Like coral reefs that are ocean habitats for fish and marine life, a new product called Cool Terra creates a house-like environment for soil microbes that help corn, soybeans and many crops thrive, CEO Jim Loar says.
Multiple years of soil studies using Cool Terra have shown a “more diverse and very positive gain in biological life,” Loar says. The product, produced by Denver-based Cool Planet, is being sold to row-crop farmers this year through distributors such as Helena, Simplot and Crop Production Services (CPS).
“We won’t focus on all crops at first,” Loar explains. “We will focus on crops that we know the best and that have the most trial data and the most proof. Then we will roll it out in a very planned and professional manner as the knowledge builds and as proof of efficacy continues.”
Researchers initially discovered the product, sometimes called Enhanced Biochar, after the founding of Cool Planet in 2009. The company began with the mission of creating a carbon-negative fuel made with renewable biomass. But in late 2015 after economic conditions shifted and policymakers failed to generate greater demand for biofuels through Renewable Fuel Standard blending requirements, the company pivoted.
Today, it has turned its full attention to developing and manufacturing Cool Terra. “When the polish of renewable fuels was starting to wear off, new things were being talked about in agriculture, with one being soil health,” Loar said. “What is the next evolution of agriculture that would help growers be more efficient and more productive?”
Cool Terra is made from pine or coconut, depending on the manufacturing plant. The Engineered Biocarbon technology is made in Camarillo, Calif., though the company has broken ground on a large-scale manufacturing facility in Alexandria, La.
It acts by holding water and nutrients in the rhizosphere—the soil region surrounding plant roots where bacterial activity occurs—and making them available to the plant.
“When you put material through our process, there’s a naturally occurring residual chemistry that positively impacts germination in terms of speed and completeness,” Loar continues. “For a year or two, we tried to figure out why we were seeing the efficacy of micro rates in corn and grass crops, the type of yield increases, now we know what was driving it.”
Those findings suggest Cool Terra could eventually be used as an in-furrow or seed treatment application, he says.
For now, the company is focused on helping farmers use equipment already in their sheds to apply the material. With corn and soybeans, it is applied at planting at a rate of 15 to 20 lb. per acre through the insecticide box on planters. It costs approximately $11 to $15 per acre.
With alfalfa, the material is broadcast spread and lightly incorporated at the time of seeding at a rate of between 50 and 100 lb. per acre depending on soil type. The product also is being used on high-value crops such as lettuce and strawberries and on golf course turf.
Yield bumps from the product are averaging between 12% to 15% across all trials and crops, though some yield gains have been as high as 40%, Loar says.
Biochar is of significant scientific interest because of its potential for rebuilding organic matter, adds Francesca Cotrufo, a soil ecologist at Colorado State University who is helping Cool Planet study Cool Terra in the field. She has spent her career studying how carbon cycles between plants, soil and the atmosphere and the central role of microbes in forming soil organic matter.
The material is rich in carbon, persistent in soils and capable of adding structure to the soil that eases water infiltration and retention, Cotrufo adds. What separates Cool Planet from other product manufacturers is its focus on understanding the science first, then refining the material based on the data.
“That goes beyond burning organic matter and putting char in the soil for increasing carbon sequestration,” Cotrufo says. “It is a level of scientific approach that speaks to the very nature of basic science. They really want to understand what this material does in the soil.”
She admits she was skeptical of the idea that small amounts of the material could increase yields. Although data from research trials—all based on test plots in irrigated Colorado corn fields—is still preliminary, there is a trend toward “positive effect in yields.”
Now, she and Cool Planet are doing greenhouse work to increase understanding of how Cool Terra might interact with nitrogen fertilizer in the soil to stimulate crop yields while minimizing deleterious reactive nitrogen losses in the environment. They plan more farm-based research in the future as farmers learn about the technology and want to try it in their own fields.
“At the end of the day, we believe growers have to see return on their investment,” Loar says. “They don’t easily invest just to have a greener footprint.”