I thought these update on developments of biochar soils may interest
you, I’m a biochar advocate, and would like to share my efforts in research, policy and industry.(bellow)
Biochar systems for Biofuels and soil carbon sequestration are so basically conservative in nature it is a shame that republicans have not seized it as a central environmental policy plank as the conservatives in Australia have.
Hope to see you at ISU for the 2010 US Biochar Conference
Dr. Robert Brown <[email protected]>, andthe team in Ames Iowa are planing the next national biochar conference. The Conference will be June 27-30 in Ames Iowa Hosted by Iowa State University. The Call for papers; http://www.ucs.iastate.edu/mnet/biochar/home.html
The Biochar Fund deserves your attention and support.
Exceptional results from biochar experiment in Cameroon
Mark my words;
Given the potential for Laurens Rademaker’s programs to grow exponentially, only a short time lies between This man’s nomination for a Noble Prize.
He recently received the Manchester prize.
Thanks for your efforts.
Erich J. Knight
Eco Technologies Group Technical Adviser
Shenandoah Gardens (Owner)
1047 Dave Barry Rd.
McGaheysville, VA. 22840
540 289 9750
Co-Administrator, Biochar Data base & Discussion list TP-REPP
Biochar Soils…..Husbandry of whole new orders & Kingdoms of life
Biotic Carbon, the carbon transformed by life, should never be combusted, oxidized and destroyed. It deserves more respect, reverence even, and understanding to use it back to the soil where 2/3 of excess atmospheric carbon originally came from.
We all know we are carbon-centered life, we seldom think about the complex web of recycled bio-carbon which is the true center of life. A cradle to cradle, mutually co-evolved biosphere reaching into every crack and crevice on Earth.
It’s hard for most to revere microbes and fungus, but from our toes to our gums (onward), their balanced ecology is our health. The greater earth and soils are just as dependent, at much longer time scales. Our farming for over 10,000 years has been responsible for 2/3rds of our excess greenhouse gases. This soil carbon, converted to carbon dioxide, Methane & Nitrous oxide began a slow stable warming that now accelerates with burning of fossil fuel. Agriculture allowed our cultural accent and Agriculture will now prevent our descent.
Wise Land management; Organic farming and afforestation can build back our soil carbon,
Biochar allows the soil food web to build much more recalcitrant organic carbon, ( living biomass & Glomalins) in addition to the carbon in the biochar.
Biochar, the modern version of an ancient Amazonian agricultural practice called Terra Preta (black earth, TP), is gaining widespread credibility as a way to address world hunger, climate change, rural poverty, deforestation, and energy shortages… SIMULTANEOUSLY!
Modern Pyrolysis of biomass is a process for Carbon Negative Bio fuels, massive Carbon sequestration, 80%-90% Lower Methane & N2O soil emissions, and 2X Fertility Too.
Every 1 ton of Biomass yields 1/3 ton Charcoal for soil Sequestration (= to 1 Ton CO2e) + Bio-Gas & Bio-oil fuels = to 1MWh exported electricity, so is a totally virtuous, carbon negative energy cycle.
Biochar viewed as soil Infrastructure; The old saw;
“Feed the Soil Not the Plants” becomes;
“Feed, Cloth and House the Soil, utilities included !”.
Free Carbon Condominiums with carboxyl group fats in the pantry and hydroxyl alcohol in the mini bar.
Build it and the Wee-Beasties will come.
Microbes like to sit down when they eat.
By setting this table we expand husbandry to whole new orders & Kingdoms of life.
This is what I try to get across to Farmers, as to how I feel about the act of returning carbon to the soil. An act of penitence and thankfulness for the civilization we have created. Farmers are the Soil Sink Bankers, once carbon has a price, they will be laughing all the way to it.
Unlike CCS which only reduces emissions, biochar systems draw down CO2 every energy cycle, closing a circle back to support the soil food web. The photosynthetic “capture” collectors are up and running, the “storage” sink is in operation just under our feet. Pyrolysis conversion plants are the only infrastructure we need to build out.
Senator Baucus is co-sponsoring a bill along with Senator Tester (D-MT) called WE CHAR. Water Efficiency via Carbon Harvesting and Restoration Act! It focuses on promoting biochar technology to address invasive species and forest biomass. It includes grants and loans for biochar market research and development, biochar characterization and environmental analyses. It directs USDI and USDA to provide loan guarantees for biochar technologies and on-the-ground production with an emphasis on biomass from public lands. And the USGS is to do biomas availability assessments.
WashingtonWatch.com – S. 1713, The Water Efficiency via Carbon Harvesting and Restoration (WECHAR) Act of 2009
Individual and groups can show support for WECHAR by signing online at:
The Clean Energy Partnerships Act of 2009
The bill is designed to ensure that any US domestic cap-and-trade bill provides maximum incentives and opportunities for the US agricultural and forestry sectors to provide high-quality offsets and GHG emissions reductions for credit or financial incentives. Carbon offsets play a critical role in keeping the costs of a cap-and-trade program low for society as well as for capped sectors and entities, while providing valuable emissions reductions and income generation opportunities for the agricultural sector. The bill specifically identifies biochar production and use as eligible for offset credits, and identifies biochar as a high priority for USDA R&D, with funding authorized by the bill.
To read the full text of the bill, go to:
Senator / Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar has done the most to nurse this biofuels system in his Biochar provisions in the 07 & 08 farm bill,
NASA’s Dr. James Hansen Global warming solutions paper places Biochar / Land management the central technology for carbon negative energy systems.
Dr. James Lovelock (Gaia hypothesis) says Biochar is “The only hope for mankind”
Charles Mann (“1491”) in the Sept. National Geographic has a wonderful soils article which places Terra Preta / Biochar soils center stage.
Al Gore got the CO2 absorption thing wrong, ( at NABC Vilsack did same), but his focus on Soil Carbon is right on;
Tony Blair & Richard Branson in the UK and conservative party opposition leader John Turnbull in Oz.
The Ozzie’s for 5 years now in field studies
The future of biochar – Project Rainbow Bee Eater
The Japanese have been at it dacades:
Japan Biochar Association ;
UK Biochar Research Centre
Virginia Tech is in their 4 th year with the Carbon Char Group’s “CharGrow” formulated bagged product. An idea whose time has come | Carbon Char Group
He said the 2008 trials at Virginia Tech showed a 46% increase in yield of tomato transplants grown with just 2 – 5 cups (2 – 5%) “CharGrow” per cubic foot of growing medium. http://www.carbonchar.com/plant-performance
Dr. Rory Maguire,
In first year with Poultry litter char
USDA in their 2 nd year; “Novak, Jeff” <[email protected]>, & “david laird” <[email protected]>,
There are dozens soil researchers on the subject now at USDA-ARS.
and many studies at The up coming ASA-CSSA-SSSA joint meeting;
Nikolaus has been at it 4 years. Nikolaus Foidl,
His current work with aspirin is Amazing in Maize, 250% yield gains, 15 cobs per plant;
My 09 field trials with the Rodale Institute & JMU ;
Alterna Biocarbon and Cowboy Charcoal Virginia field trials ’09http://terrapreta.bioenergylists.org/node/1408
Most recent studies out;
Imperial College test,
This work in temperate soils gives data from which one can calculate savings on fertilizer use, which is expected to be ongoing with no additional soil amending.
The BlueLeaf Inc./ Dynamotive study are exciting results given how far north the site is,and the low application rates. I suspect, as we saw with the Imperial College test, the yield benefits seem to decrease the cooler the climate.
The study showed infiltration rates for moisture are almost double. The lower leaf temperatures puzzles me however, I thought around 21C was optimum for photosynthesis.
BlueLeaf Inc. and Dynamotive Announce Biochar Test Results CQuest(TM) Biochar Enriched Plots Yield Crop Increase Ranging From Six to Seventeen Percent vs. Control Plots
The full study at Dynomotives site;
This PNAS report (by a Nobel lariat) should cause the Royal Society to rethink their report that criticized Biochar systems sequestration potential;
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Reducing abrupt climate change risk using
the Montreal Protocol and other regulatory
actions to complement cuts in CO2 emissions
United Nations Environment Programme, Climate Change Science Compendium 2009
Congressional Research Service report (by analyst Kelsi Bracmort) is the best short summary I have seen so far – both technical and policy oriented.
This is the single most comprehensive report to date, covering more of the Asian and Australian work;
Dr. Scherr’s report includes biochar. http://www.worldwatch.org/node/6124
I think we will be seeing much greater media attention for land management & biochar as reports like her’s come out linking the roll of agriculture and climate.
Biochar data base;
The group home page location, General orientation:
Earth Science Terra Preta Forum, Great for students;
Terra Preta – Science Forums
Given the current “Crisis” atmosphere concerning energy, soil sustainability, food vs. Biofuels, and Climate Change what other subject addresses them all?
This is a Nano technology for the soil, a fractal vision of Life’s relation to surface area that represents the most comprehensive, low cost, and productive approach to long term stewardship and sustainability.
Carbon to the Soil, the only ubiquitous and economic place to put it.
Erich J. Knight
Eco Technologies Group Technical Adviser
Shenandoah Gardens (Owner)
1047 Dave Barry Rd.
McGaheysville, VA. 22840
540 289 9750
Co-Administrator, Biochar Data base & Discussion list TP-REPP
The first North American Biochar Conference, at CU in Boulder ,
Keynote speakers were Secretary Tom Vilsack & Dr. Susan Solomon (NOAA’s head atmospheric scientist)
My attendance is thanks to the folks at EcoTechnologies Group .
http://www.ecotechnologies.com/index.html , they have also fully funded my field trials with the Rodale Institute & JMU)
There is real magic coming out of the Asian Biochar conference.
15 ear per stalk corn with 250% yield increase,
Sacred Trees and chickens raised from near death
Multiple confirmations of 80% – 90% reduction of soil GHG emissions
The abstracts of the conference are at
Biochar Studies at the 08 ACS Huston meeting;
Most all this work corroborates char soil dynamics we have seen so far . The soil GHG emissions work showing increased CO2 , also speculates that this CO2 has to get through the hungry plants above before becoming a GHG.
The SOM, MYC& Microbes, N2O (soil structure), CH4 , nutrient holding , Nitrogen shock, humic compound conditioning, absorbing of herbicides all pretty much what we expected to hear.
665 – III. http://a-c-s.confex.com/crops/2008am/webprogram/Session4497.html
Company News & EU Certification
Below is an important hurtle that 3R AGROCARBON has overcome in certification in the EU. Given that their standards are set much higher than even organic certification in the US, this work should smooth any bureaucratic hurtles we may face.
EU Permit Authority – 4 years tests
Subject: Fwd: Re: GOOD NEWS: EU Permit Authority – 4 years tests successfully completed
Doses: 400 kg / ha – 1000 kg / ha at different horticultural cultivars
Plant height Increase 141 % versus control
Picking yield Increase 630 % versus control
Picking fruit Increase 650 % versus control
Total yield Increase 202 % versus control
Total piece of fruit Increase 171 % versus control
Fruit weight Increase 118 % versus control
HOMEPAGE 3R AGROCARBON: http://www.3ragrocarbon.com
Low Tech Clean Biochar;
- Terra Preta – model of a cultural technique
- Lessons from historical Agriculture
- Biochar as a Carrier of Nutrients and a Habitat for Microorganisms
- Terra Preta – a highly sophisticated Nutrient Cycle
- Can the Terra Preta technique be applied to Central European Forestry?
- Interconnectedness of Forestry and Agriculture
- Impetus from the History of Agriculture
- Amazonian Terra Preta Can Transform Poor Soil Into Fertile
Terra Preta – model of a cultural technique
Lessons from historical Agriculture
For decades anthropologists considered it a foregone conclusion that the Amazonian rain-forest could not possibly have allowed the emergence of a higher civilization, because significant civil and cultural achievements would have required the existence of large cities. Large cities in the Amazon have, however, been unthinkable, because the humus layer of rain-forest soils is too sparse to guarantee the food supply of hundreds of thousands people.
This explanation seemed so obvious that no one was seriously putting it into question and the reports of the Spanish conquistadors Francesco de Orellana picturing flourishing cities on ‘the great river’ were written off as mere legends. In the 1960s, however, unambiguous remnants of great indigenous civilizations were discovered at the confluence of the Amazon, Rio Negro and Madeira rivers. Still sceptical, scientists went out to conduct once again soil inspections and to find explanations as to how it could have been possible for the large populations of these cities to feed themselves. It was then that the researchers finally discovered what came to be called “Terra Preta” – the black earth of the Amazonian rain-forest, once created by these bygone civilizations.
Clearly visible Terra Preta site in the Amazon rain-forest. Even in this aerial photograph the difference in soil fertility of the Terra Preta site is visible, although this area has been turned into de-forested pasture land from what was once woodland gardens. (Photo: Bruno Glaser)
Microscopically, spectrally, chemically and physically the scientists examined the earthen back in their quest to uncover its secrets. Pottery, bones, traces of chicken manure, traces of human faeces, charcoal, ash and fish bones were among the substances discovered in the soil – a variety of organic waste which gradually made up the soil’s mighty humus layer. The theory quickly emerged that the secret component allowing for these incredibly fertile soils was the biochar. Word of this supposed miracle substance quickly spread, and in many places in the world charcoal, and soon thereafter biochar, came to be used on agricultural soils. Subsequently, in light of the very modest results in European fields, it took quite a dash of idealism not to lose heart in biochar’s potential as a panacea to the world’s problems. Fortunately there was no shortage of idealism, because the fact is that biochar is an extremely valuable agronomic tool – once you understand that it is not a fertilizer, but rather a very effective carrier for plant nutrients and provides an excellent habitat for microorganisms.
Biochar as a Carrier of Nutrients and a Habitat for Microorganisms
In order to quickly and effectively bring forth biochars soil-enhancing properties, the biochar must first be loaded with nutrients and become organically activated. Besides mixing the biochar with compost, there are numerous other methods for the activation of biochar, the production of organic fertilizers and Terra Preta like substrates.
Biochar is an extremely porous substance with a highly specific surface that has a surface area of up to 300 m2 per gram. Due to the high porosity of biochar, it is capable of soaking up to five times its own weight in water as well as adsorbing large amounts of the therein dissolved nutrients. This property is called the adsorption capacity (AC) of biochar.
Another important property of biochar, which goes to explain its particular nutrient dynamics, is its high cation exchange capacity (CEC). The CEC of biochar is a measure of its ability to bind positively charged ions such as ammonia and ammonium, to its surface, and to make those substances available again to plants and microorganisms under particular circumstances. A high CEC prevents the leaching of positively charged mineral and organic nutrients and, overall, provides a higher total nutrient availability.
Beautifully visible pore structure of biochar which binds water and nutrients and offers a habitat for microorganisms. (Photo: C. Holweg and U. Pieles)
The high CEC and AC values of biochar make it perfectly suitable as a carrier of nutrients. The nutrients absorbed by the biochar offer microorganisms a perfectly suitable habitat, which in turn stimulates the overall micro-biotic activity in the soil, ultimately positively impacting the potential symbiosis between micro-organisms and plants.
Terra Preta – a highly sophisticated Nutrient Cycle
It took several decades to recognize that biochar was only one component of a complex agricultural system. To understand this complex system, a deeper insight into the anthropology of Central and South America is required.
As the American Continent was being settled by humans at the end of the last ice age 13,000 years ago, mammoths, oxen, elephants, rhinos, horses and other big game were present. These animals, however, were not used to the presence of foraging people as they were in Europe, Asia and Africa. Each species of big game inhabited an isolated ecological niche, where no species threatened the existence of any other species. Only when man populated the new continent with his new hunting methods and sophisticated weapons, were these ecological niches destroyed and each major animal species, which could have later been used for animal husbandry, became extinct. (See Jared Diamond’s highly recommended book:Guns, Germs, and Steel)
For the later inhabitants of the Americas, like the Aztecs, Mayas, Incas, or Anasazi, the extinction of big game meant that they not only lacked the option to breed any livestock, but also that they could use no animals for agricultural work. The latter was also the reason why neither the wheel nor the plow found widespread application in these lands. These civilizations had to rely on native wild fruits, small animals and fish or horticulture in the woodland gardens to cover their food demand.
Forests are among the most productive agricultural systems (Photo: www.motherearthnews.com)
Instead of burning down forests and replacing them with vast agricultural lands, as is common practice in these regions in modern times, the Indians of the Amazon region took advantage of their forests by practicing horticulture in woodland gardens, which they plotted between fruit-bearing trees. The wood of the forest was used as a construction material, firewood and charcoal production. It was this latter use that made these woodland gardens so very fertile over hundreds of years. The Indian practice of mixing charcoal into the human and animal sewage and waste before dumping it on the fields of the woodland gardens, gradually improved soil fertility. This practice allowed a continual rise in yields, which over time allowed the planting of ever higher yielding crops.
Anthropologists have in recent years provably demonstrated very high population densities for the above-mentioned high cultures of the Americas. These masses of people could be fed only by very intensive land usage. The highest yield per unit area could be achieved through vertically planted mixed crop cultures and woodland gardens. This type of farming was very labour intensive. But labour forces, however, were readily available in the densely populated cities of these bygone civilizations.
Surrounding acreages were intensively used and it can now be assumed that one-hectare of woodland gardens on the Amazon could feed about 15 to 20 people. To achieve these high yields per unit area a sophisticated system of complementary mixed crop culture and, above all, an intelligent closed nutrient cycle had to be worked out. Only when the nutrients, which were taken out of the ground through intensive cultivation, were also continuously being returned to the soil could sustainable long-term cultivation with steady yields be achieved. In the case of Amazonian soils, it is critical that the nutrients are added in a fashion in which they will not be washed out by the tropical rains.
All these elements – vertical and horizontal mixed crop cultivation, systematically organized labour, closed nutrient cycles and humus formation – were inextricably linked factors, allowing the maintenance of a stable supply of food and resources, laying the foundation for the stability of these giant garden cities. Since there was no livestock manure to be used as fertilizer, it was the digestive tracts of the population at large which had to be utilized for the production of the necessary organic fertilizer in the form of sanitized faeces.
To avoid the risk of the spread of infectious diseases from the daily processing of sewage into fertilizer, it seems that charcoal played a crucial part. Regularly sprinkling lavatories with charcoal not only diminished odour, but also drastically reduced the spread of germs. Furthermore, it is possible that the toilets were additionally sanitized with lactic acid enzymes. One can certainly assume that hygienic care was the primary reason for the use of charcoal. That this usage also had a significant effect on nutrient efficiency and the build up of humus in the soils was possibly not even known at the time. Nonetheless, the charcoal was an inseparable part of a functioning nutrient cycle system.
The closed nutrient cycle system of Terra Preta was based on the following two foundations: firstly, the fertility of the soil could be sustained only if the food scraps and other organic waste as well as the residual matter from the digestion processes being returned to the soils in an appropriate fashion; and secondly, the vertical structure of the species-rich woodland gardens maintained its humus formation potential as well as its crucial role in erosion mitigation over time.
Can the Terra Preta technique be applied to Central European Forestry?
To practice sustainable forestry, it is natural that a balanced flow of nutrients must be maintained. If only the debarked logs of trees are being removed from a mixed forest, while its crowns, young twigs, and bark left behind, nutrient deprivation of the forest will be minimal so that a rebalancing of the nutrients in the forest would only have to occur once every few hundred years. If, however, entire trees are being removed from the forest, with even the nutrient-rich young timber being utilized for industrial use, and in addition to that you are not dealing with a humus-building mixed forest, but a monocultural coniferous forest, then even the most selective logging will impact the forest’s nutrient and humus balance. In this case, at the very least a nutrient equilibrium would have to be carried out, for example by repatriating adequate amounts of wood ashes, every 40 to 80 years. Most importantly, forests would have to be appropriately mixed with deciduous trees in order to protect the forest humus.
As long as the European mixed forest remains and as long as no whole-tree harvesting is being carried out and no heavy soil-compacting machineries are being used, the mixed forest ecosystem can be viewed as extremely stable. The use of soil improvement techniques, such as fertilization, use of biochar, biochar compost (Terra Preta like substances), would neither be ecologically nor economically sensible for Central European forestry. Although the biochar would improve water retention capacity, and depending on the soil type also facilitate the build-up of humus, the use of biochar would be an unnecessary encroachment on a stable ecosystem.
Mixed forests are the most stable natural ecosystems of Central Europe. Promoting tree diversity, abstaining from whole-tree harvesting as well as heavy-duty whole tree harvesting machinery are necessary elements for the maintenance of these natural ecosystems. Agricultural mixed use of these forests would in the best case scenario occur in the form of continuously shifting clearance logging.
If, however, the objective is not a sustainable use of forest ecosystems, but rather the most efficient production of biomass as is the case of short-rotation plantations or agricultural forestry systems, then the heavy shift in the nutrient balance and the possibility of mechanical surface machining, would make the Terra Preta technologies once again very interesting. The more resources are removed from a soil or ecosystem, the more important it is to renew these resources sustainably and to close the nutrient cycles.
Carbon and nitrogen, which are continuously being fixed from the atmosphere by the agricultural ecosystem can, by means of removal of biomass from local systems, be channelled to other nutrient and energy cycles. All other non-naturally-replenishing nutrients must, however, be returned appropriately. To this end, the Terra Preta system offers a very promising solution, as nutrients are not being returned solely in the mineral or synthetic form, which results in significant run-off and environmental pollution, but in an organically bound form, allowing for nutrient cycles to be closed.
Interconnectedness of Forestry and Agriculture
Comparing today’s agriculture to the bygone Terra Preta agriculture of the Amazon, the most striking fact we are faced with is that present acreage yields are at least four times lower than they were in the rain forest. The second striking fact is that despite several tens of thousands of actively working university-trained agronomists, we are currently engaging in soil degradation rather than soil improvement and nutrient balances are being maintained only in appearance. Finally, we must not forget that today, for the production of 1 calorie of food more than 15 calories of energy must be spent, whereas in woodland gardens a net positive cost-benefit energy ratio is realized.
For many centuries ‘clearance cultivation’ (Lichtungsfeldbau) has been practiced in Central Europe. In modern agriculture, clearance cultivation would also present a very efficient usage of ecosystems. In addition, this form of clearance cultivation would be aesthetically more pleasing than the current monotony of rigid straight-lined agricultural forestry systems.
One of the main features and also a fundamental element of the Terra Preta system’s recipe for success is its close interconnectedness of agriculture and forestry. In the Terra Preta system as well as modern agricultural forestry systems, agricultural management units are not measured in units of land, but rather in terms of volume, where the vertical levels are as important as the horizontal zoning. The different levels – the root layer, herbaceous layer, shrub layer and lastly the tree layer – are coordinated in such a fashion that the yields can be optimized in long-term cycles.
In the history of Central European land usage, agricultural and forest lands were also not regarded as separate economic domains, but rather as highly inter-linked entities. Due to the use of draft animals and extensive animal husbandry and hunting practices, however, no woodland gardens similar to the ones in South America emerged because cattle were already extinct. Instead, a variety of mixed systems such as clearance cultivation, pasture woodlands, standard fruit tree meadows, low-woods, middle-woods and forest-acre rotations, in which the various elements such as agriculture, pastures and fruit, raw material and nutrient acquisitions were coordinated efficiently with one another.
The pasture woodland is a stable system of agriculture in which livestock and forestry complement each other very efficiently and provides high biodiversity.
In order to strengthen and maintain the efficiency of agricultural systems, these traditional Central European agricultural forestry systems should once again move more prominently into focus. This would, for example through active clearance cultivation, create microclimates, which would in the face of climate change, significantly increase the adaptability of agricultural systems. It would be equally important to take long-term cycles into consideration, so that trees can be incorporated in the crop rotation cycles.
The planting of tree-rows, forest islands or seam zones around clearing fields improves not only the microclimate of the fields, but also reduces wind speeds by 15 – 20%, prevents erosion, reduces evaporation rates, reduces the risk of frost, increases humus formation and improves overall economic viability.
Impetus from the History of Agriculture
While peoples of nearly all epochs of history believed that the golden age lay behind them and that their forefathers knew better how to tame the natural and spiritual resources at their disposal to ease the hardships of everyday life, this belief was starkly reversed at the dawn of the industrial revolution of the late 18th and early 19th century. From then on, the ideology of progress took a hold of society, where the locus of all wisdom and all knowledge was placed in the future and the past was dismissed as a mere step on the ladder towards knowledge and development.
The past was, abruptly, worth only a contemplative glance and history became the subject of a pleasant, but ultimately useless spiritual pursuits, leading to the fatal arrogance, which denied the knowledge and wisdom of our forefathers and bygone peoples and civilizations any bearing on our present.
The discovery of the Terra Preta soils in the Amazon and the rediscovery of clearance cultivation in Central Europe are two of the few examples where it can be said that archaeology and anthropology stumbled upon ancient techniques which could lead to a major impetus to the solution of major problems in modern times.
At a time when agricultural soils are being degraded, if not completely destroyed, by herbicides, pesticides, eutrophication and erosion, the pressure for food stability for an increasingly overpopulated planet is being continually used as the very excuse to continue with current agricultural practices instead of shifting to more sustainable farming practices. Measures are called for which can lead to the development of intelligent strategies that can raise agricultural productivity, while at the same time protect the climate and preserve nature. The interlinkage of forestry and agriculture, as well as the closing of nutrient cycles, as it was practiced on the Amazon as well as the Elbe rivers over a period of many centuries, could become the basis of a modern strategy for an efficient and sustainable use of natural resources, paving the way to a sustainable bio-economy.
Translated by Thomas Rippel
Elements of Climate Farming
Sequestration of Carbon
– Plants as carbon pumps (assimilation)
– Humus economy (fixation of carbon)
– Use of biomasse for the production of energy and raw materials
Closing Nutrient Cycles
– Increase of nutrient- and water efficiency
– Recycling of plant nutrients
– Reducing nutrients losses
Rebalancing of Ecosystems
– Fostering biodiversity
– Increase of humus content
– Creation of micro-climates
– Agro-forrestry, mixed-cultures, crop rotation, green cover systems
– reduction of pesticedes
What is the Best Way to Build the Health and Resiliency of my Garden Soil?
This is an exploration on how best to build your garden soil. These are the results of much reading, experimenting and talking with several people who have been engaged in this exact pursuit for over 30 years. Our personal experiences span 20+ years, from rangeland monitoring for Holistic Resource Management, to researching how long it takes to build soil in the arid South West, to examining and monitoring cryptogammic soil crusts and how they fix nutrients that begin the process of building a foundational soil from rock and sand.
Much has been learned or re-learned in the last 30 years by sustainable and biological large scale farmers. These techniques have been combined with state of the art diagnoses and tests to confirm movement in a positive direction, and to correct drift or fall back. The complex but identifiable chemistry of the interactions and sequencing of specific elements and chemicals show us that nature is much, much more complex and inter-related than we originally thought when we came up with the N-P-K fix-all formula for successful farming.
As one farmer puts it, “It’s not difficult, it’s just different.” This is a different approach for many in creating a healthy garden, in starting with the soil. What we have learned is that everything really does start with the soil. Not only the health of the plant, and the attending nutrition that the produce has; but the pest and disease resistance or lack thereof has its foundation in the soil. Something that the commercial sustainable farmers have discovered- once there is enough copper in the soil that is picked up by the plant, grasshoppers won’t come near the crops. Additionally, insects are attracted to the scent of phosphates, which are given off by diseased or stressed plants. Chemical farming over-utilizes phosphates which worsens the insect attacks, creating more demand for chemical pesticides. Using sustainable, biological farming methods balances the amount of phosphates so that the insects aren’t attracted to the plants. This is all done in and with the soil, not chasing from one perceived “problem” to another. Insects, diseases and weeds are seen as indicators of weakness and imbalance, not problems in and of themselves. This is not to say that there will never be the need to address particular pest or disease or weed issues, but they will be smaller, less frequent, and easier to manage.
One of the basic tenants of any scale agriculture is to get more carbon into the soil. There are three types of carbon- green, brown and black. Green carbon is readily used by the soil and its’ organisms for food and energy. It consists of grass clippings, green manures, and young compost. Brown carbon is a more stable form and consists of dried stalks of plants, straw and dead leaves. This is food for the fungi in the soil. Black carbon is the reserve of the soil and is obtained from decomposed brown carbon and mature, aged compost. It is also obtained from charcoal, or bio-char. This is the basis of creating a vibrant, dynamic and healthy soil structure with its attendant communities of fungi and micro-organisms that all play their parts in making nutrients available to the plants, and getting the plant sap sugars in return.
The first article is on Terra Preta, or black soil that is found in the Amazon, one of the harshest agricultural areas in the world. The soil is heavy clay and the enormous rainfall washes most nutrients off or out of the soil within just a few years. Until finding Terra Preta, that is. The results of people systematically working charcoal into the soils are astounding. This is the basis for creating dynamic, resilient soils in our gardens. Read this first article, and our discussion notes afterward. This is in two segments, with the notes after the second segment.
The original article was published by ACRES USA.
Terra Preta- Magic Soil of the Lost Amazon
by Allan Balliett
It’s like finding a lost chapter from Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird’s Secrets of the Soil — Terra Preta (literally “black earth”) is a manmade soil of prehistoric origin that is higher in nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and calcium than adjacent soils. It controls water and reduces leaching of nutrients from the rhizosphere. Rich in humus, pieces of pre-Columbian unfired clay pottery, and black carbon, it’s like a “microbial reef” that promotes and sustains the growth of mycorrhizae and other beneficial microbes, and it has been shown to retain its fertility for thousands of years. In university trials, terra preta has increased crop yields by as much as 800 percent. It regrows itself when excavated. It is even possible to produce carbon-negative usable energy (such as diesel or hydrogen) while making the major input (bio-char) for terra preta on the farm.
If these amazing properties haven’t convinced you that terra preta is important to eco-agriculture, then consider this: experts say that terra preta sequesters carbon at such a high rate that, in the near future, farming with this technique could be eligible for lucrative carbon credits.
Perhaps most amazing, though, is the fact that, unlike many if not most of the eco-ag technologies reported in Secrets of the Soil, the incredible properties of terra preta are not denied by myopic academics. In fact, almost everything we know about terra preta is coming from university studies!
Much is still unknown about terra preta and “Amazonian Dark Earths,” but as the key component of a proposed agricultural system that would both feed starving populations and solve global warming, grant money is coming in to fuel university investigations of the technology. For every unanswered question on terra preta, there appears to already be a funded study underway.
TERRA PRETA DEFINED
Terra preta do indio is a black, earth-like, anthropogenic (manmade) soil with enhanced fertility due to high levels of soil organic matter (SOM) and nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and calcium embedded in a landscape of infertile soils. Terra preta soils occur in small patches averaging 20 hectares (50 acres), but 350 hectare (865 acre) sites have also been reported. These 2,000-year-old manmade soils occur in the Brazilian Amazon basin and other regions of South America. Terra preta soils are very popular with the local farmers and are used especially to produce cash crops such as papaya and mango, which grow about three times as rapidly as on surrounding infertile soils.
South American terra preta soils are also full of pieces (sherds) of unfired pottery. It is generally believed that the pottery was introduced into the soil much as modern growers add perlite or sand to potting mix, as a way of keeping the soil from baking completely tight under the tropical sun before a cover of vegetation could grow over it. Much is made of these sherds as “proof” that terra preta deposits are really prehistoric trash piles, but Charles C. Mann asserts there are indications that much of this pottery was actually made specifically for incorporation into the soil.
Associated with terra preta is terra mulata, soils which are lighter than terra preta and tend not to contain cultural artifacts but are said to have similar qualities. Terra preta soils are found near historic settlements, while terra mulata soils are found where agricultural fields were once located. It is assumed that the village- related terra preta is darker because it received continual inputs of household wastes (including humanure), and that terra mulata fields were amended chiefly with bio-char, which was initially created by burning forest cover and later by slow-burning brush, weeds and crop wastes. Because of their overall similarities, terra preta and terra mulata are often grouped under the title “Amazonian Dark Earths” (ADE).
William Devan, a geologist from the University of Wisconsin who is prominent in terra preta research, offers these comments: “The black terra preta is associated with long-enduring Indian village sites, and is filled with ceramics, animal and fish bones, and other cultural debris. The brown terra mulata, on the other hand, is much more extensive, generally surrounds the black midden soils, contains few artifacts, and apparently is the result of semi-intensive cultivation over long periods. Both forms are much more fertile than the surrounding highly weathered reddish soil, mostly oxisol, and they have generally sustained this fertility to the present despite the tropical climate and despite frequent or periodic cultivation. This is probably because of high carbon content and an associated high microbial activity which is self perpetuating.”
Ironically, information about the agricultural value of terra preta is only emerging now because of a paradigm shift among archaeologists that has reevaluated the role of indigenous people (AmerIndians) in the pre-Columbian Americas. Put simply, before contact, there were heavy populations of indigenous people in the Americas, in fact, until the mid-16th century, some of the world’s largest and most sanitary cities were in the Americas. Pre-Columbian Indians made great achievements in architecture, art and agriculture. Not only did they breed many of the economically important plants of today’s world (corn, sunflower, beans, potato, sweet potato, tomato, peanut, avocado, tobacco and cotton), but they also developed incredibly productive methods of agriculture such as raised beds and “three sisters.” As Jerry Brunetti has pointed out, the rate of production of calories by Iroquois agriculture at the time of the New England settlement was unimaginable to Europeans. Not only did the Iroquois Nation produce high-value foods, they were also able to produce enough of it to ensure two to three years’ worth of food in storage at any given time!
What the AmerIndians lacked, unfortunately, was resistance to European diseases. Hard to believe as it is, precontact Amerindians apparently had no human-to-human diseases, with the possible exception of syphilis. According to Charles C. Mann, they didn’t even have the common cold until Europeans arrived. Several waves of deadly diseases (such as small pox and measles) swept through the Americas after Columbus’ first visit, spread not only by subsequent European explorers, but, after contact, by the AmerIndians themselves through their well established, hemisphere-wide, socially motivated trade routes.
By the mid-1500s, most of the indigenous Americans had died as a result of epidemics. Undermined by pain, suffering, superstition and loss of leadership (many important Incan leaders died of European diseases, including the most powerful, which opened the door for Pizarro’s conquest of this powerful empire), AmerIndian society began to collapse. Urban populations could not be fed, and cities were abandoned. In the stone-free Amazon, this meant that metropolises built of wood and soil were absorbed by the jungle at such a rate that areas reported by the first explorer as heavily populated with massive structures were, just 50 years later, reported as jungle wildernesses populated by small bands of scraggly natives.
The bottom line for mainstream archeological interpretation of the history of the Amazon was based on the assumption that the area was a “counterfeit paradise,” with all of its nutrients locked into its canopy, leaving soils poor, acidic and toxic. Although terra preta was described to academic America as early as 1870, rich soils in the Amazon were considered to be an anomaly, the result of prehistoric lakes or hydrological accidents. (An enjoyable period view of the value of Amazon agricultural land can be found in an 1867 book entitled Brazil, the Home for Southerners, by Confederate expatriate Ballard S. Dunn, which lauds the high fertility of Brazil’s Amazonian dark soil among other aspects of “planterlife” in Brazil; it is available online in its entirety through Google Books, www. books.google.com).
Caught in a “believing is seeing” syndrome, archeologists assumed that because typical Amazonian soils were thin and infertile, large populations could never have existed there. Accepting this assumption, they saw no point in looking for evidence of settlement. Betty J. Meggers, the Smithsonian archaeologist, said, “The apparent lushness of the rainforest is a sham. The soils are poor and can’t hold nutrients — the jungle flora exists only because it snatches up everything worthwhile before it leaches away in the rain. Agriculture, which depends on extracting the wealth of the soil, therefore faces inherent ecological limitations in the wet desert of Amazonia.”
Views are changing, however, and a new school of archaeologists, geologists and soil scientists have asserted that the Amazon was in fact heavily populated and that the fertility of terra preta was what made feeding these large groups of people possible. Although many questions remain unanswered, this new school of Amazon investigators feels that there is substantial physical proof that not only was the Amazon rainforest home of very large populations supported by an effective agriculture based on the robust fertility of the manmade terra preta soils, but also that the Amazon forest itself is better thought of as a manmade landscape.
It is important to note that the good news about terra preta is not the news about the physical soils in Brazil. Although soils are illegally mined and sold as potting mix and soil amendments in Brazil and Bolivia, native terra preta is not accessible to U.S. growers. Because they are filled with pre-Columbian artifacts and because they are associated with archaeological sites that have yet to be fully investigated, terra preta cannot be purchased or imported.
The current goal of scientists studying terra preta is to learn what it is and how it works so that it can be replicated anywhere in the world. The focus of most of this work, however, is not on benefiting small farm American agriculture, but on how to make more fertile land available in tropical South America and Africa, along with an interest in carbon sequestration. The time is ripe for innovative eco-growers and agricultural researchers to explore the benefits of the magic soil from a lost world.
Allan Balliett is a biodynamic farmer and educator who operates a CSA serving families in the Washington, D.C. metro area. He is the founder and moderator of BD Now!, the international progressive biodynamic food and farming discussion listserve. He can be reached at Fresh and Local CSA, P.O. Box 3047, Shepherdstown, West Virginia 25443, phone 304-876-3382, email [email protected], website www.freshandlocalcsa.com.
Part two concludes this article.
Amazonian Terra Preta Can Transform Poor Soil Into Fertile
That’s not all. Scientists have a method to reproduce this soil — known as terra preta, or Amazonian dark earths — and say it can pull substantial amounts of carbon out of the increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere, helping to prevent global warming. That’s because terra preta is loaded with so-called bio-char — similar to charcoal.
“The knowledge that we can gain from studying the Amazonian dark earths, found throughout the Amazon River region, not only teaches us how to restore degraded soils, triple crop yields and support a wide array of crops in regions with agriculturally poor soils, but also can lead to technologies to sequester carbon in soil and prevent critical changes in world climate,” said Johannes Lehmann, assistant professor of biogeochemistry in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences at Cornell University, speaking today (Feb. 18) at the 2006 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Lehmann, who studies bio-char and is the first author of the 2003 book “Amazonian Dark Earths: Origin, Properties, Management,” the first comprehensive overview of the black soil, said that the super-fertile soil was produced thousands of years ago by indigenous populations using slash-and-char methods instead of slash-and-burn. Terra preta was studied for the first time in 1874 by Cornell Professor Charles Hartt.
Whereas slash-and-burn methods use open fires to reduce biomass to ash, slash-and-char uses low-intensity smoldering fires covered with dirt and straw, for example, which partially exclude oxygen.
Slash-and-burn, which is commonly used in many parts of the world to prepare fields for crops, releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Slash-and-char, on the other hand, actually reduces greenhouse gases, Lehmann said, by sequestering huge amounts of carbon for thousands of years and substantially reducing methane and nitrous oxide emissions from soils.
“The result is that about 50 percent of the biomass carbon is retained,” Lehmann said. “By sequestering huge amounts of carbon, this technique constitutes a much longer and significant sink for atmospheric carbon dioxide than most other sequestration options, making it a powerful tool for long-term mitigation of climate change. In fact we have calculated that up to 12 percent of the carbon emissions produced by human activity could be offset annually if slash-and-burn were replaced by slash-and-char.”
In addition, many biofuel production methods, such as generating bioenergy from agricultural, fish and forestry waste, produce bio-char as a byproduct. “The global importance of a bio-char sequestration as a byproduct of the conversion of biomass to bio-fuels is difficult to predict but is potentially very large,” he added.
Applying the knowledge of terra preta to contemporary soil management also can reduce environmental pollution by decreasing the amount of fertilizer needed, because the bio-char helps retain nitrogen in the soil as well as higher levels of plant-available phosphorus, calcium, sulfur and organic matter. The black soil also does not get depleted, as do other soils, after repeated use.
“In other words, producing and applying bio-char to soil would not only dramatically improve soil and increase crop production, but also could provide a novel approach to establishing a significant, long-term sink for atmospheric carbon dioxide,” said Lehmann. He noted that what is being learned from terra preta also can help farmers prevent agricultural runoff, promote sustained fertility and reduce input costs.