SBI receives P. G. & E “Power Your Community” Grant

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The Sonoma Biochar Initiative was recently awarded a $1000 “Power Your Community” grant from our local utility, P. G. & E. This money is being put to immediate use in helping us purchase a large quantity of biochar for local field trials in Sonoma and Napa counties. We sincerely thank P. G. & E. for helping us realize our goal of installing biochar demonstration plots to gather data on its effectiveness in local farm settings.

All Power Labs Tour

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On Monday 10/24 our Biochar Working Group, consisting of SBI members and Sonoma County agencies, traveled to All Power Labs in Berkeley to review their famous gasifier-generators. I attended a workshop there a year ago, and was impressed then with their new Power Pallet, a computer controlled gasifier tied to a 10 KW generator. An elegance of positive feedback, once fully cycling the 700C exhaust from the engine heats the pyrolysis chamber, heating the biomass and rending the carbon from the energy gasses, which are then filtered and cycled back across the hot char, both cleaning the gas and adding carbon, for cycling as fuel to the engine. A very small amount of char and ash remains. The ultimate sense of system efficiency is reflected in the total exhaust, being what appears to be only warm water vapor. APL is also known for the base unit of this, the GEK, or Gasifier Experimenters Kit. Up until the popularity of the Power Pallet focused their energies, they also had the BEK, or Biochar Experimenters Kit. They are down to their last, in house, BEK, somewhat dusty from inattention.

Now, a year later, they have a 20 KW Power Pallet. Several finished units waited with tags for far flung destinations, Mexico, Indonesia, Malaysia.  Out in the yard was the next prototype, a Godzilla among lizards, the 100 KW unit. They don’t call it Godzilla, but it fits, if only in a shipping container. It is project for the University of Minnesota, funded by DOE. One partner in the grant is Cummins Diesel, so that is the power plant. They will have to make some modifications to the process, as they usually work with a sparked engine, with visions of turbo-charged V8’s for round two. The entire package will be shipped, and active, in a 20′ shipping container. One quarter engine, one quarter gasifier, and one half biomass storage and handling. The scheme in all these units is ease of deployability.
So we were there not only to marvel at innovations in gasifiers, but to connect with and revive a sense of mission related to biochar. APL, especially founder Jim Mason, was intrigued by our efforts in Sonoma County, and the national presence the USBI conference will bring to the area. The sum of our meeting, extended by mutual interest, was that now was the time to take a closer, systemic, look at biochar production. And showing that innovative spirit again, they roughed out a design for a biochar maker, that just might be a mutual project. With all feeling jazzed at the possibilities for collaboration, we left with sense that, like organizing the conference, biochar is on its way, out west.
Ray Gallian

Governor Brown Signs the Renewable Energy Equity Act!

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The following newsflash from CalCan could have significant implications for the widespread installation of certain biochar production facilities in rural California:
On October 8, the Renewable Energy Equity Act (SB 489) became law in California. This CalCAN-sponsored bill makes it easier for farmers and ranchers to develop small-scale, distributed renewable energy projects by allowing them to easily and effectively connect to the grid. The Renewable Energy Equity Act will help California farmers and food processors lower their energy costs, produce homegrown clean, renewable energy and reduce our state’s greenhouse gas emissions.

We are deeply grateful for the leadership of the author, Senator Lois Wolk, and her very capable staff for understanding the importance of this bill for California farmers and for the state’s renewable energy goals. Two of CalCAN’s farmer advisors have been leaders on the bill – Russ Lester and Jenny Lester-Moffitt at Dixon Ridge Farms  have led the field with innovations in producing heat and electricity by gasifying walnut shells. Justin Malan (Ecoconsult) and Karen Mills (California Farm Bureau) also made this victory possible.

New England Biochar in the News

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) announced that $225,875 is being awarded to four entities in Hawaii through the Conservation Innovation Grant.  One of these is a biochar project involving SBI member Peter Hirst of New England Biochar.

Whispering Winds Bamboo <> Cooperative Corporation, an organic bamboo timber, teak and produce farm in Hana, Maui, was awarded funds to convert bamboo timber waste to biochar using a farm-scale Adam-Retort, of which New England Biochar is the exclusive American supplier.  The grant was made to demonstrate that appropriately sized farm based charcoal kilns can be cost effective, income generating and fertility enhancing to a farm operation. Total sequestered carbon will also be calculated to show how much carbon footprint offset is made by the adopted technology during the project term.

The New England Biochar Adam-Retort is the unit that SBI and others are hoping to bring to the Sonoma Valley to support similar enterprises here.

“We are pleased to provide this federal funding to help these innovative projects to help our farming community,” said Mr. Angel Figueroa, NRCS Director of the Pacific Islands Area.  “These new techniques can be adapted by others.”

Peter will be in Hawaii in January as a principle presenter at the Maui Aloha Aina Body & Soil Conference <> at Kumulani Farm in Olinda  and working with Whispering Winds on their project.

Before his arduous duty in the Islands, however, Peter will be visiting us here in late October and will be spending some time in the Bay Area before traveling to Chile to install an Adam-Retort for the Instituto de la Patagonia at Magellan University in Punta Arenas, Chile.

Letter from the Field

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The following, composed by New England Biochar partner Bob Wells, sums up that company’s approach to biochar education.


Marissa, a newly minted 2canologist at Shelburne Farms, working with NEBA* VP Jock Gill , has just lit about 4 pounds of softwood pellets in the 1G TLUD [Top Lit Up Draft] stove she has just built.   In about 75 minutes, this will produce about 1 pound of biochar suitable for experimenting



It has often occurred to me that our children are not only being left with the accumulating messes of previous generations but they are also being carefully trained to carry on the very patterns that have precipitated the crises that we now find ourselves as a planet facing. Then we throw them into the media quagmire of fear, lies, and confusion while expecting prozac and Aderall to help them sort it out.

People, and most especially young people, need hope. In reality they don’t have to look far to see hypocrisy in many forms, they have to close their eyes almost completely to avoid seeing violence, and all the while they are starving for the wisdom to even begin to search for solutions.

When I look in the mirror and discover that there is now more white than brown in my beard, I realize that it’s high time for me to stop whining about what has already come to pass and instead focus all that I can on making things better. That sounds good. But we all know that talk is cheap and the road to hell is paved… So the bigger part of my resolution may be to make sure that I spend more time getting my hands literally dirty doing positive things with young people (young people of all ages) than I spend in front of a glowing electronic screen of any kind.

I have been passionately learning about biochar for the last few years. When I say learning, I mean in any way possible. I read, listen, and search for information anywhere that I think I can find it. I also love to learn by doing, so I have made it, applied it, and experimented with it on my farm with some remarkable results. Everything I learned or tried caused me to become even more excited about the possibilities for this wonderful ancient/new technology.

The real eye opener for me was when my teenage daughter, who had heard me talking with people about biochar so many times, she suggested that I come to her high school and explain biochar to her “Green Club”. I said sure I’d love to, then later realized that I would be standing in front of a group of high school kids talking about dirt. You know these kids, they’re the group that gets bored with the latest $300 video game after two weeks and I’m supposed to explain to them about carbon? What had I gotten myself into? So while bracing myself against the possibility of putting some teens to sleep, I packed up some samples, made some very crude diagrams and went to talk to the Nauset High School Green Club.

Surprises seem to follow wherever biochar goes. By the end of my humble presentation, these kids were telling me that what I was telling them was so important that I really needed to talk to the Principle about presenting this to the whole school. They wanted to learn how to make it themselves, how and where to apply it, and, by the way, “When can we get started?” I then realized that the key element that I had brought to the classroom that day wasn’t carbon, but for these kids it was hope.

I guarantee that all 1000 kids in that school have heard about global warming and it’s promises of coming disasters. Most of them are aware of the threats of disease pandemic, tidal waves, asteroid collision, air and water pollution, rainforest destruction, fossil fuel depletion, STDs, terrorist attacks, nuclear warfare, and the end of the world coming in 2012. Is it any wonder that they (we) are depressed and distracted? But here before them was a real possible solution to the question “What should we do now?” represented by a small pile of dirty, black, crumbly stuff on the teacher’s desk.

Since then, one science teacher at the school has stepped up to the plate, taken over the Green Club, and plans to do some trials with her botany class both in the lab and in a small greenhouse that the school has. Together, we will design and carry out experiments using biochar. It seems to me that we need to find many more teachers and schools who would be willing to join in and work together to produce an ever growing body of data that isn’t just repeating the same old experiments that you and I did when we were in high school, but, instead, let’s actually give the kids a chance to contribute to new knowledge – even if it’s on some tiny level. (Does biochar make Cape Cod beach plumbs grow better?) Again, I think that they need to be provided with the opportunity to be part of a solution, instead of just the inheritors of old unsolved problems.

The picture of you with the young lady next to the t-lud warms my heart because I can see that I’m not the only one thinking this way. I think that one of the most positive things that the newly formed NEBA could do is to encourage or provide simple experimental formats for individuals, farmers, or schools to use in order to explore the possibilities of biochar. NEBA could then also provide a simple, searchable data base that people could report into or refer to. I realize that the IBI is already doing this on a world wide scale, but what I long for is something that is more approachable for us common folk.

I’d appreciate any thoughts or connections you might give me on these topics.

Keep up the good work.

Bob Wells
Redberry Farm
New England Biochar LLC

Bob Wells is the owner of Redberry Farm in Eastham, Massachusetts, where he practices carbon-negative, organic farming, rebuilding depleted Cape Cod soil with biochar. He is also a principal of New England Biochar.

The biochar gasifier pictured above , the 1G TLUD, is the creation of Dr. Hugh McLaughlin, Director of Biocarbon Research at Alterna Biocarbon, NEBA board member and Director of the Northeast Research and Demonstration Initiative, a project of the Northeast Biochar Association. Plans for building your own 1G are available at

*”NEBA”  the Northeast Biochar Association, is about to be relaunched as Biochar Northeast.

Dr. Vandana Shiva

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Dr. Vandana Shiva at Dominican University of California by Raymond Baltar


I attended a talk recently at Dominican University of California by the amazing Dr. Vandana Shiva, the Indian anti-GMO, seed-saver extraordinaire. She has been fighting the attempted takeover of our worldwide food system for 30 years by various corporate, anti-diversity interests including biotech giants Monsanto, Cargill and others, and her speech was both frightening as well as inspiring. Among many other accomplishments Dr. Shiva has written the forward to an excellent primer on biochar called The Biochar Solution, by Albert Bates, which I highly recommend. Bates is another amazing individual who has been at the forefront of biochar research and field trials in recent years, and he has been a member of The Farm intentional community in Tennessee since 1972.

Farm Forum in Sonoma

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Hosted by the girl and the fig family of restaurants, owner Sondra Bernstein and executive chef John Toulze at their elegant Estate restaurant, this was the third Farm Forum and my first. Always with a larger mission of supporting improvements and developments of the local food system, this month honored Luther Burbank for his reverence of Sonoma as a special place and his ability to “coax magic out of the earth”.  Organized by Marcy Smothers and Clark Wolf, speakers included Erin Sheffield of Luther Burbank’s Experiment Farm, Gold Ridge (Not, we were told, Experimental Farm) were Luther bred his famous Shasta Daisy and Santa Rosa Plum.

Local food advocate and writer, Kathleen Hill, cheered the crowd with the breadth of the Sonoma School Garden Project, and the added support of local chefs planning to teach healthy cooking with its produce. She was thrilled to learn that Gold Ridge Farm will be donating Some of Luther Burbank’s special trees to the effort.

Mining the intellectual capital for your garden was Kristee Rosendahl, creator of, a web tool as handy a a shovel for those pesky garden questions. I asked her to consider biochar in her bag of garden tricks, and to put her mind to a similarly useful tool to help mind our carbon and build some breathing room.

Innovation is yet to be a wine label, but is still evident in the efforts of  Whole Vine/ Sonomaceuticals founder Peggy Firth. Whole Vine is looking at the higher value stream of materials usually wasted, seeds and skins. Captured quickly, varietal grape seed oil, full of flavor and nutrients, untouched by chemical solvents, are extracted from the fresh seeds. The remnant of the seed is desirable as a high protein, high fiber, gluten free  flour. (Somewhere, there are cookies!!)   The stable red color from the skins is used as a natural food coloring and antioxident.

Cheesemonger Sheana Davis of Epicurean Connection, spoke of her own Delice De La Valle soft cheese, still the ranking soft cheese after two years! Her many years of promoting artisan cheeses and connecting them with chefs from Sonoma to New Orleans, has surely left a trail of educated palates.

The healing power of vegetables is being tested in a medical trial under the “Veggie Rx” plan by SAVOR doctor, Rachael Friedman, MD and her collegues.

A quiet conflict nearly emerged when Yannick Phillips of the Sonoma Valley Grange was followed shortly by egg farmer Arnie Rieble. Yannick spoke of the history and current relevance of the Grange in support of local food and larger policy issues at the State level. She forgot to mention the Grange motto “Patrons of Husbandry”, and her role as the State Grange Legislative Advocate, so watch out Sacramento. She is also a powerful opponent of GMO crops, so she grimaced ever so slightly when Arnie, proudly self described Dinosaur-farmer, explained how we need to get over our fear of GMO, saying it was no different than any breeding he had done for his hens. He asserted no difference with the works of Luther Burbank himself. Not to editorialize too deeply on the matter, But neither Luthur nor Arnie ever had the chance play matchmaker between a chicken and a plum, or corn and a roundup. That aside, Arnie’s effort to breed (yes- chicken to chicken) for increased production while improving health using probiotics and eschewing antibiotics won loud praise. A cuddly dinosaur, indeed, but Arnie, “Patrons of Husbandry” should never be “Patrons of Cut-and-Paste”.

KSRO Radio host Steve Garner has been getting the local food word out for over 25 years, sharing what’s new on his gardening and cooking shows.

Explaining St. Francis Winery’s commitment to sustainability, President and CEO Chris Silva, noted the prominent road frontage organic garden, drawing in patrons for the daily wine and fresh picked food pairing.

Now that we’ve heard, we won’t hold it against him, but our new Sonoma County Consulting Agricultural Commissioner Dave Whitman is from Napa. What is truly special about Sonoma, he assured, as compared to [somewhare else] is the diversity of our agriculture, and in diversity is strength. To which I say, welcome, Dave!

Alerting the crowd to the table of local vittles, was host John Toulze, also sharing girl and the fig’s commitment to locality and seasonality, fresh and flavorful. Yes, I am now a devotee of their squash pizza.

I am also now a fan of this effort to support local farms and local food. I hope to add the voice of the Sonoma Biochar Initiative, saying that in saving ourselves by using biochar for carbon sequestration, we benefit local agriculture by building soils, and filtering water. Nose around the rest of this website for more.

Ray Gallian- Chief Biochar Advocate.



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