Evaluating the Impact of Biochar on Soil Fertility and Crop Productivity through Farmer Participatory Research and a Student Internship Program

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2014: $194,732.00
Projected End Date: 09/30/2018
Grant Recipient: Purdue University
Region: North Central
State: Indiana
Project Coordinator:
Kevin Gibson
Purdue University

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: potatoes
  • Vegetables: greens (leafy), tomatoes


  • Crop Production: crop rotation, organic fertilizers
  • Education and Training: on-farm/ranch research, participatory research, youth education
  • Natural Resources/Environment: carbon sequestration
  • Production Systems: organic agriculture
  • Soil Management: organic matter, soil analysis
  • Sustainable Communities: social networks


    Biochar, a form of black carbon created from the pyrolysis of plant biomass, has been suggested as a soil amendment could sequester carbon, improve soil fertility, and increase crop yields. However relatively little research has been conducted on the use of biochar in Midwestern soils. During a three-year project, we conducted field experiments to assess the effect of biochar on crop yields and soil fertility on six Indiana vegetable farms. We also used a collaborative participatory research approach to co-manage the experiment with farmers and a structured student internship program in which the interns managed research plots, collected data, and assisted with key farm operations. Seventeen undergraduate students participated in the summer internship program. Biochar was applied in spring 2015 at three rates: 0, 10, and 20 t ha-1.  Potatoes, kale, and tomatoes were grown respectively in 2015, 2016, and 2017.  Biochar did not affect crop yields on any farm in any year and a majority of the farmers (66.7%) surveyed at the end of the 2017 growing season indicated that they would not recommend biochar to other farmers. The interns completed questionnaires before and at the end of their internships. They indicated that their experience increased their understanding of farm budgets, marketing, pest and soil management, and their interest in participating in research generally and in on-farm research specifically.  All of the interns indicated that their overall experience was positive.  Similarly, the farmers indicated that they considered their intern to be an asset to their farm and remained very interested in serving as a mentor for student interns. The use of a participatory research approach, coupled with a structured research internship, appears to have potential to increase farmer interest in and understanding of research and to increase the understanding of students of farm life and farm management.

    Project objectives:

    Our project had four major goals: (1) on-farm assessments of biochar, (2) a structured student internship program, (3) workshops to collaboratively implement, assess, and if necessary modify the on-farm experiments and internship program, and (4) dissemination of information about biochar to the public through extension publications, key farmer meetings, and research conferences.

    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.