Biochar has potential to be a powerful tool in the soil health and climate-smart toolbox for agriculture.

 

What is Biochar?

Biochar is a stabilized carbon product made from various biomass sources via pyrolysis, a high-temperature low-oxygen process. Biochar can be applied to diverse soils and production systems. It can increase soil carbon sequestration, reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, increase yield, and build healthy, high-functioning soils and more resilient agroecosystems.

Different biochars from different feedstocks. (Photo courtesy of Kristin Trippe, USDA ARS)

Barriers to Biochar Adoption

Breaking down the barriers to on-farm biochar adoption will require coordination among stakeholders, and AFT is a leader in that cross-organizational effort. This is an endeavor to enable farmers, ranchers, and others managing working lands to amend their soils with sustainably sourced fit-for-purpose biochar at scale for maximum impact. This requires thorough characterization and standardization of pyrolysis processes to develop consistent biochar soil amendments that can be used for targeted purposes. Demonstrations of in-field effects of using fit-for-purpose biochars are also needed across the diversity of soil types, climates, and production systems that make up U.S. farms and ranches. A complete assessment of sustainable biochar impacts on soil health, farm economics, soil carbon sequestration, and GHG emissions is needed to inform climate and soil health policies. AFT is building collaborations with policy and industry leaders, researchers, and innovative farmers to bridge these gaps.

When amended with biochar at a rate of 8 tons per acre, wheat growth dramatically increased compared to wheat grown on unamended soil near Spokane, Washington. (Photo courtesy of Kristin Trippe, USDA ARS).

Why AFT’s Climate Initiative is Working to Scale Up Biochar

AFT’s climate work is deeply intertwined with our other efforts to keep farmers on the land, promote sound farming practices, and protect farmland at regional and national scales. We focus on integrated approaches to mitigate climate change and enhance climate resilience. We are working to scale up the application of biochar on working lands, because it is a natural climate solution that has the yet-untapped potential to function as a powerful tool in the soil health and climate-smart toolbox.

AFT’s Collaborative Biochar Efforts

  • Convening and White Paper on Recommendations for Sustainable Biochar Research and Commercialization: Biochar has unrealized potential to increase soil carbon sequestration, reduce GHG gas emissions, and provide multiple synergistic benefits to farmers and the environment as part of soil health management systems, while also supporting the production of renewable, climate-neutral biofuels. To galvanize the necessary coordination to create a Pyrolysis-Biochar-Bioenergy Industry, the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR), the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT), and American Farmland Trust (AFT) co-hosted a two-day virtual convening event on biochar research and commercialization. The convening recording is available at our Farmland Information Center, as well as the first of two companion whitepapers. The first represents a summary of the two-day event, as well as insights from subsequent stakeholder engagement. The second of two companion whitepapers is in development, targeted for release in early 2023, and will provide initial recommendations for scaling up.
  • Initiative to build a National Biochar Decision Support Tool, GHG quantification, and educational resources. The USDA has provided funding to support the efforts of ARS scientists (PI: Dr. Kristin Trippe), in collaboration with AFT, (USBI), Washington State University, and Oregon State University to expand the geographic and functional range of the Pacific Northwest Biochar Atlas decision support tool from a regional tool to a national one and develop the ability to model the GHG benefits of biochar use. The project will produce a webinar series, live conversations, factsheets, gap analysis, and more, with resources to be hosted on AFT’s Farmland Information Center page, and training resources for USDA-NRCS staff.
  • Biochar Demonstration in an Almond Orchard: AFT and partners (including Pacific Farming Company, University of California – Merced (UCM), Sierra Resource Conservation District (RCD) and Madera/Chowchilla RCD) will demonstrate biochar application on an almond orchard. Replicated treatments will include low and high application rates of biochar made from almond tree prunings and almond shells. UCM will measure soil GHG flux, soil moisture, plant available nitrogen, soil water infiltration, and other indicators. AFT will analyze economic benefits.
  • Scaling up Biochar with Partnerships for Climate Smart Commodities Projects: AFT was awarded two Partnerships for Climate Smart Commodities projects that will both work to integrate biochar as a tool in the soil health management systems toolbox to boost carbon sequestration and GHG emission reductions on participating farms.
    A) AFT leads the project Producer Led Collaborative Effort to Fundamentally Transition the U.S. Beef Supply Chain to Carbon Neutral. Partners include the Integrity Beef Alliance, Indigo Ag, Freedman Heirs Foundation, Earth Optics, AgriWebb, Regenified, Legacy Verified, USBI, OpenTEAM and many others. The project combines an intensive data-driven approach to MMRV with producer-led processes to reduce GHG emissions and sequester carbon in regenerative grazing systems. Biochar application to grazing lands on responsive soils in locations where plentiful biomass is available locally has the potential to further increase soil carbon beyond currently better-known approaches and plays a role in N2O and CH4 from manure management activities.

    B) AFT will also partner with TruTerra, Soil Health Institute, and others on the project Climate SMART – Scale Mechanisms for Agriculture’s Regenerative Transition (SMART). AFT will build farmer peer networks and provide advanced soil health management systems training to soil health advisors and progressive farmers who will help farmers in their networks transition to soil health management systems. AFT will train trainers on farmland protection and assess economic and social barriers to adoption across a diversity of farmers. AFT will integrate the use of biochar in soil health management systems where opportunities for access to biochar and responsiveness of production systems are high.