Today Trifecta Ecosystems expanded their education in the community initiative in a unique way, teaching a class at the Sustainable Farm School in Unionville, CT. The Sustainable Farm School is an independent day school for children ages 3 to 18 that offers core academics, holistic personal development, and a model for sustainable living. The Sustainable Farm School’s mission is to help students and families of all backgrounds develop a deeper understanding of and practices for sustainable living through natural curiosity, rigorous academics, and critical thinking in real-world contexts.
We taught the kids all about biochar. What is biochar you may be asking? Well let’s start where we started today with the kids. A reference point we are probably all familiar with, in this case charcoal. Charcoal is just matter, i.e. stuff like wood or vegetation, that you burn. By burning it, all that heat removes water and other things from the wood. Depending on how you burn the wood you can actual remove everything but carbon. In order to do this you need to use specially designed oven. In this case you need to make a top-lit updraft oven.
This just means that we light the wood at the top of the wood and then we have the airflow coming in from the bottom through the top. The wood burns off and then we add oxygen through a vent at the top of the oven before the chimney. This creates a second burn point, known as pyrolysis, that burns off everything but heat and water vapor. It’s a completely clean burn. If you do this successfully you make biochar.
Ok, great we made biochar but why? We know we removed everything from the wood but carbon. This is significant because we didn’t release carbon into the air. It’s the thing we didn’t burn it’s what we are left with. In fact because the matter we are burning is plant matter, which means in its past life it breathed in carbon dioxide it actually takes it out of the air.
What we have done is remove carbon from the atmosphere via carbon sequestration. Why is this good, well as you may have read in headlines in the past years greenhouse gas emissions (like carbon gas) are at record highs and this is resulting in the phenomenon known as global warming. Biochar is one of the weapons we can use to fight those rising emissions. We take the the biochar out and we can literally bury it in the ground.
I know it might sound counter intuitive to bury it. But this is actually another benefit of biochar. It makes a great soil- additive. Since we are left behind with just carbon, the structure is very porous and very suitable to the things that aid in soil health and plant health. For instance biochar provides the perfect home to fungi and microorganisms that are vital the soil health and the efficient delivery of nutrients to the plants via the root system.
Due to this porous nature it is a great additive for soil that are in dry areas, as the biochar retains water very well. So not only are we taking carbon out of the atmosphere we are growing better plants by burying the sequestered carbon and aiding in those plants ability to grow big taking even more carbon out of the atmosphere. Added to a garden or raised bed and it will allow to reduce your watering by 50% or more.
At this point it seems like biochar couldn’t get any better. But it does. If you properly inoculate (add nutrients to) the biochar before adding it to the soil, you will never have to fertilize the soil again. Due to its carbon like nature and porous nature biochar not only stores nutrients very well it is the perfect home for them to live and reproduce. Think of it like a city for all the living microorganisms and beneficial fungi. And since it’s carbon it doesn’t break down.
Biochar has been found to harbor good soil for over 2000 years plus. To date we don’t know how long it takes before it goes bad; if it even does. It was practiced in South America along the amazon river and has been found in the amazon rain forest. Literally the most lush environment on earth. Back then it was called terra-pretta or precious soil.
Biochar added structure to the soil along the amazon. This prevented the river from being able to wipe away the soil and also provided a perfect home for all the good nutrients in the water. And this bring us to why we were here teaching the kids about biochar at the Sustainable Farm School.
We add biochar to our media bed system to take advantage of its ability to retain nutrients. It is also a great environment for our plants root system. It also aids as a filter to our water. Biochar acts like like a Brita filter which actually uses activated carbon to filter the water. We make our own biochar with homemade ovens. The one we use at the school for the demonstration we make out of a paint can, a big tomato sauce can section and a pineapple juice can. That’s all it takes to make this great soil-additive.
We did a live demonstration with the kids including a burn so they could see the process happen while we were teaching them about it. And after the burn was over, we made a compost tea with worm castings the kids collected. They had been learning about compost tea in the class so this was and were proud to say they made quite a brew. When the burn was done we added the biochar to the tea.
We will keep the biochar in the tea with a bubbler to aerate the brew for about a week. At that point the kids will add it to their semester project, a permaculture spiral herb garden! We’ll be checking back in with them to see how the garden goes. For now here are some pics from the demonstration.
Thanks for reading!