by Mike Biltoken

Modern society likes to think that it invented agriculture sometime in the not too distant past. And, yes, while we’ve made huge advances in our ability to grow food for an ever-expanding human population, what really happened is we precipitated the demise of native cultures, native crops, traditional farming, biodiversity, soil health and general environmental collapse. Our technological advances and cleverness are nothing but a façade for a failing agricultural industry. 

Just over a century ago, in 1918, Fritz Haber received the Nobel prize for devising a method for creating the building blocks of artificial nitrogen. This led to the development of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers and the advent of the Green Revolution. Today, these fertilizers are used extensively around the world for productive but very destructive farming practices. Thankfully, there are those engaged in the growing movement of regenerative farming, which  looks at old ways, ancient practices and wisdoms as a way to revitalize and regenerate the Earth and all that depend upon it. The old saying that what’s new is old and what’s old is new is certainly true for biochar, one of the oldest most beneficial tools we have for regenerative farming and revitalizing the planet’s arable lands.

Deep in the Amazon region there are soils referred to as terra preta, or black soil, which date back over 2000 years, suggesting that Amazonian peoples understood not only the value of rich soils, but actually knew how to make them. Terra preta are not soils of normal geologic processes, but rather amended with rich charcoal deposits and organic materials. So-called modern cultures knew nothing of terra preta until at least 1870 and only within the last 10 years has notice been given of its value to agriculture. Today, what we know is that biochar, a charcoal-like substance derived from organic materials, provides immediate opportunities for agriculture during these times of unprecedented change. 

Biochar is derived from organic (most commonly woody) materials that are burned at very high temperatures for short periods before being extinguished. Once they are extinguished they preserve their rough exoskeleton and cavernous structure of internal micropores and channels where nutrients, water, and beneficial microbes can be “stored” in a sort of sponge used to absorb excesses in the soil and release them back again as the soil environment requires. They provide a balanced resilience against extremes that are often found in soils with low organic matter, low biological activity and inherent infertility. And while composts, wood chips and even the soil have inherent capacities to do similar things, the three-dimensional inner architecture of biochar gives it a buffering capacity and resiliency that is unmatchable. Even well-balanced soils benefit from the addition of this product. The biochar process accelerates the transformation of woody debris to useful material, whereas natural decomposition, for example compost, simply breaks down the material. As we have learned from the terra preta, biochar is a sturdy resilient product that can last for millenia.

If you think about the nature of plants, the stem, branch, trunk and even roots, they are made up of cellulose layers, pores, and channels. This network is an organic labyrinth filled with a complex of sugars, minerals, fats, and proteins. Some flow through, others comprise the very architecture of a plant’s skeleton. When these plants are burned for biochar, they are not burned to disintegrate them, but to evacuate them of their fluids and create an environment ripe for occupation by microbial life, minerals, sugars and gasses to be exchanged with and by the surrounding environment of soil, macro and microbial life, roots, water and air. Not to oversimplify, but biochar is a veritable living sponge that works to balance all that exists in the subterranean life. Too much outside and the biochar will absorb, too little and it releases to the relief of all that depend on its gifts. 

In an age where we are rapidly learning the downsides to our agricultural stupidity, something Rudolf Steiner and others saw over a century ago, we have yet another tool as a way to bolster the organic and biodynamic practices many of us already use. Biochar, for all its complexity, is about as simple as it gets, and like compost, is something you can make in your own backyard. It doesn’t take much biochar to make a difference. As little as half a ton of biochar per acre–a mere sprinkling on the surface of your farm, garden or orchard–can make a difference in soil fertility.

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