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

    Proposal abstract:

    Biochar, a form of black carbon created from the pyrolysis of plant biomass, has been shown to improve soil fertility and increase crop yields when applied to some soils. Indiana vegetable producers are interested in using biochar to improve crop productivity and soil health on their farms but need unbiased research to make informed decisions about the potential benefits and costs of using biochar. We propose a collaborative participatory research project to test biochar on six Indiana farms.  Our project has four major components: (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. We will assess the effect of biochar produced from different feedstocks on crop growth and pests in a three-year vegetable rotation. Undergraduate students will be selected from a pool of candidates from universities across the state of Indiana and paired with a farmer based on interest and proximity. As part of their experiential training, the student interns will participate in farm activities and will be responsible for collecting data on the biochar experiments. Although we will use commercially available biochar for our common experiment, we will assist farmers in developing their own low-cost biochar kilns. We will also assist interested farmers with additional experiments that may be unique to their farm. Our findings on both the research and on our novel on-farm student research program will be disseminated at key state farmer conferences, research conferences, and through peer-reviewed journal articles and extension bulletins. This project will increase the understanding of farmers, students, extension educators, and research scientists of the effects of biochar on vegetable crops and provide valuable information on the use of collaborative participatory research to address farmer interests. The project has long-term potential for increasing the use of biochar by farmers, for increasing the use of collaborative participatory research projects to address farmer issues, and for improving soil fertility and crop yields.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    Outputs include 1) an annual workshop of all participants to organize and, in the second and third year of the grant, review and adjust the participatory research projects as necessary, 2) biochar trials completed in each year on six farms, 3) eighteen students participate in internship programs, 4) small kilns built and used by the farmers, 5) an extension bulletin based on our biochar project published, 6) two articles submitted for publication to peer-reviewed journals, 7) presentations at a key statewide conference for vegetable growers/small farmers in 2016 and 2017 and at national conference in 2017, 8) annual questionnaires assessing knowledge and participant satisfaction with the project and 9) students complete journal of their experiences working on the farm.

    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.