Biochar offers benefits to soils, forest
Last updated 3/8/2023 at Noon
Biochar is a fuel management practice that is taking the fire and science world by storm. A workshop on the use of biochar in our forests, on our farms, and more is coming to Sisters. The workshop is in partnership with the School of Ranch, High Desert Food & Farm Alliance, and Pine Meadow Ranch Center for Arts and Agriculture.
Biochar is a burning technique that scientists and fire professionals are looking at to practice better forest management in the wake of intense wildfire seasons. Biochar can be applied to add nutrients to soil, and benefits forests, farms, and gardens.
“Although it looks a lot like common charcoal, biochar is produced using a specific process to reduce contamination and safely store carbon,” Regeneration International reports. “During pyrolysis organic materials, such as wood chips, leaf litter, or dead plants, are burned in a container with very little oxygen. As the materials burn, they release little to no contaminating fumes. During the pyrolysis process, the organic material is converted into biochar, a stable form of carbon that can’t easily escape into the atmosphere.”
Kelpie Wilson, mechanical engineer and thermal technician, has dived into the world of biochar full-time. Wilson, who will conduct the Pine Meadow Ranch workshop, has always been interested in renewable energy practices. Her experience in the field of thermal technologies and biochar worked hand in hand.
“I live in a rural part of the state and have always been involved in forest conservation and devoted to forests,” said Wilson.
Wilson combined her passions for forest conservation and science and started writing about biochar and the benefits of its use for online science magazines focused on sustainable energy.
“When biochar came along, I had shifted over into working on climate change issues as a journalist in science communications. I was writing a lot about climate change and energy,” said Wilson.
“One thing I recognized when I heard about biochar was this is a great use for all the woody excess biomass we have from decades of forest mismanagement,” she said.
After decades suppressing fire, there are many areas of forests in the West that are overgrown, causing more risk for fire in those areas with intensified wildfire seasons. With this huge change in the last 30 years, there is a need for managing burned areas and figuring out what the biomass left over can do for our soils. That’s where biochar comes in.
Biochar is a natural part of our soils; most soils have some biochar, and Sisters Country soils have a lot due to forest fires.
Cool underburns keep the forest healthy by introducing carbon into the soil versus into the atmosphere. Indigenous peoples often used fire to manage their forest homes and used biochar in their soils, making them nutrient rich. Getting biochar back in our soil is a process, according to Wilson.
“Fire burns in stages. The first stage it makes a lot of smoke and gas, and after it dies down its smoldering phase where the charcoal is burning… the second phase is charcoal, which burns totally differently than a bonfire, for example,” said Wilson.
Charcoal burns hot and burns slowly. Biochar is made naturally in a fire if the leftover burning charcoal is put out before it turns to ash.
Charcoal in the soil allows for very fertile soil.
“We need to put the fire back in the forest and put the charcoal back in the forest and soils. It’s key for soil processes,” said Wilson.
Charcoal allows the soil to hang on to water and key elements for microbiomes.
Wilson’s passion for the use of biochar shows through her own home life, where she uses biochar products in the soil of her garden, and grows a lot of her own food. She also works with the International Biochar Initiative, with some of the top soil scientists in the world, to develop the processes for creating biochar.
“[It’s] not only for agriculture but also for climate mitigation; it’s one of the only ways we have to get carbon out of the atmosphere,” said Wilson.
A lot of the work Wilson does with forestry crews is vegetation management, cutting small trees and brush, putting it in piles, and burning it.
“If you put it out with water in the end, you’re left with charcoal. You can just do a better job by putting it out at the end versus letting it burn to ash if you are trying to save the charcoal,” said Wilson.
The workshops Wilson puts on with different organizations, including the workshop at Pine Meadow Ranch, involve teaching two approaches for biochar use.
“One [technique] is making to use for the farm and garden and the other is the forest; we need to give back to the forests, they need some charcoal back,” she said.
Wilson will walk people through how to make biochar for use on farms and in gardens and all the benefits: for livestock, fertile soil, less pollution of waterways, as well as use as a fertilizer by burning products in a burn pile and using the byproduct.
The burn-pile method transforms the material quickly, with a lot of flames that burn the smoke.
“We do a quick, hot burn because it’s a clean burn and it’s quick, as I will highlight in the workshop,” said Wilson.
Wilson has also developed a kiln for biochar creation that she has for sale. It’s a fire-ring kiln made in Oregon.
“It’s been a successful design. It’s a windscreen, sheet steel around your fire, and improves the efficiency of the process of creating biochar,” said Wilson.
The kiln allows for more flame to create more charcoal at the end of a burn.
Wilson has done close to 100 workshops in the last decade demonstrating the use of biochar and its benefit to the environment. There is a growing biochar industry, with scientists working on using biochar on a larger scale, but Wilson focuses on how to use biochar in everyday life — on farms, in your own home, and across the forests of Oregon. She works as a consultant for some big companies and sells her kilns across the country.
The workshop at Pine Meadow Ranch is titled “Burn with Benefits: An Intro to Biochar.”
The first part of the workshop took place on March 2 with an online Zoom discussion and then the in-person workshop at Pine Meadow Ranch on Saturday, March 11 at 10 a.m. To learn more and register visit: https://schoolofranch.org/w-biochar?fbclid=IwAR1gtyHRWjL-u8ExDnqZ7RMdOmk