Biochar Test Plot
1849 North 800 Road, Baldwin City, KS
Pam Bramlett, Devin Gerling, Dylan Konek
May 28, 2013
Fourth test plot of Growing with Biochar was installed Tuesday, May 28. This KAW Valley Biochar project is funded by a 1-year farmer-rancher grant from USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SARE).
Thursday, May 28, research field agent Devin Gerling and senior coordinator David Yarrow visited Lulu's Garden Culinary Herb Farm, southeast Lawrence, toward Baldwin and Vinland. Lulu's Garden has been successful for several years selling fresh culinary herbs to restaurants, produce stores and farmers markets. With farm apprentice Dylan Konek, we set out to create a 400-square-foot biochar test plot.
Farmer Pam Bramlett will plant this test plot with basil, a primary cash crop and steady seller that needs successive sowings. This year, Pam's primary production has moved to high tunnels at Vinland Nursery, one mile south. But for her heaviest marketing season, the test plot will boost her capacity. Pam will direct seed the test plot rather than setting out seedling starts. She hoped this makes our experiment more useful and insightful.
Before leaving Lawrence, we had three chores. First, separate 25 gallons of BioChar'ge from 25 gallons of water. Two days earlier, I half-filled a barrel with municipal water. I couldn't get untreated water, so I added a few gallons of large BioChar'ge chunks, stirred it well, let sit three hours to adsorp and neutralize chlorine. I'd prefer 24 hours for de-chlorination, but we had a schedule.
I added a cup of SEA-90™ sea solids, and two quarts of SCD Bio Ag®, a living microbial culture produced nearby in Kansas City by SCD Probiotics. Last step to prepare biochar for soil is populate it with microbes to make char's black micropore matrix alive with bacteria, fungi, yeasts, actinomycetes, protozoa—a full diversity of biology. Soaking biochar 48 hours in SCD Bio Ag® should jumpstart a foundation of microbial colonies to inoculate fresh, raw, inert char. SEA-90™ is a boost of primary, full spectrum minerals and trace elements needed for a microbial population explosion.
Now, we had to separate char from water, if only because together they were too heavy to lift, and the barrel too tall for Dylan's Jeep. We left 20 gallons of inoculated black water behind in the barrel, with 5 gallons of dense char "pudding" sunk to the barrel bottom. Much easier to do this inoculation right on the farm.
(click any photo for full size)
We arrived to discover some details weren't as discussed. Again, creativity, innovation and extra work were needed to adapt. We worked fierce and hard for several hours to get the bed ready for planting.
The designated test plot was a single row, overrun with weeds, mostly grasses. Dylan had already removed loads of grass, but the west third still needed to be weeded. Lots of sweat and effort went to loosen the tight soil and pull grass out by roots.
This test plot was an 80-foot row, not 100-feet. So, Devin marked out four equal test beds, each 20-feet long. By raking the bed's high crown wider to flatten it, we squeezed in a 4-foot-wide test bed. Each test bed was only 80 square feet, not 100. Total test bed was 320 square feet, not 400.
Aided by Dylan, Devin took half a dozen soil samples for lab tests. We could see significant decline in soil carbon, structure and fertility from east to far west end. We decided the weak west end is the "Control," to get only fertilizer, no carbon-smart amendments.
Test Bed #1 got no further attention or amendments.
Test Bed #2 got about 25 gallons of raw BioChar'ge—bone dry, unscreened, inert, uninoculated. This was dumped along the bed from the barrel, then raked level and even. My few years experience with this new idea rated this a "generous" first application.
Test Bed #3 got BioChar'ge, inoculated 48 hours with SCD Bio Ag® and SEA-90™. Test Bed #3 got a heavier dose of SEA-90 than any earlier beds. I scattered a medium dose of 3 cups per 80-square-feet, plus the cup in the inoculation barrel.
Test Bed #4 got an unusual treatment: half a cubic-foot of Permamatrix™, a compressed block of biochar blended with straw mulch, compost, microbial inoculants, mycorrhizae, and other goodies. Specially formulated in Oregon as a high-end, high-tech nursery and landscape product, Permamatrix™ is designed for hydroseeding applications as a conplete ground cover solution.
Permamatrix™ arrived by UPS days before as a 2-cubic-foot compressed block sealed in thick plastic. My source said the block covers 400 square feet, but we had to break the chunk up. Devin devised a way to chop the chunk in quarters. It was light, soft, and easily to broke apart from dense clumps into fluffy fistfulls. I was impressed.
No rototiller to mix surface biochar into soil, and I've seen Kansas wind steal precious black dust from any exposed dry pile of char. So, we used shovels and rakes to chop and stir the soil and mix char in a few inches. Manual tillage with still-tight soil was only effective to mix 3, maybe 4, inches deep.
So, last was water to wash char dust, sea minerals and microbes down into the soil. Sea minerals are 100% soluble, and quickly dissolves to spread in solution. The smallest biochar particles—powder and dust—washed deeply into soil, and the rest—wetted—start sticking to other soil particles—shifting soil structure.
Just in time for the finish, the boss arrived. Pam was impressed as Dylan watered nutrients and microbes into her soil, and offered us a beer. I musta worked hard, 'cause that one beer grounded me. But in the setting sunlight, I saw Devin and Dylan were tired, proud and happy for their hard work all afternoon.
Only chores left were to plant, mulch and harvest.
International Biochar Initiative
International Biochar Initiative
KAW Valley Biochar Growing with Biochar: a USDA SARE grant project www.GrowingwithBiochar.org 6/21/2013