Biochar Boosts Crops
Corn, with no fertilizer
In 2007, a videographer made a movie of our biochar workshops in New England. Back home in the Hudson Valley, he convinced a farmer neighbor to pile brush in a cornfield. They ignited the pile, got it burning fiercely, with glowing coals, then watered it and threw dirt on to smother the fire. They got a fair yield of char: 15 to 20%.
Two years later, the farmer plowed the field and planted corn, but didn't apply any fertilizer. In most of the field, corn grew poorly, tasseled weak, formed incomplete ears of irregular seeds. But the area with charred residue grew full-size corn with vigorous tassels, heavy silks and full, well-formed ears (photo above).
Photos below are of corn growing at a research farm in Argentina. Once again, biochar-enriched soil yields a larger, more vigorous crop that grew faster, darker, thicker, denser than corn growing in adjacent soil without biochar.
Biochar Trials at Virginia Tech
Beginning 2006, CarbonChar, Virginia Tech University & compost microbiologist Jon Nilsson collaborated on field trials of biochar with corn, potatoes and tomatoes. Their research defined a protocol to prepare biochar for soil that assures strong response with minimal amounts in the first year of application.
In 2006, Virginia Tech University field trials with biochar in soil growing tomatoes, potatoes and sweet corn demonstrated and highlighted that biochar properly prepared can achieve remarkable results at very low rates per acre. Biochar was charged with minerals and inoculated with microbes, and applied a few hundred pounds instead of several tons per acre. Results were immediate, not in the second or third year.
CarbonChar, a new company, produced the biochar. Jon Nilsson, soil scientist and compost expert, created a biochar inoculant with beneficial microbes, substrates and microbial food. Initial research with sweet corn found inoculated biochar applied in planting rows as low as 7.5 pounds per acre saw significant increases in yield and mycorrhizal colonization of roots.
Inoculated biochar at 2.5 % by volume in transplant growing mix had the following results:
• 30 lb/acre savings in nitrogen for Potatoes (2006)
• 10% increase in Sweet Corn yield (2006-07)
• 22% increase in Tomato yield (2007)
• 51% increase in Tomato yield at first pick (4-year average)
• Tomato yield was 1-2 weeks earlier than untreated plots
Tomato yields were with 2 cups of inoculated char in 5 gallons of transplant soil mix. In 2010, 4 cups per 5 gallons of mix resulted in even higher yields.
Jon Nilsson said, “Virginia Tech research replicated results over four years. Trials weren’t just biochar alone, but included changes in cultural practices:
• soil had decent fertility when we started
• low-salt fertilizer used at transplant time (fish emulsion)
• cover crop turned in prior to planting
• low-salt fertilizer at low amounts in growing season
“We saw soil changes by soil penetrometer readings. Bottom line is beneficial microbes are salt intolerant, and easier to kill than a germinating seed. Farmers using high-salt fertilizers won't benefit from this technology.”
Jon Nilsson tells farmers, “Microbes are more efficient than any product you ever bought. They work 24/7, and are lots cheaper than fertilizer. Inoculated products lower costs, yet maintain or increase yield. That’s money in a farmer’s pocket.”
Jon is emphatic: “Agriculture will turn on a dime when bio-inoculants show farmers permanent changes to soil fertility and cost reductions. My job is to cut costs and increase yields.”
For further information:
Biochar in Agricultural Systems (2-page printable .pdf)
Biochar-Based Amendment Enhances Tomato Transplant Growth and Early Fruiting, Dr. Ronald Morse, Professor Emeritus, Dept. of Horticulture, VA Tech & Jon Nilsson, Soil Scientist, Biochar Applications, Mills River, NC