Biochar, The Slow Burn

We’ve started producing biochar at the farm, primarily for our own use, but if you twist my arm hard enough I’ll sell some as well.

Low tech, low cost biochar pits can produce good char even from less than ideal wood sources if tended properly.

 

 

I wanted an easy place to refer back to when I forget the recommended ratio to mix with compost for a good biological/mineral/nutrient pre-charge and subsequent application rates.  So here it is!

Biochar Application rates:

  • Remember that raw biochar will absorb minerals and nutrients in your soil for the first couple of years, nature will correct, so not a big deal but if you want to give your soil and immediate boost, pre-charge your biochar before application
  • Easiest way to get it ready for direct application is to mix in when building compost piles
  • Mix up to 1:1 or 50% by volume with finished compost and let rest for a couple of weeks before application
  • Or up to 1:3 or 33% biochar by volume in unfinished compost for good mineral/nutrient/biological pre-charge of the char before application (higher biochar ratios may shut down your pile)
  • Apply pre-charged biochar directly to root zone or in seed furrows at a rate of 1 to 10% biochar by volume of amendments applied.
  • If applying bulk, pure biochar directly, go for 1000 to 2000 lbs biochar/acre (raw or pre-charged)

 

The key to a highly productive, low tech/low cost biochar pit burn:

  • Start your fire in the bottom of the empty pit
  • slowly add material until the fire just starts to smoke
  • let the fire build back up and compact the pile/add more material before any white ash is apparent on any surface
  • frequently compacting the burn pile with a heavy poker, crushing coals off and tightening raw wood, really helps final yield
  • take care to fill in gaps which might burn too quickly
  • if you don’t watch your fire, your char will burn up
  • THOROUGHLY quench the fire with water, removing any unburned wood where live coals might be smoldering, and stir the coals until no more steam or smoke is produced
  • Let the char cool/drain overnight and dig out into your compost piles.

For our biochar pit (6′ diameter, 4′ deep) it takes about 8 hours to char 6 cubic yards of bulky less than ideal wood.  A well tended burn will yield around 250 gallons of char.

Best references I’ve come across to develop this process:

  • http://ecofarmingdaily.com/biochar-prepping-soil/
  • https://www.terra-char.com/uploads/2/3/7/9/23790961/composting_with_biochar.pdf
  • Richar Perkins of Rigedale Permaculture on biochar
    • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yy9k0_sX1xU
  • http://livingwebfarms.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Conditioning-Biochar.pdf
    • The somewhat long video that goes with the reference above:
      http://livingwebfarms.org/multimedia/videos/complete-hands-on-workshops/biochar-inoculation/
  • Special Thanks to Dan Hettinger for sharing his experience, references and advice