The Dirt about Biochar – And How It Could Help California - American Farmland Trust

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The Dirt about Biochar – And How It Could Help California

biochar and non-biochar sites in brazil
Biochar-amended “Terra Preta” soil profile (left) and unamended Oxisol soil profile (right) 
from adjacent sites in Brazil (Glaser et al. 2001). 

As California agriculture deals with historic floods, droughts, and wildfires, could a stable, high-carbon soil amendment called “biochar” help improve soil health, mitigate climate change, and protect our food supply?

Apparently, it could. This type of charred biomass has been used as a soil amendment for centuries, originating with indigenous people who created the Terra Preta soils of the Amazon Basin, reports AFT Senior Scientist Rachel Seman-Varner, PhD, in this US Nature 4 Climate post.

“Research over the last 20 years has produced over 20,000 peer-reviewed publications investigating the benefits of diverse biochars on agricultural soils around the world,” says Rachel.

“Although there’s no silver bullet for climate change, the evidence is clear that biochar amendments can sequester carbon, increase soil organic matter, improve soil structure, increase water-holding capacity, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

Biochar can be made from many different sustainable feedstocks, including woody waste materials from forests, mills, vineyards, orchards, some crop residues, livestock manures, and food processing waste. This practice not only effectively reduces waste but also fire hazards in high-risk areas and pressure on landfills.

Despite the many potential benefits, biochar’s adoption in agricultural systems has been slow.

“Unfortunately, there’s been a lack of education and awareness about biochar’s potential for climate adaptation, resilience, and mitigation benefits,” explains Rachel.

“There also haven’t been decision support tools for managing appropriate biochar amendments on specific soils and production systems. Making matters worse, producers have a hard time finding local, sustainable, and affordable biochar products.”

Overcoming Hurdles of Biochar Adaptation

That’s why AFT is partnering with policymakers, industry leaders, researchers, and innovative farmers to reduce these adoption barriers of biochar as a natural climate solution. The strategy includes:

  • An eight-state soil health demonstration trial funded by a $4.5 million National Resources Conservation Services multi-partner Conservation Innovation Grant to quantify the climate, environmental, social, and economic impacts of biochar applications on working farms.
  • A national-scale Biochar Decision Support Tool that expands the Pacific Northwest Biochar Atlas in partnership with Agricultural Research Service and US Biochar Initiative.
  • Two USDA Partnerships for Climate Smart Commodities Projects – one focused on regenerative agriculture and soil health for corn, soy, wheat, cotton, and dairy, and the other on climate-smart beef production – will include scaling up biochar use in agriculture.
biochar in the hand of a farmer
This biochar was processed from almond shells as a byproduct from harvested almond nuts.

In California’s San Joaquin Valley, AFT is partnering on a biochar research and demonstration project in an almond orchard, which is part of the prerequisite research for making this practice eligible for future funding in the CDFA Healthy Soils Program.

The trial is studying the soil health and greenhouse gas impacts from two different application rates of almond wood and almond shell biochar. It is also learning about the effectiveness of biochar applications using typical farmer-owned equipment and field operations.  Understanding the benefits of almond biochar will guide further research and incentivize farmer adoption.

AFT is partnering on this project with the Pacific Farming Company, University of California Merced, and California conservation districts. The project is supported by the California Climate Investments program, which is a funding source for the CDFA Healthy Soils Program. This statewide initiative puts billions of Cap-and-Trade dollars to work reducing greenhouse gas emissions, strengthening the economy, and improving public health and the environment — particularly in disadvantaged communities.

About the biochar trial, AFT California Senior Agricultural Specialist Paul Lum says,

“Pacific Farming Company has long been a leader in the San Joaquin Valley’s efforts to conserve natural resources, build soil health, and bolster regenerative agriculture.

It’s an honor to partner with these organizations to document the benefits of this ancient growing practice as a potential solution for our current climate resilience issues.”

Learn more about AFT’s national biochar strategy and find helpful resources on AFT’s Farmland Information Center.

Funding for Farmers

California farmers can apply for cost-share/incentive funds for biochar in different government programs with deadlines in the winter and spring of 2024. For instance, the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service offers the following programs:

Environmental Quality Incentive Program

Regional Conservation Partnership Program

Apply to both programs via the 1200 application form. Biochar applications are included in the Soil Carbon Amendment Conservation Practice Standard (336, formerly Interim CPS 808). More about the practice standard.

We’re Coming to Sacramento!

AFT will be at the 2024 North America Biochar Conference on Feb. 12-14, 2024. Rachel is presenting on AFT’s biochar projects and co-presenting a workshop on the Decision Support Tools progress towards a national tool.

Be sure to stop by our booth and get more information and a free No Farms No Food bumper sticker.

New Biochar Webinar Series

Join AFT virtually for the Practical Biochar Implementation webinar series starting this winter.

On Dec. 13 at 2:00 pm eastern is the second in a series of Practical Biochar Implementation webinars on biochar use in agriculture. Our speaker will be Dr. Kristin Trippe from USDA Agricultural Research Service who will be speaking about The 3 Rs of Biochar Appplication. The webinar will include a presentation and a Q&A session.

When: Dec 13, 2023 02:00 PM Eastern Time (US and Canada)

Topic: Practical Biochar Implementation Webinar Series – National Biochar Atlas

Register in advance for this webinar:

After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the webinar.

Join us on Jan. 24, 2024 at 2:00 pm eastern for the third in a series of Practical Biochar Implementation webinars on biochar use in agriculture. Our speaker will be Dr. Debbie Aller from Cornell University who will be speaking about managing biochar applications in cropping systems. The webinar will include a presentation and a Q&A session.

When: Jan 24, 2024 02:00 PM Eastern Time (US and Canada)

Topic: Practical Biochar Implementation Webinar Series – Biochar and Crop Production

Register in advance for this webinar:

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Teresa O'Connor

California Communications and Outreach Manager

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