Fertilize with Leftovers: Learn about Biochar

August 28, 2008 04:43 PM
Black is the new green. The latest buzz word to come out of carbon movement is biochar—a charcoal produced from biomass leftovers that is added back to the soil as fertilizer.
This isn't a new idea. In fact, pre-Columbian Amazonian Indians enhanced soil productivity by smoldering agricultural waste. Those bygone farmers called it Terra Preta de Indio. The fine, dark loam soils of the Amazon where farmers enriched with charred trash are said to contain far more carbon (amd phosphorus and nitrogen) than adjacent soils.
Now, Iowa State University is offering field tours to learn more about biochar and other biomass research on Aug. 25 and 29.
"This is an opportunity to see Iowa State's research on growing and harvesting biomass and its effects on soil and water,” says Mark Honeyman, coordinator of ISU's Research and Demonstration Farms. "The purpose of this research is not to replace corn and soybeans. Some of these crops may be better suited for planting in a flood plain or near a stream.”
The tour will include six stops that display Iowa State's biomass-related research. Topics include an introduction to bioenergy crops, such as switchgrass and miscanthus, and how they are growing. You'll also learn about woody crops, such as poplar and other fast-growing trees, and how they can be used for energy production.
The effects of biomass crops on soil and water will be discussed at a stop on the tour. Researchers have collected data on the effects of growing corn and soybeans on agricultural drainage. They are now measuring the impacts of growing switchgrass and other biomass crops on drainage.
The tour includes prototype bioenergy crop residue harvesting equipment. A combine has been fitted to collect crop residue, corncobs and husks, at the same time the grain is harvested.
You'll also get a chance to see Iowa State's plans for the New Century Farm, the first integrated, sustainable biofuel feedstock production farm and processing facility in the nation.

If You Go
Tours run from 1 to 4 p.m. on August 25 and from 9 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. on Aug. 29 at the Agricultural Engineering and Agronomy Research Farm (3 miles west of Ames on Highway 30). There is a $5 fee, the event is open to the public and no advance registration is required. For more information: (515) 294-5045.

You can email Pam Smith at psmith@farmjournal.com.


This article appeared in the August issue of Farm Journal's Crop Technology Update eNewsletter. To sign up for a free subscription, click here.

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