What’s New

Biochar for Carbon Removal from the Atmosphere  (From the IBI Website)

In the October 21 issue of Nature Communications Woolf et al demonstrate that biochar could play an important role in removal of carbon from the atmosphere, which is increasingly recognized as essential to meeting global climate targets.  Woolf compared biochar-bioenergy systems with bioenergy alone and gasification-based bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, known as BECCS. In its 2014 report, IPCC flags BECCS as the only major land-based approach expected to draw down atmospheric carbon dioxide. However, Woolf demonstrates that biochar-bioenergy systems that sequester carbon in agricultural lands could reduce carbon sequestration costs, allowing earlier adoption of a more aggressive policy of actively removing carbon from the atmosphere to avert dangerous climate change. Biochar-bioenergy competes favorably with BECCS at lower carbon prices, and where biochar addition to soils delivers significant increases in crop yields. Thus, effective use of biochar as a carbon removal strategy relies on identifying those sites that are most responsive to biochar.

This requires similar knowledge systems as those commonly in place around the world to guide fertilizer application.  Averaged across all published scientific experiments, biochar increases crop yields around 20% with application rates often exceeding 10 t/ha. However, applications of less than 5 t/ha can increase crop yields by over 50% in certain types of soils. Even highly productive agricultural lands contain patches of degraded soils that would benefit from biochar application. Precision agriculture can deliver biochar to specific field locations where it can provide the greatest soil benefits.

Biomass energy in combination with carbon sequestration has enormous potential as a carbon removal strategy.  However, biomass is a widely dispersed resource best suited to small-scale, distributed bioenergy systems. In contrast, sequestration of carbon dioxide is necessarily a large, centralized operation to enable separation and injection of carbon dioxide into carefully selected geological deposits.  This mismatch in scale between bioenergy production and carbon dioxide sequestration is a challenge for gasification-based BECCS.  The relative simplicity of producing and sequestering biochar results in biochar-bioenergy systems that can be built at modest scale and widely distributed.  Their small size reduces the risk of deploying new technology, eases financing, and speeds adoption.  Biochar-bioenergy systems can play an important role in a global strategy to actively remove carbon from the atmosphere.



SBI and Sonoma Ecology Center had a large double booth presence at the upcoming Heirloom Expo at the Santa Rosa Fairgrounds and it was a great success! We gave educational workshops on making biochar and how it can be used in agriculture and industry, hands-on bokashi compost making workshops, and we shared all of the amazing activities of Sonoma Ecology Center, including environmental research, education, and ecological restoration. There were lots of activities for kids of all ages, including lectures about bugs and other critters beneficial for your garden.


Biochar-Enhanced Chicken Manure Pellets Now Available:

In collaboration with Weber Family Farms in Petaluma, The Sonoma Biochar Initiative and Sonoma Ecology Center are now offering buckets of biochar-enhanced chicken manure pellets as thank-you gifts for donations during a special fundraising campaign.  The chicken manure is an OMRI-listed organic manure that is high in nitrogen and blended with biochar made from locally-sourced woody biomass.

Pellets small

This fantastic soil amendment has been pelletized for easy application and can be used anywhere in your garden. We are offering 2-gallon buckets of this prime fertilizer blend as a thank you gift for a suggested donation of  $20, or two for $35. This special blend is available for pickup on Saturday mornings at the Sonoma Garden Park Farm Market, from 9 A.M. to 12:30 P.M., 19996 7th St E, Sonoma, CA 95476, or by special arrangement at Sonoma Ecology Center offices in the Sonoma Developmental Center.

We want to thank Mike Weber of Weber Family Farms for his generous donation of goods and services in support of this fundraiser.

For more information call Raymond Baltar at:  707 291-3240


Sonoma Ecology Center, Sonoma Biochar Initiative and UC Riverside Apply for Biochar Research Grants

Sonoma Ecology Center and the Sonoma Biochar Initiative, in collaboration with Dr. Milt McGiffen of UC Riverside, several RCD’s, and farmers up and down the state, have applied for a number of grants the last few months to conduct major biochar field trials in California. We are seeking definitive scientific data to determine whether biochar use can save farmers money through water savings, and grants were submitted to the California Department of Water Resources and the USDA Conservation Innovation grant programs to help fund this research.

Working closely with three local poultry farmers, including Mike Weber of Weber Family Farms, we also submitted a grant to the Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program to test biochar’s efficacy in reducing methane emissions in several operational applications. This research could lead to development of several new conservation practices in poultry operations, reducing the amount of methane and ammonia emissions while “inoculating” the biochar and creating a new value-added product that could improve a farmer’s bottom line.


Biochar Becoming Integrated with Local Compost and Fertilizer Production

Since the closing of Sonoma Compost at the Sonoma County Landfill there has not been a dependable local source of biochar and biochar/compost blends where gardeners and farmers could pick up a yard or even a truckload of material.  This has now changed!

Other local compost and fertilizer companies have caught on and are now using biochar to improve their processes, and they are creating farm-friendly biochar products while doing it. This is good news for local farmers and good news for clean air. As SBI has promoted in our educational outreach and demonstrated in our field trials, biochar works better when combined with composts and manure. And the world benefits from reduced greenhouse emissions at the same time

This has been echoed in a stream of research published in scientific journals which explain that biochar can improve the composting process by reducing nitrogen off-gassing, and while stewing in the compost environment, the biochar is also improved with humic acids and plant nutrients. A win-win. And when the co-products are used in farming, the plant growth response is better than from either product alone. You can follow the research article links in the bibliography below* to learn more about the benefits to composting with biochar and the improved products created.

Here is a list of the local companies that we are aware of which have begun to use biochar in their processes, and offer their biochar amended products to the public:

Weber Family Farms

395 Liberty Rd.

Petaluma, CA 94952

(831) 241-2500

*Organic chicken manure & biochar fertilizer pellets available. Wholesale only.

WM Earth Care

8950 Redwood Highway

Novato, CA 94948.

(415) 892-2851

*Organic compost and biochar blends available.

Andy Poncia Trucking / Poncia Fertilizer

597 Wilfred Ave.

Santa Rosa, CA 95407

(707) 481-8052

*Organic compost and biochar blends available. Wholesale only.

Sonoma Soil Builders

5900 Pruitt Ave.

Windsor, CA 95492

(707) 838-7645

*Organic compost and biochar blends available. Soil blends with biochar available.

We called WM Earth Care to investigate. Apparently they keep a 60/40 (by volume) organic compost/biochar blend in stock, which is available to general public at $64 per cubic yard. The other facilities listed above had a preference that customers call them direct for pricing. At the time of calling, the biochar used at all the facilities listed above was supplied by Pacific Biochar.


  1. Li, Shuqing, et al. Linking N2O emission from biochar-amended composting process to the abundance of denitrify (nirK and nosZ) bacteria community.  AMB Expr (2016) 6:37 DOI 10.1186/s13568-016-0208-x
  1. Steiner, C., Das, K. C., Melear, N. & Lakly, D. Reducing nitrogen loss during poultry litter composting using biochar. J. Environ. Qual. 39, 1236–1242 (2010).
  1. Wang, C. et al. Insight into the effects of biochar on manure composting: Evidence supporting the relationship between N2O emission and denitrifying community. Environ. Sci. Technol. 47, 7341–7349 (2013).
  1. Jindo, K. et al. Biochar influences the microbial community structure during manure composting with agricultural wastes. Sci. Total Environ. 416, 476–481 (2012).
  1. Kammann, C. I. et al. Plant growth improvement mediated by nitrate capture in co-composted biochar. Sci. Rep. 5, 11080; doi: 10.1038/srep11080 (2015).
  1. Jindo, K. et al. Chemical and biochemical characterisation of biochar-blended composts prepared from poultry manure. Biores. Technol. 110, 396–404, (2012).
  1. Glaser, B et al. Biochar organic fertilizers from natural resources as substitute for mineral fertilizers Agron. Sustain. Dev. (2015) 35:667–678


Biochar Workshops and Conservation Burn Training

We are gearing up for Biochar Workshops and Conservation Burn trainings this Fall and Winter.  If you are interested in having us train you and your farm or ranch staff how to significantly  reduce smoke pollution while also creating biochar using a modified open burn technique, feel free to email us.

Here are a some photos from past trainings:

Four staff members from Sonoma Ecology Center’s Conservation Burn program trained Cakebread Vineyards staff, Wolf Vineyard management staff and workers on this top-down burn technique. Over a two-day period 12 large piles were burned cleanly, yielding about 15 yards of biochar to be used in the winery’s garden next fall. The biochar will be crushed and added to compost for seasoning over the summer.

Excavator operator assembled Conservation Burn piles at a Cakebread Cellars vineyard in Rutherford

Excavator operator assembles Conservation Burn piles at a Cakebread Cellars vineyard in Rutherford.

Workers rake and hoe the biochar as water is used to save the carbon (biochar).

Workers rake and hoe the pile as water is used to extinguish the fire and save the carbon (biochar).


A beautiful pile of char in the foreground with a burning pile in the background.

A beautiful pile of char in the foreground with a burning pile in the background.


And as a reminder of how NOT to burn, here is a pile burned in the typical way— 

photographed recently in the Sonoma Valley.


Smoky fires like this that can last for hours can be greatly diminished by utilizing the Conservation Burn technique as a BMP on your property. We view the Conservation Burn as a “bridge” solution that farmers can employ to reduce smoke in their community and make biochar in the process. However there are better long-term solutions as kiln and retort technologies become mainstream and cheaper. We envision a day when clean and multi-purpose biochar production facilities are located in every community, making open burning a thing of the past.



Circle Bar Ranch Workshop

Circle Bar Ranch Workshop


Cuauhtemoc Villa teaches about about microbes and biochar at the Circle Bar Ranch Workshop



Four vine piles ready for a Conservation Burn at Pine Hawk Vineyards in San Miguel.


Miles and Cuauhtemoc light the first pile at the top.


The first pile takes off. Note the pile was lit on the DOWNWIND side.


The second and third piles are lit a half hour apart, and are allowed to burn down to a critical point before extinguishing. Note how little smoke is escaping the flames.


The first pile is almost ready to douse with water to save the carbon (biochar). Unburned pieces will be moved to the next pile.


Miles, Cuauhtemoc and Pine Hawk crew members make sure the fire is completely out and rake out the partially burned pieces.


A total of 10 piles were burned that day—a record for the Sonoma Biochar Initiative—with 8 excellent crew members. Here steam is created when one of the last piles is extinguished with water as sunset approaches.

Pine Hawk Vineyards Crew

The awesome crew after a LONG day at the Pine Hawk Vineyards Conservation Burn training in Paso Robles.


Quivira Vineyards Training

Quivira Vineyards and Winery Conservation Burn training. It was a gorgeous day in wine country and the Vineyard Manager, Ned Horton, and his fine crew, were impressed by the lack of smoke and how quickly the piles burned down.


Quivira Vineyards / Always light the fire on the DOWNWIND side!


Quivira Vineyards / The pile is almost ready to extinguish to save the carbon.


Quivira Vineyards / Most of the smoke gets consumed by the flame!


Quivira Vineyards / Working the pile


Quivira Vineyards / Look at all that beautiful biochar that was produced.




E & J Gallo's San Miguel Vineyard

Test Conservation Burn at E & J Gallo’s San Miguel Vineyard on Feb. 5th. With a moisture content of 30% to 45%, we determined that these vines were too green to burn easily and that they needed more seasoning. Ranch Lead Holly Smith was excited about the process and and in using biochar experimentally on some vines. Here Miles Atchison and Holly discuss the structure of the pile and the conditions of the vines.


E & J Gallo’s San Miguel Vineyard / Though we did successfully burn the pile cleanly and make some good biochar, it took three times longer to burn than normal and we recommended waiting another month before processing the rest of the vines from the 75-acre vineyard. Here Miles Atchison discusses biochar with E & J Gallo staff members.


Native American farming practices and permaculture gardens begin with the soil. Learning how to build the soil ecology to benefit other environmental systems can be rediscovered and utilized by looking into our past agriculture models as well as more modern composting techniques.

Through a collaboration between the Sonoma Ecology Center, The Sonoma Biochar Initiative, Whole Foods Market, and Cuauhtemoc Villa of EM of California, we recently held 4 FREE classes on Indigenous Farming Practices (including biochar use)  at the beautiful Sonoma Garden Park in Sonoma. Below are a few photos from the first class:

Instructor Cuauhtemoc Villa discusses Indigenous farming techniques during a class at the Sonoma Garden Park.

Instructor Cuauhtemoc Villa discusses indigenous farming techniques during a class at the Sonoma Garden Park.

Cuauhtemoc Villa adds bokashi to the Hugelkulture mound.

Cuauhtemoc Villa adds bokashi to the Hugelkultur mound.



Cuauhtemoc Villa waters down the contents of a Hugelkultur mound with EM (Effective Microorganisms).


Putting the finishing touches on the Hugelkultur mound.













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