Biochar: Builder of organic matter and super-charged compost

What is Biochar?

Biochar is an ancient human agricultural practice, largely forgotten until recent decades. Ancient biochar has been discovered in the Amazon basin, where it is known as “Terra Preta.” Fertile soil infused with biochar provided food for millions of Ancient South Americans in a region otherwise challenged by low soil fertility.

“Terra Preta” biochar soil remains rich and fertile to this day. Biochar is the carbon which remains after plant or animal matter is baked or “pyrolized” at low temperatures, in the absence of oxygen. It is a natural process that occurs during forest fires. Carbon is a natural component of healthy living soil. The ancients augmented this naturally occurring soil carbon by producing biochar in a process similar to charcoal-making. Modern biochar pyrolysis is an efficient, tightly engineered process which generates biochar and valuable by-products cleanly, with energy self-sufficiency, and is carbon negative.

How does Biochar work?

1. Production. Biochar, when property produced via pyrolysis, retains the microscopic cell structure of the plant or animal material from which it was made. A handful of biochar contains many square miles of surface area and billions of cellular cavities. Biochar comes out of the pyrolysis process sterile.

2. Inoculation. Sterile biochar is “inoculated” with beneficial biological life. The easiest method is by incorporating biochar into an existing compost operation. Beneficial microorganisms, fungi, and bacteria take up residence in the vast network of biochar cell cavities, where they flourish, reproduce, compete and generate plant-available nutrients. This can take 3-12 weeks.

3. Use as Soil Amendment. Inoculated Biochar compost is introduced into agricultural fields or lawn soil. There, it improves virtuous nutrient cycling, increases water retention, accelerates the building of soil organic matter, and filters out mineral fertilizers and toxins that would normally run off into streams.

Biochar Advantages

• Biochar helps build soil organic matter (SOM), soil organic carbon (SOC) and soil biological activity. Compost alone is a good method to sequester carbon into soil (thus removing it from the atmospheric stock of CO2.) However, compost oxidizes in a few years, returning its carbon into the atmosphere. Biochar is soil carbon which remains stable in soil for hundreds or thousands of years, while also benefiting soil fertility.

• Biochar enhances the rainwater infiltration capacity of soil. Less run-off means reduced nutrient management issues, increased drought tolerance and reduced stormwater management costs.

• Biochar acts as a large-scale “carbon filter,” absorbing surplus mineral fertilizers, pesticides and toxins prior to stormwater carrying them into waterways. • Biochar turns agricultural waste into a valuable farm product. Chicken litter, diseased trees, manure, invasive species biomass, municipal wood chips… All can be pyrolyzed into sterile biochar.

• Biochar production is energy self-sufficient and can generate excess energy for resale into the grid, to heat greenhouses or otherwise displace conventionally-produced energy. • Biochar production is clean, exceeding California emissions standards.

• Biochar production generates valuable by-products. Depending on the feedstock biomass that is being pyrolyzed into biochar, the process can yield valuable quantities of waste heat, syngas, wood vinegar and other high-value products.

• Biochar helps restore essential soil carbon levels and biological biomass levels, which have been depleted by intensive agriculture. Biochar is NOT a waste product, it is carbon mad from organic feedstocks, which augments a natural soil-building process that is millions of years old.

• Biochar is particularly effective in accelerating the conversion of “conventional” agricultural fields, domestic lawns and municipal greenways to organic practices.




Richard with biochar that is being blended with his compost.

Richard Jefferies operates Utica Bridge Farms, a chemical-free farmstead which grows 50+ varieties of heirloom vegetables, berries, fruits, nuts and grains, using practices which build healthy biologically-active soil, support biodiversity and produce nutrient-dense food. This work is taken from a presentation he made at a Future Harvest CASA conference. 

Frederick County On-Farm Compost Amendment

A zoning amendment allowing acceptance of food scraps on permitted farms in the agriculture zone, a change proposed to existing zoning code to solve obstacles to expansion of composting in Frederick County, was recently supported by Frederick County’s Solid Waste Advisory Committee (SWAC).
The proposed zoning amendment, which has been discussed for months by the Frederick County Planning and Zoning Dept., must still be introduced as County Council legislation and follow the process for zoning amendments before it can be adopted.
Currently, food scrap composting can take place on agricultural land under 5,000 square feet. The proposed amendment creates two levels: permitted acceptance of food scrap with no commercial sales in the ag zone between 5,000 square feet and five acres; or acceptance by Special Use Permit in the agriculture zone above 5 acres but no more than 10 acres, with commercial sales allowed.
Other proposed conditions include:
*no composting in the floodplain and a required setback of 25 feet from floodplain and 50 feet from streambanks
*must be 150 feet from property lines
*must have frontage to a 20-foot-wide paved road and at the discretion of the county, a commercial/industrial entrance
*a vehicle circulation plan and turning radius plan
*A log book of received material that can be inspected at any time by the Zoning Administrator
*must be incorporated into composting within 24 hours and avoid nuisance, dust and detectable noise from other properties
Facilities would still be expected to meet all state permitting regulations for Tier 2 composting.


A Spoonful of Soil (Regenerative Agriculture)

Ron Holter and Lisa Orr believe a teaspoon of soil can make a big difference.
That is, when it is loaded with the right microbes: it can be the difference between wallet-breaking grain purchases and feeding animals from the grass growing in rich soil.

 Lisa Orr and Ron Holter, speakers Feb. 21 at Green Drinks
Lisa told the audience at the February Frederick Green Drinks that microbes are in the 10K range  in a teaspoon of healthy soil … and her presentation partner, Middletown farmer Ron Holter, said seeing the sun hit bare soil is the opposite of a hospitable environment for these microbes. “We’ve been taught that monoculture is the thing, and its not,” said Holter, whose farm follows regenerative practices rapidly gaining recognition worldwide.
The holistic grazing method is promoted internationally by Rhodesian farmer Allan Savory, at a Colorado facility. There, they train and demonstrate grazing practices that match the needs of the soil and animals by moving the animals in “mobs”  throughout the land. The animals’ trampling activities provide the aeration, nutrients and organic matter needed in the soil—which also traps carbon that otherwise would become greenhouse gas.
In Savory’s home country of Africa, where the soil is extremely brittle and arid, “cattle mobs” will sometimes not graze the same area for a year; Holter said his Middletown cows are rotated in tight groups every 28-45 days. His farm changed methods 21 years ago, and he has saved large amounts of money on grain (the animals are now grass-fed); their land is drought-resistant; between the diversity that keeps it in check and the hungry cows that consume all the Johnsongrass, this bane of conventional farms is under control. Veterinary bills are lower because his livestock do not spend all their time in barns on hard surfaces; and the workload is lighter for his farm family.
Regenerative agriculture is growing in adoption in the national agricultural world as its benefits become evident. For more information about regenerative methods, which include nitrogen-fixing cover crops; no-till farming; biochar and chemical free farming, and their ability to restore soil carbon, go to
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