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By Kendall Fields/Sonoma Index-Tribune Staff Writer

Earlier this month, the Sonoma Ecology Center and its partners received a grant from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and additional funds from the Sonoma County Water Agency to launch a biochar project.

The $75,000 Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG) is allocated to states by the USDA National Resource Conservation Service, and is awarded to groups undertaking sustainable research-based projects. The Sonoma County Water Agency worked with the ecology center to secure the grant and matched the funds with the $75,000 needed to buy an Adam Retort, the machine used to create biochar.

Biochar is a specialized charcoal soil amendment that is made in chemical process called pyrolysis, during which wood is burned in special machines like the Adam Retort in the absence of oxygen, leaving behind inorganic carbon. One ton of waste wood can produce 500 to 600 pounds of usable biochar, according to Dr. David Morell, a specialist in global environmental and energy policy who will be managing the project and serves on the ecology center board and the Sonoma Biochar Initiative.

Research for the project, which will focus on how biochar builds soil, retains soil moisture and improves agricultural productivity and forest practices, will take place at three area farms, Swallow Valley Farm in Valley Ford, Oak Hill in Glen Ellen and Green String in Petaluma.Together, the farms have volunteered to dedicate $83,000 worth of time and work to the project. The Adam Retort will be located at Swallow Valley Farm and the initial biochar will be made from the groves of eucalyptus trees on the property, providing a true example of sustainable biochar creation, notes David Brin, a development associate at the ecology center who was involved in writing the grant. The biochar created will be used on each of the three farms to allow researchers to study the effect biochar has in different soils.

“The grant helps us explore how biochar can help farmers build soil, help land managers deal with waste as they improve water quality and supply, and help the region sequester some of its carbon in an era of alarming and rapid climate change,” ecology center Executive Director Richard Dale said.

Susan Haydon, Sonoma County Water Agency project manager, worked with the group to secure money to buy an Adam Retort and connect them to the farms. Haydon, who formerly worked for the Sonoma Resource Conservation District, felt it was a priority for SCWA to get involved with biochar to look at it from a water conservation standpoint. “Biochar has the capacity to absorb water and provide for better nutrient uptake,” Haydon said. “The water agency’s goal is to look at (biochar’s) water absorptive capabilities.” SCWA is especially interested in biochar’s potential to better capture and retain storm waters so there will be less run-off and water will flow in a calmer, more spread-out manner, as opposed to flash floods in peak storms, Haydon explained.

Brin said the group acknowledges there may be “unavoidable” carbon emissions when the unit is started up, but when the machine “warms up,” most emissions are recycled back to the burn box. This project, he explains, aims to discover what works and what doesn’t and the group will work to adhere to air quality regulations and make the process clean. However, Morell says the generally 24-hour conversion creates essentially no emissions from the machine. The group, he says, plans to use heat from the conversion process to dry the next batch of wood and make steam to clean the dairy at Swallow Valley Farm.

Swallow Valley Farm owner Nick Colby said the farm has plans for workshops to educate people about biochar, how to make it and why, when scaled up, it can have a part in reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and mitigate global warming.

Morell, who was recently at a national biochar conference in Amherst, Mass., said biochar’s potential to improve soil quality and improve water retention lie in its construction. It has been compared to a coral reef, he said, noting the millions of micropores that retain water and store it close to plants’ roots, potentially augmenting a crop’s yield.

“This is the first time in Sonoma County that we’ve had the opportunity to produce our own biochar and it’s important because we’re doing it in an integrated system,” Morell said, noting the system at Swallow Valley will serve as a model for how to produce biochar and use leftover heat in an efficient way.

“In addition to being extremely good for soil health, what we are doing is burying carbon. We are creating a negative to carbon emissions by burying it in the soil where it will remain for (centuries) in a way that we can actively deal with climate concerns,” Morell said.

Morell said the government shutdown slowed down the process of receiving funds, but, with money already allocated to the project, the group is hopeful the project will begin soon. The money received will fund the initial project and the Adam Retort, but the group is still actively seeking funding for research.

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