Big Biochar Experiment

Cecile Girardin from Oxford Biochar presented results from the 1st year of the Big Biochar Experiment at the recent British Biochar Conference (I will post separately on this conference).

I’ve had a dialogue going with Oxford Biochar since early last year about expanding their project into NZ and SEA. They have had quite a few of these inquires and are keen to collaborate but have been hampered by a lack of resources. We plan to re-engage on the subject soon. I hope we can pull together a NZ version of this work. This could be as simple as local gardeners signing up to the UK site or a collaboration on a new local project. We need to sort out NZ biochar supply issues but that will be an exciting challenge for aspiring local producers.

The biomass used for biochar, its preparation, biochar production methods and process conditions, along with pre-application processing, create numerous variables even before you get your biochar in the garden. These variables could be reduced to some extent by providing the same biochar to all participants… but then we would only be testing one biochar.

I like the idea of opening the project up to all potential biochars with data gathered on their production. Maybe project funding could be sort to test each char as a science collaboration.

Biochar Education

The ABE site will have a lot of valuable research results. On the education page, I would like to see some interpretation of these results for gardeners and small farmers, as well as more conventional farmers, with practical help in implementing the information.

I’m not sure how to achieve it, but education usually works best when actually demonstrated in practice to interest groups – maybe someone able and willing to do presentations on biochar, as the practical extension of the website?

Introducing Myself

It’s great to see this website coming together. I welcome the communication with biochar enthusiasts world-wide, and especially the opportunity to connect with the research and practical activity taking place in NZ.

I first learned about biochar from Albert Bates (author of The Biochar Solution) at the Australasian Permaculture hui in Turangi last year. Its relevance to NZ immediately seemed obvious to me. What has also become obvious is that very few people have even heard about it, there is no appreciation of its value in small-scale gardening, and absolutely no technology available for making the stuff. I set about developing a website to change all that, and I’m pleased that BIG-NZ are doing the same with this site.

As I live in the city and have no access to land or any form of agriculture, I have focused on biochar education, and promoting its use in home gardens. I’ve had a lot of fun making TLUDs out of food cans, as a first step in designing and manufacturing domestic-scale stoves in NZ. The process also lends itself to school and community education programmes, leading to practical action on carbon sequestration and climate change, local food production, community gardens, and many other community projects.

There’s a lot to learn, but the great thing is that we don’t need a degree in biochar before we can use it to improve our food quality and quantity, and make a difference to the health of the planet.

Overseer and biochar

How will the application of biochar in NZ soils affect nutrient flows in farming and agriculture systems? How would these changes affect the assumptions used in Overseer?

Maybe after further research in NZ on nutrient retention and the environment benefits of biochar, we can engage with Overseer. I wonder if they would collaborate or support research. A future biochar module in their software?

Ways of Making Terra Preta: Biochar Activation

I am linking in this article by Hans-Peter Schmidt on his ithaka website. Hans-Peter is a leader on biochar in Europe and he writes well on a range of biochar application subjects. I plan to link into more of his articles where they may overlap with biochar applications in NZ agriculture.

This article is not about biochar production but using a range of methods to ‘activate’ or ‘charge’ the biochar prior to soil application. Designer biochars.Capture - char closeup

Biochar is not a fertilizer, but rather a nutrient carrier and a habitat for microorganisms. First of all, biochar needs to be charged to become biologically active in order to efficiently utilize its soil-enhancing properties. There are numerous methods of activating and producing substrates similar to terra preta aside from mixing biochar with compost. …”


The link below is to a discussion on the biochar-yahoo group regarding the concept of NPK-C (hopefully the link will work for non-members). It would be an interesting concept but would the big fertiliser companies in NZ entertain this? Biochar will probably always work better in an organic soil management system but maybe NPK-C could be an additional pathway to more sustainable agriculture.

Water quality and nutrient management in NZ

When I look back at posts on the temporary BIG-NZ G+ site, there are common threads around pastoral farming, water quality, nutrient management. I believe biochar should have a stronger profile related to these issues in NZ. There is strong science around biochar’s positive influence on nutrient management. This has still to be translated to broad acre experiments in the NZ agricultural environment.

Amending healthy soils with biochar

The following are extracts from an article posted by Thayer Tomlinson (to the link below).
Amending Healthy Soil
…”Until recently, it was believed that biochar’s beneficial soil impacts were seen primarily in soils with significant constraints, but two recent publications examine its impact on more fertile Midwestern agricultural soils, showing that biochar can benefit even healthy, fertile soils.”

“An interesting study came out in 2010 that examines the impact of biochar not in terms of nutrient addition but of stimulating plant growth. The paper “Biochar impact on development and productivity of pepper and tomato grown in fertigated soilless media” by Graber et al[4] found that when biochar-treated pots were compared against controls, plant development was enhanced. The impacts of biochar on plant development were not due to direct or indirect effects on plant nutrition as both the biochar-treated pots and the control had the same leaf nutrient content (the biochar was a nutrient-poor biochar to ensure the same nutrient content). The research team found two alternatives to explain the improved plant performance under biochar treatment; first, that the biochar “stimulated shifts in microbial populations towards beneficial plant growth promoting rhizobacteria or fungi, due to either chemical or physical attributes of the biochar” and/or that the “low doses of biochar chemicals, many of which are phytotoxic or biocidal at high concentrations, stimulated plant growth at low doses (hormesis).”