The Sonoma County Biochar Project has distributed biochar at two of our three farm partner locations: Oak Hill Farm in Sonoma and Swallow Valley Farm in Valley Ford. Below are some photographs from the delivery of the the biochar to Oak Hill Farm and the spreading of a 50/50 biochar and compost blend on a 1/4 acre pasture at Swallow Valley Farm. Compost only was spread on another 1/4 acre control pasture next to the biochar plot.
Greenstring Farm near Petaluma will be receiving biochar in early June for their field trials. The biochar was made locally using an Adam-Retort purchased using funds received from a USDA/NRCS Conservation Innovation grant and the Sonoma County Water Agency.
The following is a recap of the CDFA meeting in Sacramento where Peter Hirst represented SBI and New England Biochar in his presentation advocating for statewide field trials in California.
This meeting, held in a conference room at the CDFA office building, was arranged by Dr. Amrith Gunasekara, Science Advisor to Secretary Karen Ross, as a direct result of our previous meeting with her and her staff. The meeting, to hear testimony and examine the evidence for supporting field trials and the wider use of biochar in agriculture, was attended by 4 of the 5 Advisory Panel members, two Subject Matter Experts, three additional CDFA staff, as well as representatives of the NRCS, the North Coast RC&DC, Phoenix Energy, the Sonoma Biochar Initiative (Susan and I), and three other biochar advocates that presented on various aspects of biochar science, policy, and its current use in farming. These presenters were Dr. Johannes Lehmann of Cornell (via GoToMeeting), Jim Boyd of Clean Tech Advocates, and Dr. Douglas Beck, GIS Specialist and Agronomist from Monterey Pacific, Inc., a large grape farming operation on the Central Coast that is currently experimenting with biochar.
Three of the presenters made eloquent presentations and excellent cases supporting the need for statewide California field trials—as opposed to research—as the next important step needed to determine biochar’s efficacy in various agricultural settings. Dr. Beck asked for help with a specific project using mobile technology on a specific CalTrans clearing job. The term “field trials” as opposed to “research”, is an important differentiation when applying for CDFA grants, and this key tip was offered by the NRCS rep.
Dr. Beck outlined their current work with biochar, which they have been buying from Cool Planet and using in field trials. As one of the largest and most influential grape growers in the area they strongly feel that biochar use is potentially an important soil amendment and they fully supported additional field trials around the state. Peter’s presentation, which included an overview of available technologies, a sampling of current projects and initiatives statewide (specifically SBI-sponsored and conducted projects) was very well received and sparked many questions and a discussion that energized the room and visibly engaged all in attendance. Dr. Lehmann laid out the hard scientific evidence and benefits of biochar, while Jim Boyd made an effective plea for CDFA to take biochar much more seriously by taking the lead in supporting and advocating efforts to prove its efficacy within its statewide jurisdictions, and to help remove policy barriers to adoption. Mr. Boyd also asked for more integration and cooperation between the CDFA and the Placer County forest biomass plan that will be generating thousands of tons of biochar once their approved gasification facility comes on line.
Greg Stangl of Phoenix Energy put an exclamation point on Jim Boyd’s presentation by citing examples of the barriers he has and is facing in getting mid-sized projects permitted and connected to the grid in California, and he represented biochar producers in an engaging and very effective way. So this discussion was well rounded and very effective at establishing biochar as something the State needs to become more involved with both as a drought mitigation tool as well as for its many other positive attributes for agriculture.
Gloria Flora, patched in via GoToMeeting, also added an important point – without saying so explicitly - regarding California’s lagging behind the rest of the country and the EU in biochar research and field trials, and the opportunities that building a more robust program at UC Davis and elsewhere could bring. She effectively pointed out that given California’s reputation as a climate and agricultural leader it should be leading, not following, other states and countries in moving biochar into the mainstream.
Each presenter was requested to indicate what they would like from CDFA—what they were asking of CDFA—and at the end of the meeting Dr. Gunasekara summarized a number of these that he thought CDFA could support:
1) Organizing and sponsoring a California “symposium” on biochar sometime next year to include a wide range stakeholders. This could be focused at least partly on developing criteria for field trials as well as for promoting the Conservation Burn program.
2) To emphasize and advocate for IN-THE-FIELD ACTIONS as opposed to more academic white papers
3) To help us establish partnerships with UC Extension staff that will help us establish best-practices and get the word out to farmers
Other takeaways were:
1. There were many suggestions of additional potential funding sources for field trials that can be researched.
2. Panel procedures are such that meetings occur every other month. Amrith is responsible for pulling together notes from each meeting into minutes for the next meeting. Minutes are usually not posted until a few days before subsequent meetings, so things at the level of this Panel progress slowly. We should not expect immediate action or (necessarily) a working date for the Symposium any time soon.
3. In order to move our agenda along at the CDFA, we can and should work closely with Jim Boyd to assess follow up actions to this meeting.
Overall, Peter, Susan and I came away from the meeting excited and energized at what transpired, and this excitement was palpable in others in the room. This was by far SBI’s most important presentation to date with potentially the most impact, and Peter’s presentation was very well received. So thank you, Peter, for significantly moving the proverbial biochar ball down the field, and I personally feel 2015 will be a watershed year for biochar education and interest in many different sectors, with agriculture leading the way.
Raymond Baltar /Director/SBI