The effect of biochar applications on soil fertility and crop production on a small vegetable farm in the Northeast US

Project Overview

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2009: $8,262.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2011
Region: Northeast
State: Maine
Project Leader:
Sue Straubing
Morgan Bay Farm


  • Agronomic: corn, soybeans
  • Vegetables: carrots


  • Crop Production: fertilizers

    Proposal summary:

    Current issue

    Today more than 6 billion people rely on food grown on less than 11 percent of the global land surface and less than a third of this ground contains inherently fertile soils.

    Development pressure, increasing population and the need to grow more food on less land is diminishing the quality and quantity of our soils. Long term soil preservation and restoration to increase organic matter, improve drainage and encourage soil life is desperately needed in many parts of the world. Recent discoveries in the Amazon region of South America have brought to light in a promising technique that not only restores but makes marginal land richer. In 1966 Dutch scientist Wim Sombroek’s book Amazon Soils provided the first scientific study of terra preta de indio (black Indian earth). An attempt to recreate terra preta conditions was a driving force for much of Sombroek’s work and continues as a major focus of current research.

    Terra preta soils have maintained their fertility for hundreds of years exposed to tropical rains and sun. These soils are rich in vital minerals and have a unique biology but their most striking ingredient is their abundance of charcoal. Discoveries about terra preta have led to considerable research and development to better understand how charcoal enhances soils and provides so many plant growing benefits. Gradually, research has uncovered some-but not all-of the inputs needed to create terra preta (a.k.a biochar or agrichar). Most of the research, however, has focused on understanding how this ancient soil-building technique works with tropical soils.

    The problem, simply stated, is this: we do not know whether charcoal added to the soils in the northeast will create the same positive effects found elsewhere; nor do we know how much charcoal should be added, in combination with other necessary farm inputs, to enhance its benefits. Finally, it is not clear what particular types of crops are likely to respond best to biochar treatment.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    The purpose of this project is to learn more about the effects of “biochar” on the growth of different crops, and on soil fertility. Biochar is a fine-grained charcoal high in organic carbon and largely resistant to decomposition. It is produced from pyrolysis of plant and other biomass wastes. A small farm located in a Maine coastal community will be the site for establishing randomized, replicated research plots with varying amounts of biochar, planted with two different representative types of vegetables. In order to accurately assess the importance of biochar on crop productivity and soil quality, detailed records on crop yields will be kept and before and after soil tests undertaken. In addition, an outreach effort will be undertaken in cooperation with the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) to educate the farming and gardening community about biochar in general and this project specifically.

    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.