Growing with Biochar
USDA SARE grant project

KAW Valley Biochar
Lawrence, Kansas
Hoyland Farm
Biochar Test Plot

1954 Union Street, Lawrence, KS
Bob & Joy Lominska, Devin Gerling
April 21, 2013
First SARE Test Plot

The first Growing with Biochar 2013 test plot was installed on Bob Lominska's Hoyland Farm in north Lawrence. This first test plot was ready to plant with onions on Tuesday evening, April 23. This effort is funded by a USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SARE) grant. Growing with Biochar works with eight farms in the Lawrence foodshed to create research & demonstration test plots to show growers how carbon sequestering benefits soils, crops, productivity, and profitability.

Sunday April 14, research field agent and KU Anthropology senior Devin Gerling visited Hoyland Farm in north Lawrence, and with farmer Bob Lominska, marked out a block of six 100 square foot test beds, photographed them, and took soil samples. Bob plans to plant these test plots with onions.

Sunday, April 21, I returned with Devin to prepare materials to spread on each test plot. This first effort to create a test plot challenged our creativity and capacity for improvisation. We tested two types of char: home-made cedar char, and commercial horticultural char.

First, a special biochar was made from chipped cedar trees in a TLUD with KU Industrial Design student Taylor Stetler. Cedar trees are unwanted invasive plants in Midwest pastures and prairies, so we will investigate if this weed tree can be converted to biochar for soil improvement. We questioned if cedar oils and resin may be allelopathic, and suppress seed germination or seedling growth.

Bob Lominska cut and chipped several cedar trees in January. Almost every Sunday, Taylor and I screened small particles and wood dust out of the cedar chips, burned the coarse chips in a TLUD gasifier to produce over 80 gallons of screened biochar. Cedar seems to burn with extra release of energy, suggesting it may have high value as feedstock for biofuel production. Cedar also consistently yielded a higher volume of char for each burn.

We also experimented with a new venturi device to attach to the TLUD chimney that boosts the combustion efficiency of the gas flare. We crushed this char through a 1/4-inch hardware screen for a small particle size suitable for rapid, thorough, widespread dispersal in soil. Our homemade cedar chip biochar consists of assorted size particles, from large rice grain sizes down to fine dust and powder.

The other char is horticultural charcoal in 50 pound bags at a farm supply store. This char is a by-product of producing charcoal for fuel, and likely cooked over 1000 degrees Celcius—twice the temperature recommended to produce biochar (500-700 degrees C). This commercial char is screened to uniform 1/16th-inch particle size, contains hardly any dust or powder. The second bag we opened was larger 1/2-inch chunks. Checking labels, we saw "P6" on large size, "P3" on small. Oops! Fortunately, we located another "P3" bag and proceeded.

Measuring Onion Leaf Growth
June 21, 2013

We decided to arrange the six test beds to compare biochar only side-by-side next to biochar plus enhancements: compost, SCD Probiotics in Kansas City, MO (SCD = Sustainable Community Development). SCD recommends their BioAg solution as a biochar inoculant, and gave us a simple recipe to inoculate a 30-gallon batch of biochar. BioAg is a culture of lactobacillus, phototrophic bacteria and yeast in a stabilized solution, and provides a foundation colony of microbes that create a stable environment for other microbes to flourish. In separate plastic barrels, we planned to combine 35 gallons of each char with cistern (rain) water, then add three quarts of BioAg solution and stir the mixtures thoroughly.

Cedar biochar blended nicely, but we had two problems with horticultural charcoal. First, we discovered our plastic trash barrel had a small leak in the bottom.

Inoculating Horticultural Charcoal
48-hour soak in SCD BioAg inoculant
We had to dump the half-made blend in our wheelbarrow, dry out the barrel bottom, patch the leak with plastic tape. Arrgh!! Our patch was only partly successful, and we still had a slow leak. Second, horticultural charcoal was very dry, more hydrophobic, contained more air, thus floated more than cedar biochar. Thus, we could only get 30 gallons of charcoal in the barrel.

My assessment is that even 30 gallons of char per 100 square foot test bed is generous, and more than adequate to produce dramatic results in this first round of trials. In seedlings trials, I have seen good results using only 5% biochar in a potting soil mix. In this trial, onions are a short, shallow rooted crop, so the biochar will be concentrated in the upper six inches of soil.

The two mixes must sit 48 hours so the microbes can fully expand their populations and colonize the char before they're spread on test beds. So, we left the two barrels of biochar plus water and BioAg inoculant to sit for two days.

To complete test bed preparation, we set out 30 gallons of City of Lawrence municipal compost on each biochar+ test bed. Last, as a full spectrum trace element booster, we scattered just over 2 cups (1.5 lbs.) of SEA-90 sea solids from SeaAgri on each biochar+ test bed.

Tuesday evening Devin returned to Hoyland Farm to assist Bob Lominska to spread compost and char evenly over each test plot. Bob will till this mixture into the upper six inches of soil and begin planting onions.

Devin will continue to regularly visit test beds to take photos of onion growth. As the crop matures, she will take measurements of plant height, thickness, Brix (sap sugar), plant sap pH, soil pH, and soil moisture. This data will allow us to track and compare the growth of these test beds, and evaluate effects of biochar and enhancements on soil and crop. At harvest, Devin will measure yield of each test bed. Devin will also take another set of soil samples in late summer, and again in the fall.

So, the SARE grant biochar project is now underway.
One test plot done, seven more to go.

for a green & peaceful planet,
David Yarrow


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KAW Valley Biochar     Growing with Biochar: a USDA SARE grant project     6/21/2013