Exploring the use of compost & biochar as both soil amendments and as heat sources to extend the growing season inside high-tunnels on the Pine Ridge

Progress report for FNC20-1221

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2020: $27,000.00
Projected End Date: 01/31/2023
Grant Recipient: Rebel Earth Farms
Region: North Central
State: South Dakota
Project Coordinator:
Patricia Hammond
Rebel Earth Farms
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Project Information

Description of operation:

Rebel Earth Farms & Incubator: sits on 60 acres of my family's land in Bennett County, SD. For the last year I have been a Program Assistant to South Dakota State University's (SDSU) Extension Tribal Local Foods & AgrAbility program and before that for the Native American Beginning Farmer Rancher (BFR) Program. Before SDSU, I worked for the Jane Goodall Institute teaching community gardening and farmers markets. I am an NRCS's EQIP cost-share program recipient and built 3 of my four 30’x100’ gothic arched high-tunnels. I grow a variety of vegetables and herbs in my high-tunnels as well some traditional Lakota herbal teas, grown last year in the last of my four high-tunnels; a project that was funded by my current SARE grant. However, the sheer size of the high-tunnels and the high winds year round, meant that I didn’t get the length of the season extension expected. Working with SDSU Extension’s team we have devised a plan to address this issue.

Feather Two Farms: is an incubator farm currently with two 20’x96’ incubator high-tunnels (plans to add four more soon) situated on 160 acres, 60 of which are rich river bottom land available to landless tribal new farmers, including tribal new incubator-farmer, Ted Pourier, Sr. who will be starting farming inside one of the high-tunnels this spring. The incubator is managed by Cory True, the executive director of Re-Member, a beginning farmer and the farm incubator-manager. Feather Two Farms grows vegetables and native fruits and donates to a local food pantry and needy families in a joint effort with Rebel Earth Farms Incubator.


On the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, persistent poverty alongside historical discrimination and mismanagement of tribal resources has resulted in less than 1% of Lakota being agricultural producers. Agricultural income disparity is high, with two-thirds going to non-natives. Mismanagement of tribal lands have left the soils degraded with little organic matter and nutrient deficiencies. South Dakota’s short growing seasons and turbulent extremes of weather require high-tunnels for crop protection. The utilization of high-tunnels have gained in momentum in recent years. Eight high-tunnels went up last year and 11 are already planned to go up in 2020. However, the season extension gained from roll-up sides isn’t as long as it could be, particularly for larger scale commercial high-tunnels, due to our high winds and the lack of effective windbreaks. We’ve designed a system to seal up the micro-climate of a high-tunnel and heat it using the very same processes Lakota farmers need to build up the health of their soils. The majority of this system, by design, is built around mostly locally sourced materials: pallets, steel drums, compost, waste wood, agricultural residues and manure (for compost & biochar). This makes the system affordable and fixable for our targeted audience.

When the global Covid-19 pandemic hit, our ability to progress on this project was significantly challenged, due to travel restrictions, in-person meeting restrictions, lack of vaccines, fear, etc. As 2020 rolled into 2021 and vaccines began to reach our area, fear of catching Covid-19 was added to a cultural/historical mistrust of vaccines amongst tribal peoples, especially a vaccine designated, until recently, as "emergency use." As the year has progressed, more vaccines are getting into arms on the Pine Ridge Reservation, but access to vaccines is still not easy for many tribal members. Our partner, Feather Two Farms completely shut down their operations, allowing neither volunteer visitors (who were to help the new farmers) nor tribal community members onto their site. So we immediately had to switch gears and the plan to test our system, still in two high-tunnels, but just on one site. The tribal incubator-farmer from Feather Two Farms, Theodore Pourier, Sr. has moved to Rebel Earth Farms to be one of its farmers, bringing with him son, Theodore Pourier, Jr. as another incubator-farmer. Also, recently Emit Vine King, another tribal member has joined the Rebel Earth Incubator Farmer group, bringing our total farmers from three to five. Cory True did recruit a non-native incubator farmer for Feather Two Farms, however, they planted outdoors in 2021, not inside the high-tunnels. 

So what we're proposing is asking for an extension on this project, so that instead of ending in Jan. 31st of 2022, we'd like to request a new end-date of Jan. 31st 2023 so that we and our incubator farmer group can fully test the system in both locations. Feather Two Farms expects, that if the Delta Variant of Covid-19 is controlled, and vaccine utilization increases, that we'll be able to get farmers working inside the Feather Two Farms high-tunnels.

In the meantime, however, at Rebel Earth Farms, two high-tunnels have had the internal trellis skeleton added and the steel drums for the biochar tin-man have been ordered and are on site. The main delays at Rebel Earth Farms, beyond the Covid-19 ones mentioned above, have been the increased costs on lumber, steel and aluminum (caused by tariffs, shortages and breakdowns of global and national supply chains), the difficulty in hiring an electrician during Covid, and the simultaneous housing boom in Rapid City as people flee larger urban areas for rural states. We have tried to hire five different electricians who have told us that their time tables are being pushed into 2022 and 2023. Currently, we are working with two different electricians, trying to get all four high-tunnels (and their exhaust fans and vents) at Rebel Earth Farms hooked up to electricity. But they are struggling to get enough wire as their prices have increased while their supplies have also decreased. However, we anticipate that we'll have the high-tunnels hooked up by the end of September 2021 at the latest. With the trellis in place, then we'd need to add the internal plastic this fall, creating the proposed growing zones, build and install the steel drum barrel ovens and if lumber prices lower, we'll be able to order the new heat-treated pallets that we need to build the compost alleys in both high-tunnels. Inflation on steel has also increased the costs of ordering the steel drums as planned. So we could either wait for prices to come down, test just barrels in one high-tunnel (not both) or possibly replace steel drums in one high-tunnel with plastic 55 gallon drums recently donated to the program in-lieu of steel drums. 

Once completed, it is our plan to test one high-tunnel as our control, utilizing just the internal trellis-skeleton and internal plastic growing zones with a central compost alley of pallets, with the barrels (painted black) full of water to see how much further these passive heating options and growing zones can push the growing season of both warm season (starting spring and summer 2022) and cool season crops (starting this fall 2021). In the second high-tunnel the full system will be tested (trellis and plastic growing zones, black painted drums with water, connected together via PVC pipe, with heated water pumped through them; the heating of the water coming from the production of biochar outside of the high-tunnel via waste heat capture); in addition this high-tunnel will also have the central pallet compost alley way, the two steel drum ovens. When we compare the length of the growing seasons, the heat and humidity inside both high-tunnels (control and full-system), the crop yields, etc. throughout 2022, we'll be able to report on a full-year (two cold crop seasons with a warm season in-between) and also add results from Fall of 2021. 

In terms of activities and timelines, we were not able to plant successfully this spring and summer as with full covers, but without the ability to power fans and vents, any plants inside would have cooked. So we had to leave our covers off. Cool season crops planted bolted in the early heat wave and what didn't die from the heat has been eaten by grasshoppers. Once the covers are on, this fall, fans/exhaust vents working, we'll be able to solve both problems. We have ordered our seeds for this fall and next season, we're conducting soil tests (pre-biochar) now, the fans were ordered and installed on time for the grant,  but until we can get the electrical hooked up, we can't put on the covers, and thus can't test temps/humidity, we can't reverse the flow of the fans during fall and winter.

In addition, we'll be building the biochar tin-man and testing it later this fall, but we'll need to add the pure biochar to compost to charge it before we can add it to the soil as without being charged, the pure biochar would soak up our soil's nutrients instead of slow releasing it as charged biochar does. So our plan is to begin to produce biochar as soon as the heat wave cools, reducing fire dangers, charge it with existing compost and add it to the high-tunnels compost alleyways this coming winter and early spring so that the first batch of biochar-compost will be ready to mix into the high-tunnel soils this spring (2022). We've modified the biochar tin-man system slightly to include a water heater as a way of capturing the waste-heat from biochar production more efficiently and heating water with it before pumping it into the barrels, which we'll order in August or September of this year (if prices are down) or into the plastic drums painted black if prices remain high. 

With the full-system installed in one high-tunnel by spring, the control high-tunnel having all but the ovens and biochar tin-man installed by spring and the other two high-tunnels on site operating without any additions, we'll be able to compare the heat, temperature, frost-kill (length of growing season) humidity and crop yields amongst them all and get a truer report on the efficacy of our proposed system. The incorporation of incubator-farmers from both Rebel Earth and Feather Two Farms, means that farmers from both groups will help install, test and understand the system, starting this fall and winter and throughout the 2022 production year, thus meeting the objectives of our grant. 

As written, we will document our progress starting this fall (2021) through the 2022 year and thus propose that the request for an extension of one year will allow us to meet our grant objectives and goals, delayed due to Covid and commodity inflation that has impacted life, work and research across the globe. 

Budget Adjustment requests: We'd like to keep the budget mostly the same, with the possible exception of reducing the $6,500 for new 55 gallon steel drums, downwards, if we can be approved for using black painted plastic drums in one high-tunnel (the control) and just use steel drums in the main system tunnel. So instead of $6,500 in steel drums, we'd like to request to move $2,500 from this line-item to boost copper tubing (whose prices have increased, to $2,750 (an increase of $1000), add $500 to purchase a basic water heater, and the remaining funds to be moved to lumber and to plastic sheeting. 

What has been spent out of the grant's budget to date is the $2000 for installation of electrical (mostly on wire and supplies) and also the $9750 to purchase electrical fans, shutter vents, and mounting hardware). We have secured some additional funding from other partners and grants to help complete this project, but we just need the extension of one year's time to do so. 


Project Objectives:
  1. Evaluate biochar and compost to regenerate degraded soils, reduce the buildup of soluble salts inside high-tunnels: as we were waiting on the prices of these steel drums to go down, we just recently purchased two (a 55 gallon and a 30 gallon) in order to build the biochar tin-man (which we plan to do in Sept. 2021. We will also soon purchase two additional 55 gallon steel drums to serve as the barrel ovens inside the full-system high-tunnel). This will allow us to begin creating biochar and fine tuning our process this fall and winter and have it ready to be "charged" with compost and added to the soil this coming spring (2022). We will test the soil (pre-biochar) this summer/fall 2021 and then we'll test the biochar/compost combination and finally the soil inside the high-tunnels once the biochar/compost combo has been added. We'll do these tests in 2022. 
  2. Use waste heat from compost, wood stoves and biochar generation, to heat water, pushing it through a connected network of steel drums filled with water and antifreeze in winter. Exhaust vents will be closed, fans reversed in winter to circulate the air, sucking the cover down to the ground. In summer, fans and shutters will vent hot air. Currently vented only at sides: As we're waiting on steel drum prices to go down, or approval to proceed with black painted plastic drums in at least one high-tunnel (the control), we have not added these, but hope to purchase steel drums for the main system high-tunnel this fall and add these to the high-tunnel and add black painted plastic drums to the control high-tunnel at the same time. We need to the electricians to finish hooking up the electrical before we can add the covers and test the fan/vent reversal part of our hypothesis (hopefully this winter 2021 and through spring of 2022 and fall of 2022). We'll have the biochar tin man system built this fall and so we'll be able to test that part of the system (heating the water and pushing it through the barrels to prevent freezing and prolonging the growing season) starting this fall with crops and through both cold crop production seasons in 2022. 
  3. Use plastic sheeting to create micro-growing zones based off of crop hardiness and growing season inside high-tunnels: We have the trellis system in place, but need the electrical hooked up to the fans before we can put the covers back on the high-tunnels and need the covers on the high-tunnels before we install the regular plastic, creating growing zones). As we plan to have the electrical hooked up to the fans/vents and the covers on by middle to the end of Sept. we plant to be able to test these micro-growing zones in the full-system high-tunnels, control high-tunnel and regular high-tunnels starting this fall and through 2022. 
  4. We've adjusted the biochar tin-man waste heat capture system, through the addition of a water heater, to help facilitate the captured heat's heating of the water, which will then flow from the water heater, down into a buried water reservoir (below the frost line) and be pumped, via a water pump, through PVC pipe (better able to hold up to frost than drip irrigation as originally planned), through the system of barrels in the high-tunnel. The basic water heater's internal components are a match to our biochar tin-man waste heat capture components and thus can be connected. The water heater will be housed inside an insulated "outhouse" sized shed to keep it from freezing. 
  5. As Feather Two Farms isn't planning to have farmers on its site until 2022, we are planning to test the system at Rebel Earth, using farmers from both Rebel and Feather Two, so that if it works, we can install a working version on Feather Two farms (via another grant's funds) in 2022. However, in order to test the system in full we need to proceed with the grant project on Rebel, where we have both staff and incubator farmers from both sites on hand (in one high-tunnel, have a control high-tunnel with everything but the waste heat from the tinman and the barrel ovens), as well as in two unheated high-tunnels).


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Ted Pourier, Sr. - Producer
  • Cory True - Producer
  • Emit King - Producer
  • Theodore Pourier, Jr


Materials and methods:

Our project focuses on high-tunnel production strategies for limited-resource, beginning tribal farmers whose growing acreage often consists of poorly degraded soils. These farmers lack access to capital, infrastructure and equipment and they need to be able to create the majority of their high-tunnel system and management strategy from materials that can be sourced locally (both initially and when something breaks down and needs to be replaced). The exception to this is the electric fans, shutters and the high-tunnels themselves. The electrical components we’re attempting to cover from this grant, the high-tunnels involved are already up, so don’t need to be covered in the grant. However, for future farmers, we have partnerships with NRCS, SDSU and the Oglala Sioux Tribe to source high-tunnels. The system is thus mostly made up of: heat-treated wooden pallets and 55 gallon steel drums, local compost and biomass (to be turned into biochar). To test the system, we’ll be purchasing these for consistency & quality. We’ll be using three test sites to research our system. Two sites have larger scale high-tunnels, Four 30’x 100’ high-tunnels (HTs), Two 20’x 96’ HTs and one 20’x 24’ HT located on three different sites. This allows us to test our system at three different scales, including both small family farmer and commercial scales. See the attached Diagram for the set-up and flow of the system. Each high-tunnel farmer will primarily be growing vegetables (cool season and warm) and some traditional Lakota plant foods such as herbal teas, etc. In regards to our outreach, we’ve decided to use the popularity of social media, primarily Facebook (FB) and You-tube and will be creating monthly update posts in FB and 3 You-Tube video updates. Lastly we’ll also be hosting three on-farm tours and workshops, one at each site over the 23 months of the grant period.

Participation Summary
5 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

10 Tours

Participation Summary:

5 Farmers participated
2 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

We had two Extension staff members and the five farmers involved, including the incubator-farmers, visit Rebel Earth Farms to see the trellis system and help install it in a second high-tunnel, learning how it would support plants as they grow, strengthen the overall structure of high-tunnel against high-winds and how it would support the internal plastic that will create the growing zones, what will grow in each growing zone and how we'll be producing biochar, trying to capture its waste heat and heat water, pushing that water through a system of barrels to extend the growing season. They also learned about biochar and how it will help us amend soils and why we're using the materials to create this system. They also learned about our plans to add compost waste heat capture, via the alleyway created by pallets. 

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.