Five farmers in Wallowa County are experimenting with biochar this farming season, and that may result in far-reaching benefit to the county.
In 2016-17 Wallowa Resources, a nonprofit dedicated to developing and promoting the success of rural communities, received approximately $30,000 in grants from the Sills Family Foundation and the U.S. Forest Service to examine the viability of using biochar as a soil amendment to boost agricultural production.
Biochar is a stable solid, rich in carbon, which can endure in soil for thousands of years.
The importance of the study for Wallowa County, located in far eastern Oregon, was not only assessing the benefit of biochar to farmers, but “connecting the dots” for an economic system in the county – from forest restoration, to conversion of biomass (slash and agricultural waste) to a saleable product, to soil and crop improvement. The creation of jobs at every phase of the project is also part of the mission, said biochar project manager Matt King.
Biochar has been used in many other applications, from filtering water to absorbing dangerous chemical spills and may be key in mining remediation projects because of its ability to leach heavy metals from the soil.
“There are a whole lot of potential benefits to biochar,” said King. “The question in Wallowa County is if there is any market viability for biochar as a soil ammendment. Can we produce it at a price that farmers can afford to pay with some assistance from restoration of forests or carbon offset credits in the future?”
Those offsets and financial assistance programs are an important consideration as biochar is considered expensive.
There are many applications for biochar. As a soil augmentation, the benefits include water and fertilizer retention and reduced acidity of the soil. Some manure-based biochars have also been shown to add nitrogen to the soil, according to the Colorado State University Extension.
Among the farms joining the program this year are Woody Wolfe of Wallowa, Dave Flynn and Cory Carman’s Carmen Ranch of Wallowa, Joe Dawson’s Double D Ranch of Joseph, Mark and Anna Butterfield’s farm in Joseph and Kevin Melville of Enterprise and Joseph.
“We’re experimenting in using biochar to raise the pH rather than using lime,” Melville said. “The number-one problem we have is soil pH getting lower. As you use commercial fertilizers over time, the soil pH goes down.
Soil pH value is a measure of soil acidity or alkalinity, which directly affects nutrient availability. The pH scale ranges from 0 to 14, with 7 as neutral. Numbers less than 7 indicate acidity while numbers greater than 7 indicate alkalinity.
Melville said his numbers were at seven or eight and now they’re dropping down to six. “Then you start getting more aluminum and aluminum toxicity,” he said. “It’s a big deal. There are a lot of very complex problems that go on there.”
Melville is also interested in seeing a product that could be produced locally and hopes for better water retention.
“Any time you can irrigate less you save money,” he said.
For the project, the farms are treating about an acre each, King said.
“Four of those farmers are no-till, so they will use a seed drill to get the char into the ground. Butterfield tills, so we’ll be using a manure spreader there,” King said.
The crops being planted in the treated fields include alfalfa, mixed forage and wheat.
The project agrees to test the process cost-free.
“We’d like to see some enhanced yield the first year,” said King. “The value of the product comes down to the economic bottom line. We definitely expect to see increased growth, retaining of fertilizer benefits, retaining of water and other benefits.”
Since learning is the primary goal of the project, biochar may also be applied for a second year to determine the best application amount and frequency –– although studies indicate that the char will remain viable, doing its job, for up to 100 years before breaking down.
Biochar is also touted as having a carbon sequestration benefit, which is part of the equation that might, in the future, result in carbon offset credits to help pay for biochar application. However, some international studies question carbon sequestration benefits of biochar when mixed with compost or soils.
If there is success, the second step for Wallowa County participants would be determining if making biochar makes economic sense.
Integrated Biomass Resources owner/operator David Schmidt said his company has a vested interest in whether the farm trials are successful.
“We have a lot of material from both forest service and private forest land that ends up as hog fuel,” he said. “If we find a better value for this material, it’s good for everyone. But we’re just assessing its value to farmers at this point.”