Biochar production and application rate tests at Kansas City Community Farm

Project Overview

Project Type: Youth
Funds awarded in 2010: $325.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2013
Region: North Central
State: Kansas
Project Coordinator:
Noah Brady
Youth Project

Annual Reports


  • Miscellaneous: Biochar


  • Crop Production: organic fertilizers, application rate management, conservation tillage
  • Education and Training: farmer to farmer, networking, on-farm/ranch research
  • Energy: bioenergy and biofuels
  • Natural Resources/Environment: carbon sequestration, soil stabilization
  • Production Systems: organic agriculture
  • Soil Management: organic matter, nutrient mineralization
  • Sustainable Communities: urban agriculture

    Proposal abstract:

    I would like to explore the production of biochar and its effect on crop yields. Biochar is biomass (such as wood) burned in an oxygen-free environment for several hours at a high temperature. It’s different from charcoal mainly because it’s burned at a different temperature, but also because biochar can be made out of any biomass, from wood to pine needles to chicken manure. Once the biomass is charred, you can just bury it in garden beds, around orchards, and in between rows of crops. What has interested me the most is its ability to attract nutrients, raise pH and retain moisture in the soil. Over the last two years, I have seen firsthand as a volunteer at Kansas City Community Farm, an urban farm in Kansas City, Kansas, how much the health of soil and plants affects the farm’s output and its profits. KCCF has a partner farm called Juniper Gardens. There, refugees who live in a nearby housing project are given a quarter of an acre to farm. But these plots have poor soil and water retention due to debris left over from construction and sloping fields. One method of improving the soil would be to mix in biochar. With healthier soil comes healthier plants, and healthier plants mean more revenue. I’m also interested in biochar’s ability to sequester carbon. When a plant dies, it slowly decays and releases all of its carbon into the atmosphere; but when you char it, the carbon gets cemented in place for hundreds of years. Every community across the world has available biomass, be it dead crops, dried leaves, or clear-cut forests. These all release carbon into the atmosphere -- and contribute to global warming -- if allowed to decay. But if people burned and then buried them, the carbon would be stable for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Plus, the process of making biomass produces useful oils, gases, and extra heat that can be used for cooking and biofuel. I believe that if urban farmers in my community implemented biochar systems, they could increase crop productivity, make more money, and contribute to a healthier environment. Tests have shown up to 50 percent increases in the productivity of crops when traditional fertilizer is mixed with biochar. Since most urban farms are planted wherever there is space, the soil can be pretty undesirable; it might have high pH levels or maybe water retention problems. Additionally, it can be particularly hard to fix these problems if you’re an organic farmer who can’t use traditional fertilizers to fix nutrient deficiencies. As far as I know, there aren’t any farms in my city that currently use biochar, so this would be a unique opportunity to show them its benefits. On a more personal level, my family and I could mix the biochar into our vegetable beds in our front yard. My mom and I have been gardening together my entire life, and we currently have a small vegetable bed in our front yard that we’re trying to get started. It would be interesting to observe the benefits of biochar on a home scale to see if it would be a useful garden amendment. PROCESS 1- This winter I would construct a simple double barrel biochar retort kiln with Daniel Dermitzel at KCCF. 2- I will collect various types of biomass including wood, pine needles, and chicken manure. 3- Throughout the winter I will make multiple batches of biochar using each biomass. 4- In the spring I will mix biochar into the farm’s soil. In one plot I will have a control with normal compost and in three others I will have mixtures of 10 percent, 15 percent, and 20 percent biochar. The farm manager has given me permission to perform the tests, but I won’t be exactly sure how large the plots will be until the spring. The International Biochar Initiative has some guidelines for performing tests that I intend to adhere to. For example: - How to lay out the plots in a grid form so that each one is equally represented. - How to mix in the biohcar. - How to record the results. 5- Throughout the spring and summer I will check the progress of the crops, how fast they grow, how big they get, and how much they yield.

    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.