Can Even the Best Char Salesman Sell Carbon to a Farmer?
Large-scale biochar application would also require a compelling economic incentive for farmers. Currently, there is none.
“All the way back to the 1700s, there is literature saying that biochar would not produce the yield benefits to pay for itself,” says Spokas. “That’s a big problem.”
Jonah Levine, a self-described char salesman with Colorado-based Biochar Solutions and Biochar Now, recalled a conversation with a friend who grows peaches in the Virginia piedmont. “Jonah,” the friend said, “you’re never gonna sell a farmer carbon. Farmers grow their own carbon. You’re wasting your time.”
If farmers are leery of the “biochar revolution,” what’s a char salesman to do?
The answer, Levine says, is to find “functional niches” where biochar produces a predictable, cost-effective benefit. “No one is just going to simply plow tons and tons of charcoal per acre into a corn field and find that that’s logistically or financially feasible. You need to use it to coat a seed for higher germination or as a carrier for water and nutrients.”
A ponderosa pine, for example, will die if it gets less than 7% soil moisture. Levine has planted thousands of pine trees and had great success maintaining soil moisture at 10% with a 4–5% biochar soil amendment.
Similarly, an almond tree has a root ball that goes into the ground for 20 years. Levine believes mixing 5% biochar into that root ball can increase water efficiency by 20% over the life of the tree.
The trick, he says, is targeting high-value crops with a long-term payback, like fruits and nuts. He also uses low-cost feedstock that might otherwise go to waste, mainly Rocky Mountain lodgepole pines that have succumbed to the pine beetle.
This practical, entrepreneurial approach coincides with the view from academia. Lehmann says biochar should be considered “a tool in the farm toolbox,” alongside composts, fertilizers, crop residues, and mulches. “Biochar has gained, for better or worse, some silver bullet attribute,” he says. “There is no silver bullet. There is a portfolio of options.”
One of the exciting things about biochar, Lehmann says, is the range of possibilities it gives farmers who are more or less locked into the organic matter they have at hand.
“Say you have an alfalfa green manure. It will release nitrogen very quickly. You might decide to compost that and thereby change its qualities. With biochar, you can dramatically alter its properties, and that opens up a completely new perspective on residue management.” An alfalfa-based biochar, for example, could reduce nitrogen release, while still boosting soil moisture retention much longer than the compost could.
One way biochar could help to mitigate climate change is as a replacement for peat, a nonrenewable resource that generates greenhouse gas in its worst form and whose extraction destroys landscapes. “If we were to only substitute biochar for peat, I think that would still be a great thing,” says Lehmann.
ASA and SSSA member Jim Ippolito, a USDA-ARS soil scientist based in Kimberly, ID, thinks water may be the next biochar frontier. “I’m kind of envisioning 50 years down the road, where we know how to mix woody-based biochar and crop stubble or woody-based biochar and manure to produce the same crop yield with less applied water. If you could add biochar and reduce irrigation by X% because of greater water use efficiency, that would be an important impact. Wow!”
Ippolito says biochar technology potentially could be a tremendous asset for farmers facing drought conditions; they could increase soil water-holding capacity for, say, a 10-year period and also reap extra plant benefits.
“Here in Kimberly,” Ippolito says, we have some evidence biochar can create positive conditions for plant germination and growth. It looks like there’s a correlation between increased water-holding capacity and increased germination. For areas in the world that experience drastic and sudden droughts or have limited irrigation, the big research question is Can we quantify whether biochar can lessen the impact of drought stress, whether permanent or temporary? That’s a question that really needs attention.”
Looking for Uses beyond Production Agriculture
In the meantime, however, Ippolito concedes that biochar is a hard sell for farmers: “Production agriculture is not where biochar gives the most bang for the buck, at least currently.”
He says, “We don’t have carbon credits in the U.S., and who knows if they will ever be in place [to incentivize farmers]. So, in addition to carbon sequestration, we need to think about what else we can get out of biochar.”
Ippolito and colleagues have shown that the material can adsorb up to 42,300 parts per million copper in water. They have also mixed several different biochar blends into mine tailings and documented significant decreases in levels of bioavailable heavy metals. “In the end, you still have a product that may require disposal,” Ippolito says, “but the biochar is now concentrated with metals and thus presents potential for metal recovery.”
Lehmann has seen biochar applied to drainage ditches on dairy farms to reduce E. coli and phosphate runoff. It is not a big leap to envision its use to reduce herbicide leaching into waterways. But Lehmann cautions, “It works both ways; the efficacy of herbicides can be reduced by biochar applications.”
At the moment, most of Levine’s Biochar Solutions customers are interested in land reclamation: oil and gas producers, hard rock mining companies, and landfill owners. His second largest buying sector is the landscape services industry, and the third is split between water filtration and other industrial uses.
As someone on the leading edge of an emerging industry, Levine talks about “designer biochars,” with specific utility and is keen to explore new markets, such as the compost industry. “If we can put char in at some percentage and that char can retain nutrients and water and reduce smells, it can add value to that product.” Already, he provides the biochar for Maxfields soil conditioner, a product with about 10% biochar sold at over a hundred Colorado Front Range locations, including a number of Whole Foods Market outlets.
Paul Wever’s Illinois-based company, Chip Energy, sells largely to researchers. His one commercial customer is a Chicago landscape company that uses biochar in its green roof installations—an ideal application for a lightweight carbon product that retains moisture and nutrients.
To create a sustainable business plan, Wever says, “You have to have a purpose for the thermal energy you produce in the production of biochar.” He calls his biochar business “an expensive hobby” at present, and only manufacturers char in cold weather, when he uses the thermal energy to heat his primary business building furnaces.
Wever considers Chip Energy a model for “biomass recycling,” more than anything else. “In the state of Illinois, we bury five million pounds of biomass every day. We can convert that material based on market needs,” he says. “It could be biochar, could be heat, could be ash…. That is what Chip Energy is trying to do—create a place for biomass to be recycled.”
In the final analysis, biochar may not be the ultimate solution for any one problem. But it seems certain to be at least part of the solution for many different problems, including climate change reversal.
“Biochar showed that we are not at the end of our ideas,” Lehmann says. I’m quite certain it will have its place somewhere. It would be a pity to not investigate it. I don’t think we have the luxury to overlook promising interventions.”