Thursday, November 27, 2014

What we need is in the sky!

Janelle wanted me to generate a post about biochar; she liked the way I described it to a friend and thought my take on it might be helpful to a larger audience…does our blog readership constitute a larger audience?  Oh, well, it’s the largest we’ve got!

So what if I implied to you that the problem with the global climate change conversation is that we’re seeing atmospheric carbon as a troublesome burden, when really it’s a tremendously underutilized resource for solving the most pressing problems of agriculture?  Would that make you sit up and pay attention?  Agricultural activity over the past 10,000 years has acted to drive our precious soil carbon out of the soil and into the sky.  This has been a profound loss…we need to find ways to reverse this process and invite the carbon out of the atmosphere and back into our soils where it belongs; where it is so badly needed.

I’ll start my explanation with a few paragraphs (I’ll try to be succinct) about biochar facts and history.  Pyrolyzed (charred) wood has been used accidentally and/or purposefully for millennia by humans as a soil amendment and a fuel (as charcoal).  Char is created by partially burning wood…that is to say halting the combustion reaction before it turns the wood completely to ash.  Those little black chunks left over in your fire pit after a cookout…that’s char.  By manipulating the burn setting and process, a person can make it so that there is a whole lot of black stuff left over and comparatively little ash.  Traditionally this has been achieved by creating a smoldering fire with limited oxygen, and extinguishing the burn prematurely when the desired level of pyrolysis (charring) has occurred. 

Medical practitioners and others will be familiar with another property of char…it is great at grabbing many kinds of chemical substances and holding on to them.  Typically the more reactive the substance, the more char wants it, so reactive toxins like heavy metals can be cleared from the body by ingesting charcoal.  I believe this is the process known as chelation.  It should not be done willy-nilly--so don’t go swallowing chunks of char as a bonus detox—because when char finishes with grabbing the most reactive stuff, it moves right into the less reactive stuff and grabs that, too.  So it can deplete the body of valuable minerals and the like if overdone.

You would think, then, that char would make a terrible soil amendment, since it is so hungry for nutrients.  Indeed it must be used with caution.  If you mix it with your garden soil straight from the fire, the reports are that there is nothing more capable of starving your plants in a hurry.  However if before you add it to the soil you “charge” it (fully stock its storage capacity) with beneficial plant nutrients, it becomes a wonderful nutrient reservoir that plants and soil microbes can draw from and deposit into over the long term.  So charging it with nutrients is what makes “char” into “biochar.”  This nutrient-bank function is one of the same roles that clay serves in the soil, but char is better at it and has other benefits.  Read on.

There is nothing more important in soil health than organic matter (dead bits of plants and other life-sourced matter).  Organic matter makes the soil lighter and easier for roots to penetrate and colonize, it provides habitat for the huge diversity and number of organisms that make up a healthy soil, it promotes healthy aeration and stores soil water and nutrients.  There are myriad types and sources of organic matter, each with its own properties.  Some stays in the soil only a little while before it degrades (fueling a plant smorgasbord of nutrient exchanges) and returns to the air as carbon dioxide, some stays around for several years, some for hundreds of years.  Pyrolyzed organic matter (char bits) is the most permanent type, lasting in the soil not for hundreds of years but thousands!  For agricultural systems purposes, then, it can be thought of as a permanent form of organic matter.  For the nation that has squandered its topsoil at devastating rates over the last century and a half, this should be a pretty attention-getting little factoid!

At this point it is worth asking the question:  Where did the plants and trees we make biochar from get their carbon in the first place?  The answer may surprise some folks:  From the air.  Atmospheric carbon dioxide.  The very same supply of carbon dioxide that is pressure-cooking our planet.  So put it together with me here:
  • There used to be a lot of carbon in the soil, in the form of organic matter.  That was good!
  •  We plowed the soil, allowing the topsoil to erode and promoting decay/oxidation of that organic matter, driving it into the air (one third of CO2 overproduction has been from this source).  That was bad!
  • We learned how to burn high-carbon fossil fuels for extra energy, releasing even more carbon and letting us plow even more.  That was very bad!
  • Trees and plants use atmospheric CO2 to build their tissues, reducing atmospheric carbon.  Yay!
  • Charring this plant tissue immobilizes it and renders it a permanent soil asset, keeping it out of the atmosphere over the very long term.  So the more biochar we hungrily generate to feed our starving soils, the more we solve our climate problem.  Holy Cow!

And speaking of cows, using a combination of prescribed burns (grasses pyrolyze, too!) and skillful rotational grazing is perhaps the most powerful way of reducing atmospheric carbon while building agricultural soils for the long term.  In fact, grass fires are part of how I got interested in biochar.  I had read about archeological digs in which there were found pieces of char from cooking fires that had lasted for many thousands of years in the soil, virtually unchanged.  It got me thinking about whether this process could be used to sequester carbon, especially if half-burned grass bits could be the material in question, since grass regenerates so quickly after fires.  So I fired up ye olde search engine and, sure enough, there was this whole body of knowledge and inquiry around the topic.  It turns out that this was one of the major factors in building the fantastic topsoils of the American Midwest.  Prairie fires, intentional and accidental, have been a conditioning and capacity-building influence for as long as humans have lived there.

Perhaps the most stunning example of the soil-creating powers of char comes from the Terra Preta soils of the South American tropics.  I am unclear on whether these are known to have been intentionally created, but the story goes that when researchers looked into the back story of some fabulously productive, seemingly inexhaustible soils in the Amazon (I think), they found that the soils were built from leftover char from cooking fires accumulated to something like a twenty foot depth over the millennia in these locations, and that time had allowed full charging of the char.  The result was jaw-dropping, and I find the implications staggering.  Give me some of that!  Never was the Permaculture maxim of misallocated or excess resources equaling pollution so clearly demonstrated.  Carbon is a resource, folks.  And if there is one thing modern western culture is good at, it is exploiting resources.  There is even the possibility in my mind that if we got good at putting carbon to excellent use in our soils, we might even end up with a more productive planet than we’ve ever seen in the history of humanity.  Stick with me a minute:  Two-thirds of the CO2 resource has come from carbon that’s been out of commission since the dinosaurs.  If we can get a hold of that, too, and add it to carbon-poor soils around the globe, we might be sitting pretty, even with 7 billion of us and rising, albeit with a nod to the law of unintended consequences.

So how might we go about tapping into this resource?  On a large scale (municipal, industrial) it needs some kind of “through-process” system to be efficient, perhaps making use of agricultural and sylvicultural (tree-growing) wastes or by-products such as tree tops from sustainable wood products, orchard prunings, corn stalks, wheat straw and chaff, etc.  On a small decentralized scale, this is almost surely going to be done in batches (my first attempt is described in the last blog entry), with the exception of grassland management systems, which are more infinitely scalable.  Some of the most exciting developments I see are systems being built for home-scale use (many could be adapted for larger work) that are using the surplus heat from biochar kilns to provide domestic hot water, home heat, greenhouse heating, cooking heat, and the like.  There is potential for using the excess gases to run internal combustion engines, and one creative company has even managed to refine jet fuel and other hydrocarbons from them!  Of course, one worries about the consequences of Americans learning how to burn trees to make their SUVs run…

Much of my information about technical developments in biochar come from Wayne Teel, our local biochar tinkerer extraordinaire, and a JMU professor in sustainable agriculture specializing in agroforestry.  It can be done on almost any scale, and we need lots of common people playing with it to create a fertile environment for innovation and acceptance on a broad and/or large scale.  Before long the corporations may recognize what a valuable resource is in the air over our heads and all around us…then they’ll find a way to claim it for themselves and charge us for it!  Get it while you can!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Until December...

Dark is falling and so I expect Jason to reappear any moment.  He was out enjoying one last stint in the tree stand.  No luck harvesting a deer for our canning shelves and freezer but it seems he is hardly disappointed about the hours spent in the woods!  We didn't expect that he would have the luxury of taking some time there this evening as we are starting our travels almost a day early to beat the pending snow storm.  But it's been a relaxed day getting ready and so he is enjoying watching his chickens forage in the woods (without any deer for company).

We've had a few "firsts" in the last week or so that seem worth documenting here for the fun of looking back on it.

The first was that I'm now in the habit of making our sauerkraut and having some on hand.  Alida tasted it a long time ago and enjoyed it but she has more recently acquired a thing against sauerkraut made with green cabbage. That may be in part because we had some pink sauerkraut that her aunt had made and that has become the only kind she wishes to eat. She was asking, multiple times, for us to make the pink kind.  So we did!  Right now it looks very purple so we'll see what happens in the coming 4 weeks or so.  I'm grateful for my new (or better said repurposed) stomper that makes the job much easier.  I was amused by Alida's methods - not exactly the most efficient in getting the juices out of the cabbage but entertaining to watch:

The second new thing was we have our very first biochar pit.  We hope it is the first of many!  Jason had heard of the pit method of making biochar (pyrolyzed woody debris to be charged with nutrients before use as a soil amendment) and got the idea of using a biochar pit as the base for our next composting toilet dumping station.  That way the biochar would be there to soak up what leaches into the ground and would act as a filter, while charging the biochar at the same time.  Then a few years down the road when we use the compost, beneath it we will have an incredible soil amendment and in the process we'll have sequestered a little carbon - bonus!  It was a simple process, that Alida got really into helping with until she got a little scratch on her finger from the brush.  I imagine a future blog post from Jason is in order to get his reflections on his recent stints in the tree stand and the biochar adventure.

And, finally, I made pure 100% wheat grass juice today. Wowzers!  So we don't grow enough wheat to grind it into flour but we grow plenty to have a little wheat grass farm. We've grown it off and on for months and I've blended it with water, strained it and used in smoothies. However, upon more reading recently, it seems the best shot of nutrients is when you have 100% wheat grass juice immediately after extracting it.  Supposedly 1 oz of the stuff is equivalent to about 2 lb of veggies (I'm not vouching for this site, but if even 10% of these claims have any validity, it's pretty amazing stuff:

I used Jason's meat grinder and full colander of wheat grass gave me 3 one-ounce shots of pure wheat grass juice.  Yep, that's it!  I took one "shot" down to Jason who was dousing his biochar pit with water and we toasted our wheat grass juice and then partook of it (making a number of faces in the process).  It sure tastes like it would have some kind of impact! I'm not sure I have anything to compare it to.  The last ounce went into a yummy banana strawberry smoothie for the girls.

It's fun to feel space opening up in my days at home to experiment with more things like this.  Who knows what I'll be cooking up in the kitchen by the end of the winter!  It's also fun to have Alida and Kali both being highly interested in participating...  I'm looking forward to expanding my array of food options come December 1 when my current 60-day food experiment comes to an end.  In the meantime, I've been enjoying lots of amazing salads with lettuce from our garden, red cabbage from our neighbor next door, kale from our garden or next door, and a parsley pesto yogurt dressing with parsley from our friend's farm and lots of garlic from ours.

But now we must turn our attention to moving westward!  This has been a long anticipated trip - time to savor with family, time for Jason and I to spend together while the girls entertain and are entertained by grandparents, time away from our project list (one last hurrah before the bathroom remodel commences), and time in the mountains.  And it looks like we might get to enjoy some snow too!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Leaves, leaves and more leaves

Since the temperature is hardly to crest freezing today and it's windy, Kali offered to spare Alida the nappy walk with me and they are snuggled up side by side in their bunk bed reading stories.  Since Alida popped awake at 6:30 when I jumped out of bed to check on whether the sound I heard was Jason coming in from the tree stand, odds are good that story time will end in a nap. Especially since, unlike me, Kali is not lulled to sleep by reading out loud. I'm amazed at her stamina as I'm completely incapable of lasting more than about 10 minutes.  So walks work well for me, trying to outlast Alida reading stories does not!

The house is quiet other than the wind chimes on the porch and the soft sound of Kali reading.  Jason is out putting a thick layer of mulch on all the plants that are especially vulnerable to a hard freeze, which is coming our way tonight!  We've covered a lot of lettuce in hopes that we'll continue to enjoy fresh salads for awhile yet.  The only other things that looks relatively green still are the perennial onions.  Otherwise, we are starting to dig into the root cellar, pantry and freezer supplies.  And it's about time since all are pretty much full to the brim.   I chopped up the last green peppers this morning so a few more salads and we'll be on to dried or frozen ones.  I guess these "endings" could feel sad or we could choose to just switch to buying from the grocery store the things we can't grow fresh in November.  Instead I gravitate so much towards living by the seasons and love to see our girls naturally doing the same.  They don't seem at all bothered by the fact that we won't be eating fresh tomatoes again until about July.  When July comes they will taste oh so delicious!  In the meantime, who can complain when there are bright orange sweet potatoes awaiting us in the root cellar!

Since the last posting the little pond has been completed and we have continued to harvest leaves as fast as our arms and legs will let us, and with as much spare time as we have available.  We have more or less an abundant supply at our fingertips (due to several neighbors with lots of trees and no desire to use the leaves), but I think we are about out of time to gather more for this fall.  Jason used one load of leaves from the city to mulch in the kitchen garden for the winter and it is looking rather sharp!  You can see in the background of this picture down near the composting chicken coop the growing pile of leaves from our raking endeavors.  That is one of two locations where we have stock piled ones we weren't ready to use immediately.

We ended the month of October together as a family in West Virginia with friends - a great way to ring in November!  The night before we left, we hosted a blood drive in honor of Nora and the place was buzzing with action (as well as some buzzing lips for those donating platelets).  I think it was our highest number of donations of any drive we have done.  It was a special gathering of people that knew Nora and some that have only gotten to know her through us since her death.  I did not try to donate as I still didn't feel able to honestly answer the question "do you feel healthy and well today" with a "yes" so I left feeling grateful for all who gave but sad that I wasn't among the actual donors.  Hopefully my time will come again, and in the meantime I hope to help facilitate others giving more regularly - most notably my hubby!

I've been enjoying taking more time lately to play with the girls.  The cold outdoors and less daylight helps. And maybe my mindfulness class is instilling some new patterns and habits in me - I hope!  I have also chosen playing backgammon with Kali over my mindfulness homework a couple of times, attempting of course to play backgammon mindfully!  The girls and I did some organizing, sorting and paring down of our toys and games recently and decided that we are going to go through our game cabinet and try the games we have never played and decide if we like them or not (rather than just letting them sit there).  We've tried out 3 thus far and 2 of them are in the Gift and Thrift bag.  Kali is such a delight to sort things with now that I'd have a hard time remembering our struggles when I tried to get rid of surplus stuff IF Alida wasn't coming along behind and currently deeply embedded in the, "I like that" and "I want to keep it" phase.

The leaf raking has kept Jason from getting on with the winter construction projects so we are not on target to have our bed done by Thanksgiving in order to dive into the bathroom project in December.  I usually come around, and at this point I've settled on not worrying too much about our self imposed deadlines. I may have to be reminded of that resolution, but currently it feels more worth it to enjoy the process of the things we are doing, which are highly enjoyable when not under time pressure, and get to the construction projects as we are able.  So the occasional game together all four of us, or not setting an alarm in the morning (though recently Jason has been up before dawn heading out to the tree stand to welcome the day from his perch - thus far he has come in noting "lots of luck but no deer."), or including the girls in our activities even if it extends the time a certain job takes feel so very worth it.  It was really fun this morning to work with Alida on shelling out her popcorn and selecting the pinkest kernels for seed for her to plant next year.  Our girls have a good dose of Jason's genes, that's for sure.  As Alida and I are working at it, she makes it very clear that she is not interested in any candy stripe kernels so I needed to hone my selection skills a bit more.  Kali also can talk for about as long as anyone will listen about her breeding plan with her corn.  I love it!

And we are getting some seeds in the ground even yet.  Jason and Jonathan worked up some new soil that the ducks and chickens had a first go round with.  This area will be in electric fencing by the next growing season since it housed our mostly failed three sisters planting this year (thanks to the critters).  Jason got all the shallots planted there recently.  The main gardening tasks now needing attention are a continuation of weeding and mulching. We had hoped to get to the garlic before the hard freeze but we'll have to just hope it makes it until we get around to it!

Clearly there are not "enough" hours in our days but we'd probably fill any additional ones we had.  We just won't get all the leaves raked or all the weeding done or...  I'm attempting to be ok with that and enjoy the time we do have together to work at the things we love being part of.  It's a good life!  Now if we (Jason and me) could fit a few naps in here and there, we'd be even better off!  Alida is the main one that still gets to sack out for a few hours each afternoon, and she is the one most vocal about not enjoying naps!  Speaking of naps, the jury is still out on whether reading or a nappy walk will do the trick!