar to view.

Jeff also consulted Dr. Deborah Aller and Dr. Johannes Lehman at Cornell University.

What is Jeff’s background and current enterprise?

Jeff has always had an interest in machinery and mechanics. He also enjoys the outdoors, hunting and archery, and responsible land and forest management. Upon retiring, Jeff decided to incorporate these interests into the manufacturing of biochar. He consulted with experts, did a lot of research, and invested in creating an efficient and automated facility to make biochar and wood vinegar.

Jeff is in the process of labelling and packaging his products for sale. He plans to sell 1 cubic foot bags of biochar through local distributors and in bulk direct to farms, nurseries, etc. Wood vinegar will be available in 16 and 32 ounce bottles and 55 gallon drums. He will be launching a website soon: biocharcarboncompost.com.

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