What’s New

Conservation Burn/Biochar Workshops

The weather finally cooperated and the Conservation Burn workshop at Circle Bar Ranch was a great success.  We want to thank all of our attendees for their interest, Cuauhtemoc Villa and Alana Fichman for their knowledge and assistance, and especially our Circle Bar host, Sue Smith, for her ongoing support of this program.  (A special shout-out to equipment operator Jerry!)  Here are a few images from the event.        Photos by Raymond Baltar


SBI/SEC Gives Conservation Burn/Biochar Training to the Staff at the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve

We  recently gave a workshop at the Elkhorn Slough Research Reserve, a beautiful state research facility located in Moss Landing on the Central Coast. Both the conservation open burn and pit burn techniques were conducted and compared, and in the future they also plan on testing a “Kon Tiki” style kiln.The Reserve has an estimated 9-year supply of invasive Eucalyptus trees that they want to turn into biochar for on-site research.. The biochar will be processed for use as a filtration medium to determine how well it works to prevent local agricultural runoff from entering the Slough—an ongoing problem that can causes algae blooms that kill fish. We are excited to be collaborating with this nationally known conservation and research organization and will soon be working with them on the agricultural nutrient filtration project. Here are a few photos from the training, followed by some photos of the ongoing agricultural filtration project showing the water that needs filtering, the biofilters testing a number of different filtration media, and the results of the filtration efforts—a cleaner wetland.  Photos by Raymond Baltar

Above:   The Elkhorn Slough Crew (including new Charmaster Bree Candeloro, center!)
Below: The Agricultural Runoff Filtration Study Location Near Watsonville


Update on the SEC/SBI/UCR Department of Water Resources grant project testing biochar’s ability to save water in California Agriculture

Below are some photos of UC Riverside and Monterey Pacific Vineyard Management staff installing moisture monitoring equipment at the Oasis Vineyard near King City in Monterey County.  We are excited to start cataloging field trial data in this vineyard block with extremely sandy soils. Vineyard manager Doug Beck will also be cataloguing pruning weight and fruit production differences between the control and biochar-enhanced vine rows, and UC Riverside is measuring before and after application microbial population differences as well. Photos by Doug Beck and Raymond Baltar.



Below: Gathering soil samples for microbial analysis.


Biochar Production and Water Conserving Soil Tests Conducted in Sonoma County

SBI received a USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Conservation Innovation Grant in late 2012 to produce biochar using an Adam-Retort manufactured and licensed by New England Biochar, led by the Sonoma Ecology Center. Biochar was produced from local “waste” biomass was distributed to three local farms for field trials on three varying soil types: Swallow Valley Farm near Bodega, Green String Farm in Petaluma, and Oak Hill Farm in the Sonoma Valley.  Matching funds were provided by the Sonoma County Water Agency and in-kind contributions were provided by each of the farms and partners including: Gold Ridge Resource Conservation District, North Coast Resource Conservation & Development Council, and Sonoma Ecology Center.


The quality of the biochar produced in the Adam Retort unit has been uniformly excellent.  Soil and plant growth tests were conducted to inform the efficacy of biochar to increase soil moisture and water conserving properties in the face of drought conditions. Project results demonstrated both significant water savings and need for less water use/irrigation and improved crop yields with the introduction of biochar as soil amendment.  In addition to exploring the operation and production of biochar at community scale and conducting USDA-approved field trials, the project partners conducted education and outreach activities in the region.  For more information, the following reports are available here:

Final SCBP ReportFinal3_


We are now looking for a good home for this demonstration unit.  If interested, check out the Prospectus here:

Adam Retort Prospectus_SCBP2017

Contact Raymond Baltar at 707 291-3240, or Susan Haydon of SCWA at 707 547-1937 for more information.


Global Biochar Market Size Expected to Reach $585.0 Million by 2020.

According to a report by Zion Market Research, the global market was valued at approximately USD 260.0 million in 2014 and is expected to reach approximately USD 585.0 million by 2020, growing at a CAGR of around 14.5% between 2015 and 2020.

To learn more, go here.

Piercy Plant5270


David Morell from Sonoma Ecology Center and SBI, Josiah Hunt from Pacific Biochar, and Raymond Baltar from Sonoma Ecology Center, SBI, and the Redwood Forest Foundation, gave a panel presentation on biochar recently at the Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival.  The three presentations were well received by this special community of winemakers and grape growers and together made a strong case for biochar experimentation by this community.  The festivities included a well-attended technical symposium where a number of important topics related to the wine industry were discussed, including biochar; a wonderful barbecue dinner where an amazing selection of Pinot’s were served; and the Grand Tasting event at Golden Eye Winery. Below are a few photos of the events!  We would like to thank John Cesano, Alex Crangle and the whole team that put on this wonderful event for their amazing hospitality.  We will definitely plan to go again next year!






In February 2017 the Redwood Forest Foundation hired Raymond Baltar, director of the Sonoma Biochar Initiative and Biochar Project Manager at Sonoma Ecology Center, to manage the relocation of their medium-scale biochar production facility from Branscomb to Piercy in Mendocino County, as well as the ongoing production of high-quality biochar made from surplus tanoak being thinned from the Usal Forest as part of forest restoration activities. After a number of challenges and delays that included the prolonged wet, wet winter, rock slides and highway closures, and a skinny summer bridge that crosses the South Fork of the Eel River, production is now in full swing and is scheduled to continue through October. Below are a few photos of the project.  If you are looking to purchase this amazing soil amendment for use in your garden or on your farm, contact Raymond at:  707 291-3240.  Biochar available by the cubic yard only at this time.








Testimony and photos below from Patrick Norton, Assistant Vineyard Manager, Chalk Hill Estate Vineyards:

“Thank you again for a great seminar last week. Your educational and inspirational biochar workshop has changed the way I look at burning and soil fertility.  Much appreciated! Conservation burning is so much cleaner and more effective. I will never burn conventionally again if I can avoid it.


Grant News

Sonoma Ecology Center, Sonoma Biochar Initiative and UC Riverside Awarded Biochar Research Grant from California’s Department of Water Resources!

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 been awarded a research grant 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. We are planning to start the field trials at 3 farms this Spring. 

Lastly, we have applied to the Bay Area Air Qualify Management District’s (BAAQMD) educational grant program to fund emissions research that would provide hard data showing the differences between the Conservation Burn technique we have been developing vs a typical open agricultural burn. During a recent Farm Bureau presentation on open burning and other air emissions regulatory policies the BAAQMD’s representatives expressed an interest in the Cconservation Burn and we have invited them to attend our upcoming training (see below).  We believe that obtaining the hard data differences between the traditional and conservation burn practices would help push policy changes and broader farmer support for this simple yet dramatic way to reduce pollution while also producing biochar.


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.


Biochar Field Production Added as an NRCS Conservation Enhancement Practice

The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) recently announced an amendment to the Conservation Stewardship Program (SCP), adding biochar production from woody residue as a conservation enhancement practice.  This practice supports and encourages the production of biochar following fuels reduction harvests or post-wildfire forest regeneration.  You can download the PDF on the here:  e384135z

This conservation enhancement practice officially defines and supports work done by SBI over the last 4 years training farmers and foresters about the Conservation Burn technique that reduces smoke pollution while also producing biochar, as well as work done by Kelpie Wilson working with forestry professionals in Southern Oregon.



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. *Bibliography

  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

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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