Farmer/Rancher Sustainable Soil with Biochar

Progress report for FW19-356

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2019: $19,952.00
Projected End Date: 02/28/2022
Host Institution Award ID: G221-19-W7501
Grant Recipient: Yellow Dog Farm
Region: Western
State: Oregon
Principal Investigator:
Gary Betts
Yellow Dog Farm
Expand All

Project Information


Summary for the Sustainable Soil with Biochar 2019 Project

Problem or Need: Much of the farming soil in western United States has become degraded due to run-off of fertilizers and organic matter. Further, as organic matter is lost through run-off, the soil becomes less able to retain moisture for crops.

Solution: A cost-effective and sustainable practice to reduce the problem is for farmers to amend their degraded soils with biochar. Application of biochar in the top 6 inches of soil can cause the soil to retain up to 25% more moisture and up to 25% more fertilizers. The cost per acre for the farmer can be as little as $35 to $60 per acre and biochar can stay in the soil for many seasons.

Research: A comprehensive review of literature reveals that few scientific studies have been reported at a scale larger than plot size. The farmers will work with Dr. Stephen Machado of Oregon State University to collect and report research results on the moisture retention and crop yields of soil with biochar compared to crop yields and moisture without biochar. The farmers for this project will apply biochar in 4 acres of degraded farmland and use 4 acres as a control to provide a demonstration for farmers, extension experts, and other farm experts and educators.

Outreach: The project will incorporate on-farm demonstrations; farmer-to-farmer educational outreach; and 2 field days to assist in producer adoption. In addition, the project will develop a 30-second information piece and a recorded 30-minute interview/information piece for presentation multiple times on farm-oriented radio programs. A one-page summary of the project results will be developed, and a publishable research article will be submitted for publication in a research journal.  

 The goal is to achieve sustainable results that improve income, the environment, communities, and quality of life.

Project Objectives:


The following research objectives will include a pre-post, control group research design that includes random selection and assignment of acres to control and treatment. The measurement of results to determine outcomes will be reported at the end of each year of funding to determine :

1. improvement of quantity of soil organic matter

2. increase in soil water retention

3. amelioration of soil pH

4. increase in crop yield.

The following education objectives will be completed duing the third year of the grant:

1. Develop a 30-second radio spot to spread the word on biochar to other producers and researchers.

2. Develop a 30-minute radio interview to spread the word on biochar to other producers and researchers.

3. Develop a one-page summary about the results on use of biochar for other producers and researchers, available online.

4. Develop a one-page summary about the research results on use of biochar and submit to one or more peer-reviewed professional journals for researchers on soil health and crop productivity.

5. Conduct 2 Field Days


                                                                                                                                                                                                         Year 1           Year 2              Year 3

                                                                                                                                                                           Months:   1 3 6 9 12      1 3 6 9 12           1 3 6 9 12






Identify randomly selected and assigned acres




Collect data, including lab tests

  xx xx   xx

 xx xx  xx

  xx  xx   xx

Purchase biochar, transport biochar, plant biochar

  xx xx   xx

  xx xx   xx

  xx xx   xx

Analyze results from biochar

xx       xx

xx       xx

xx       xx

Report findings




Develop a 30-second radio spot




Develop a 30-minute radio interview




Develop a one-page summary about the results on use of biochar




Conduct 2 Field Days



             x  x

Conduct Survey on use of biochar




Write evaluation report






Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Dr. Stephen Machado - Technical Advisor


Materials and methods:

Dr. Stephen Machado will serve as the technical advisor for the producers (Gary and Virginia Betts) and he will supervise one of his graduate students. Dr. Machado is a Professor, Dryland Cropping Systems Agronomy, Oregon State University (OSU), Columbia Basin Agricultural Research Center (CBARC). Funding will go directly from the Betts to the student, with oversight from Dr. Machado. Dr. Machado will not charge for his services. The stipend for the student will be consistent with the amount paid to other graduate level students in Dr. Machado’s department for similar work.

UPDATE: In the first year of the study, soil samples were taken by Stephen Machado and Larry Pruitt of CBARC.

The student will deploy sampling instruments (on eight acres), collect samples, and analyze and report results at the beginning of each year of the project and the end of each year of the project (under the supervision of Dr. Machado). Solvita CO2 will provide an indication of microbial activity (analysis provided by outside lab).  Oven-dried soil samples will provide % moisture by weight. Samples will reveal in the top 6” of soil, the amounts of Soil Organic Matter (SOM); water retention; nitrogen-fixing bacteria; pH; crop yield; and the effects of biochar on herbicides, pesticides, and soil bacteria. Randomly selected and assigned soil treated with 5 tons of biochar per acre (4 acres) will be compared to randomly selected soil not treated with biochar (4 acres). Six samples will be taken per acre the first year (3 at the beginning and 3 at the end), including both treated and untreated soils. (A total of 48 samples for the year.)

UPDATE: number of samples may vary from this figure, depending on test plot characteristics.



The producers, Gary and Virginia Betts, amended the soil of several plots of peas and wheat on their farm with biochar and found that crops in those plots improved water retention and were more productive than plots without biochar amendment. We started our proposal-writing process by designing a list of objectives and then collaborating with our technical advisor from OSU to modify the objectives and measure their achievement. Dr. Machado stated that our soils are similar to most in the Columbia Basin area (over 250,000 square miles) so that our biochar solution should be useful for thousands of farmers in the Columbia Basin.


The producers would like to expand this investigation into a larger scale research and education project by planting 8 acres, four with the biochar and four as a control, to scientifically determine the effects from using biochar and then provide educational outreach to other producers. We are working with a technical advisor, Dr. Stephen Machado of Oregon State University, who has completed an extensive review of literature on the use and effects of biochar. He has also conducted notable research on the use of biochar as a soil amendment. Dr. Machado has found that the biochar amendment can significantly improve crop yields, increase the quality and quantity of plant-available water, and reduce fertilizer loss—all sustainable agriculture practices. Additional benefits for soils may include improving soil organic matter, increasing the number of nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the soil, improving pH of the soil for the particular crops, and reducing harmful run-off of farm chemicals (nitrates, pesticides, and herbicides). Dr. Machado will collaborate with the producers to design the research and he will oversee the collection of precise soil data from the 8 research plots and help ensure that scientific standards for data collection are implemented. Biochar amendment for the soil can also be a sustainable and economically sound practice for increasing crop production and water retention long-term in addition to just one growing season. 


The project will incorporate on-farm demonstrations; farmer-to-farmer educational outreach; and 2 field days to assist in producer adoption. In addition, the project will develop a 30-second information piece and a recorded 30-minute interview for presentation multiple times on farm-oriented radio programs. A one-page summary of the project results will be developed, and a research article will be submitted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal.  


Evaluation information to determine if the project was successful include:

Number of farmers reached through outreach and educational activities

Number of agricultural educators reached through educational activities

Research results of the project

Number and type of educational and/or outreach activities to share project results

Number and types of non-refereed outreach publications

Number of farmers directly involved in the project that report changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills, and awareness

Number of farmers that made a change based on the results of the project

New collaborations as a result of the project by farmer and/or the technical advisor

SARE grant leveraging another grant by a farmer or advisor

Benefits from making change on the farm: economic, environmental, social, and productivity

Research results and discussion:

So far we have planted Soft White Winter Wheat on the first field w/ 4 acre test and control plots.  Germination and development appears equal in both test and control plots.

On August 6th and 7th of 2020, the first field (designated "home" field) was harvested.

A combine equipped with real-time yield reporting was used specifically on the test plots.  The total weight of each plot was also recorded, and that is the basis for the following figures. The results were as follows, in ascending order of yield:

plot #5:      24.6 tons/acre         yield  115.3 bu/acre

plot #2:      control, no char      yield  120.4 bu/acre

plot #1:       1.15 tons/acre         yield   124.2 bu/acre

plot #3:      2.3 tons/acre           yield   126.8 bu/acre

plot #4:      6.6 tons/acre          yield    133.9 bu/acre

Tonnage/acre is as close an approximation as possible.  Each tote was not evenly filled: some were overfull, others 2/3 full, and we had no way of weighing the totes before we spread their contents.

The average yield for the entire 106 acre field, including the biochar plots, was 123.6 bu/acre

As can be seen, the higher the rate of char application, the better the yield, EXCEPT for the plot with 24.6 tons/acre. Previous research from the Columbia Basin Agricultural Research Station, overseen by Dr. Machado, has confirmed lower yields for higher amounts of char. It will be interesting to see how the yield for this plot changes as the char is worked more deeply into the soil and the nitrogen fixing bacteria are able to better colonize it.

On Sept 26 of 2020, the other field ("east" field) was planted in soft white winter wheat.

Soil tests on the 5 char plots harvested in 2020 (results above) were weather delayed (2 feet of snow on the ground!).

Participation Summary
2 Producers participating in research

Research Outcomes

No research outcomes

Education and Outreach

Participation Summary:

Education and outreach methods and analyses:


During the third year of the project, the producers will work with local farmers to ensure awareness of the purpose and outcomes of the project through 2 Field Days at the producers farm, Yellow Dog Farm in Athena, Oregon on Sherman Street (P.O. Box 785). One Field Day will be held in the spring and one in the fall. The specific dates will be determined by collaboration with local farmers to determine the most available dates.  By being able to observe the differences between the 4 acres treated with biochar and the 4 acres not treated, local farmers will be able to see that the crop yield of treated acres is significantly better. They will also be provided with printed materials, a one-page summary and a research article, to show that biochar significantly improves water retention in the soil, helps balance pH, improves soil organic matter, and helps reduce herbicide, nitrogen, and other run-off.

In collaboration with the technical advisor, the producers will develop print articles for Modern Farmer, Capital Press, Agri Times, and similar print media targeting farmers. They will also develop a 30-minute spot for radio and social media on the web aimed at farmers and disseminate message to farmers. They will develop and place web ads for the media spot. They will open Twitter, Facebook, and other social media accounts to promote the results of the project and invite other producers to visit the demonstration site or view the web-based materials, including radio messages. By meeting other like-minded producers, either in person or online, farmers will be encouraged to try a demonstration-size test of biochar to amend their own fields.

The educational materials that the producers and the technical advisor will produce and distribute during year 3 of the project include a 30-second radio spot to spread the word on biochar to other producers and researchers; a 30-minute radio interview to spread the word on biochar to other producers and researchers; a one-page summary about the results on use of biochar for other producers and researchers, available online: hand-out materials for each of the two Field Days that will be implemented.

Education and Outreach Outcomes

2 Producers reported gaining knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness as a result of the project
Key changes:
  • Application of the char - The type of char and how it comes to you determines your application needs. Our char came to us in 2 cubic yard "totes", most of which were screwed to pallets to facilitate loading and unloading. We had to rent an all-terrain fork lift to unload them from the semi-truck flat bed trailer, on which they were stacked 2-high.

    All had lifting handles on each corner. We rented a dry fertilizer spreader and borrowed a friend's derrick truck. We were able to lift a few of the totes with the derrick truck for emptying into the fertilizer spreader, but most of them were too rotted from UV exposure and the lifting handles broke. So, we rented the all-terrain forklift AGAIN and while Gary held the tote over the fertilizer spreader, Virginia sliced it open and emptied it into the spreader. Our char particles were rice grain sized and there were a lot of fines and dust, so just emptying the totes into the spreader created a large black cloud.

    The spreader we used had rotating arms which distributed the char. The drive mechanism was controlled by the axle speed of the spreader, which was towed behind our 3/4 ton pickup. A speed of 5mph minimized the black cloud created as the char was distributed.

    This application method is slow, and does not get the char into the soil. However, a fellow farmer used his turbo-disc to subsequently mix the char into the top 3-5" of the soil.

    We are working on an applicator that will put the char INTO the soil at the appropriate depth, thus minimizing loss of fines, wind restrictions and obviating the need for tilling.

    Tyvex suits, vinyl gloves and GOOD face masks were essential.


    Some totes were not screwed to pallets. These we dragged into position with our pickup, and hand spread. This actually worked quite well and black dust clouds were minimized.

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.