Our Journey from Poor Hill Farm to Abundant Farmstead
from issue: 38-2
Our Journey from Poor Hill Farm to Abundant Farmstead
by Michael Low & Hart Brent of West Danville, VT
I first read about biochar and the highly fertile soils called the ‘black gold’ of the Amazon in the summer of 2007. That night I read the article out loud twice to my wife, and together we became captivated by the idea. Biochar transformed the thin acid soils of the Amazon into deep, rich and dark earth. We also had thin sandy soils on our 67 acre farmstead. Biochar is simply charcoal, made from any biomass and then used for agriculture. We read that biochar lasts for thousands of years, creating a living ‘reef’, a porous carbon hotel for the soil life. Its sponge-like nature absorbs and holds nutrients, water and oxygen, enriching the soil matrix and preventing leaching. In the Amazon biochar was made from tree biomass, and we had 45 acres of dead and dying softwood on our land as a result of our farm’s history of hard and depleting use. The article gave us an idea of how to make this pulp wood more valuable to us. As a horse logger, I would have lost money trying to sell all this pulp wood to the local log yard. Before reading about biochar we had chosen the name Green Fire Farm, while admiring the green flames of an arising daylily bed. We wanted our farm name to reflect our love for the vibrant beauty of nature. Biochar seemed to hold the promise of supporting such vibrant growth, in this case literally arising from fire.
Our farmstead is nestled at 1500 feet in the hills of Northeast Vermont. Vermont hill farms have a history of hard scrabble living, away from the fertile soils of the valley farms. Ours was no exception. Since the 1790’s our farm has seen 15 families come and go, each unable to keep the land due mainly to a declining fertility in the soils. Clear-cutting, overgrazing and a sandy soil base that leaches out in heavy rains left no cushion against the extremes of the Vermont farming year. When our house foundation was dug 20 years ago the excavator operator asked if we wanted to change our plans and open a gravel quarry instead of building a house.
When my wife and I started focusing more on developing our farmstead 8 years ago, all we had to work with was brush, poverty grass and a vision of feeding ourselves healthy homegrown food. Our animal-powered farmstead could barely feed our group of 5 goats, 3 cows, and 2 draft horses on the 15 acres of open grazing land we had available. For the first few years we fed out brush, cut daily to the goats and to stretch the pasture for the cows and horses we were feeding brought in hay long before the start of winter. Our goals seemed simple; to produce healthy food for ourselves and our animals, and to create a beautiful environment to live in. In the beginning this proved more challenging than we had thought. We lacked the soil life and the healthy foundation to bring our dreams into reality.
We decided from the beginning of our biochar adventure that we would make our own supply. Making biochar dovetailed with our ‘worst first animal powered logging’; converting the worst trees into something of value. A simple process, charcoal is made through pyrolysis, which is burning in the absence of oxygen. We needed a retort or kiln to pyrolyze our wood, and produce the amount of biochar we would need for our scale. We acquired plans to build a brick ‘Adam Retort’ from German engineer Chris Adam who designed his retort for developing countries. With the help of a local mason we finished the kiln late 2009, and were ready to go. Another simpler alternative for making home grown biochar is called the TLUD (top load up draft) which is constructed from two barrels. The instructions to make a TLUD can be found in multiple places online. The goal of any biochar kiln is to turn biomass safely and efficiently into charcoal, the stable carbon structure waiting within the feedstock. Feedstock can include almost any organic matter; common ones are wood, grass, wood chips, rice hulls, and peach pits. Ideally the feedstock is a waste product that can be recycled into biochar.
Before biochar, we had tried other systems and amendments to restore our soils. We added minerals, manure and spread our own compost. None of these approaches yielded the results we needed to replenish our land’s health. We realized after many years trying to solve our fertility problem that we literally had to bring our soils back to life first! We were adding the needed raw materials for healthy soils but were lacking the symbiotic soil life that helps plants utilize these nutrients and minerals. Any farm or garden land that has been disturbed through extensive tillage, fungicides, or other major environmental disturbances like our farm, has likely lost these crucial colonies of soil life. When you picture the verdant splendor of undisturbed natural systems, like old growth forests or virgin prairie, it is the life underfoot that is actually responsible for the beauty , health and fertility you see above ground.
Likely the most salient property of biochar is its ability to be inoculated with this soil life and to house that life within its complex structure. Biochar is a highly stable installation that continually leverages other soil building efforts. After adding biochar, amendments like minerals, compost and sea nutrients are absorbed in the biochar’s sponge-like structure and are held longer in the soil, they are not washed out in heavy rains. The soil life that is harbored in inoculated biochar also helps utilize these nutritious resources more fully. We mixed our biochar into our compost, animal bedding packs, and into the manure we spread on our fields. We put biochar into tree planting holes, under the mulch around perennials and around our berries. We started our seeds and seedlings with biochar in the planting medium and made sure each bed in the vegetable garden got a layer of biochar turned into it. We have used biochar in all the agricultural ventures on our land, even our houseplants. After taking a step back in our approach and laying the inoculated biochar foundation, we are finally seeing results that are equal to our expenses and efforts.
This last summer we put up the equivalent of 1,000 bales of our own farm grown loose hay. The hay mows were being stuffed, with fragrant cuttings while our 20 Nigerian-Alpine goats, 3 Katahdin sheep, 2 Guinea hogs, 5 Dexter cows and 2 draft horses (Fjord and Haflinger) grazed in knee high fields of grass, and watched our team of Devon oxen haul the summer’s bounty to storage for the coming winter. We still buy in about half of our hay, and there are a handful of pockets in some fields that are thin and slow growing. I keep having the feeling, however, that I am getting smaller each year, as the improving fertility sends the growth in our fields and gardens sky high around us. In 4 years of using biochar on our farmstead our carrying capacity (the land’s ability to support life) has grown more than 450%! After 45 years of gardening, my wife claims her veggies last summer had the best flavor ever. The higher nutrition in our soils correlates directly with the sweeter flavor of our food. We have successfully converted several reluctant veggie eating husbands in the neighborhood to beet lovers and broccoli aficionados.
With the perspective gained through looking back at our failures and innovations we can now see what helped us the most in regenerating our land base. First, recognizing that healthy soil is a living thing. The health and vitality of that life is the fundamental concern in most cases of trying to heal land. Amendments, minerals, fertilizers, compost and manures are not as effective if your soil is not living- remember it is the soil life, the microbes and myccorhyzae, that break down and feed these nutrients to the plants. For us inoculated biochar was the strongest way to bring life back into our soils. Second, the largest source of energy available to us in our restoration process was not being fully harnessed. That source is the available energy of the sun. Healthy living soils support more plants to act as the solar collectors. The healthy soils become the energy bank to store that solar energy. The sun’s energy is stored as carbon, within the plants’ structure, the microorganisms and subsequently in the soil. Biochar is a highly stable carbon storehouse, lasting thousands of years.
The sun to soil cycle represents more available energy than we as humans can employ (even collectively) to make changes in nature. However, the ability to harness that energy is based again on soil life and health. Humans have come to understand that we are agents of change, affecting the life around us. What we may have forgotten is that no matter how much energy we wield in making those changes, it is tiny when compared to the energy available to us when we work with this natural energy system.
Now when my wife and I are making a decision of what or how to do something on our farm, we consider it within a new context. Does our action work with and enhance our ability to harness solar life force? The decisions we make should increase our capacity to harness and store that solar energy. One decision we made in 2010 was to clear an overly steep two acre hillside. The forest there was not healthy, so the wood was ideal for converting into biochar. Rather than creating a pasture on the steep slope, we opted to build a five tier terrace into the hillside. Where a pasture would have difficulty capturing water, the terraces allowed the water to spread evenly and seep into the terraces. The terraces with their step-like shapes also created more land surface to plant into which meant more ‘living solar collectors’ in the area. In the terraces we planted a stacked system of fruit trees, nut trees, herbs, veggies and berries as well as a tree seed bed for starting our own tree crops from seed. This diversity allowed us to layer in even more plants than a simple pasture system. The different growing heights allow plants to be layered under or over each other.
We believe our farmstead will become more resilient to change by making choices in this way. With biochar as a stable base in our soils, we have recovered from hail in April, snow in May, a hurricane in August, and thunderstorm deluges in June and July. With biochar in our fields and gardens we have weathered droughts up to 6 weeks without watering. In the past we added compost to our vegetable gardens every season. Now with the biochar base we may wait to add compost every other season rather than annually. The soil is not as used up at the end of the season. The nutrients are holding longer as evidenced by our yields and most importantly the high flavor and quality we are seeing in our plants. We still employ minerals and other amendments. We still make compost and spread our winter manure packs. But the real innovation in “carbon farming” came in the form of inoculated biochar, carbon infused with life. We chose to focus on biochar and implement it on our farm because it is a foundational tool, improving our farm and garden systems at the base soil level and for the long term. Biochar addressed the root cause of our problem, by re-enlivening our soils, and our research and experience into its use opened up a whole new world of potential to us. Using biochar has shifted our paradigm of how to work with life.
Now whenever we are out in the garden or digging post or tree holes with visitors, they often comment “You have such nice soil!” This seemingly simple observation may not seem like much but it reminds us of how far we have come since the suggestion to start a quarry on this once hardscrabble land. As each season passes, we realize that what was needed most to manifest our farmstead vision has been restoration. Restoration of living soils, the foundation of natural systems may be a necessary part of realizing our dreams of living in abundant, beautiful places. Our biochar kiln is located in the heart of our farm. From this center it has performed a kind of agricultural alchemy, transforming our land into a rich treasure. It is turning the soil into black gold, restoring our ‘poor hill farm’ into the farmstead of our dreams.
Suggested further reading:
Bates, Albert The Biochar Solution: Carbon Farming and Climate Change (New Society Publishers 2010)
Joseph, Stephen & Lehman, Johaness Biochar for Environmental Management: Science and Technology (Earthscan 2009)
Taylor, Paul ed. The Biochar Revolution: Transforming Agriculture and Environment (Global Publishing Group 2010)
Lewis, Wayne & Lowenfels, Jeff Teaming With Microbes: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web (Timber Press, Inc. 2010)
www.bionutrient.org (The importance of healthy soils in food quality)