Scientist promotes idea of soil amendment

Jan Shepel


For licensed soil scientist and geologist Noel Anderson, the process of using biochar to amend soils is a way to “rebalance the checkbook on carbon and water” – it’s an account that humans have “overdrawn” for generations. Biochar - charcoal produced from plant materials – can be used to amend the soil and also to remove carbon from the atmosphere.

Calling it the “inverse of a coal mine” he explains that biochar is the process that Nature has been using for thousands of years to improve and amend prairie soils. In Iowa and central Illinois, where the soils are reputed to be some of the best in the world, the process went on for centuries.

“There are many ways to distill this idea into a bumper sticker,” he said. “For example, biochar - less CO2, cleaner water.”

Anderson is especially enthusiastic about using biochar on the Central Sands of Wisconsin – a vast area that is known for its light soil, use of irrigation and prodigious production of potatoes, vegetables and other crops. He hopes he can spread the idea like Johnny Appleseed to others and take the idea to the next level.

There are currently international initiatives to promote the use of biochar.

The Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association recently invited Anderson to speak to them about biochar, and how it can be used to improve the kinds of soils that are most often used for their particular production methods.

Anderson believes that with the use of Wisconsin’s plant biomass resources – for example - trees that are felled by storms or brush that is left over from tree harvesting – that the use of biochar can start to change the face of Wisconsin. “My hope is that we can create economic development, making Wisconsin a carbon leader in the country.”

The idea of using biochar as a soil amendment is not the same as putting ash into the soil, as some have done. That process, he says, destroys cellulose channels. Instead, using wood that has been charred retains the channels that carried fluid and nutrients up the tree when it was alive and allows those channels to serve the microbes in the soil.

The product he showed to the growers at their meeting in Plover “looks like some wood you threw in the campfire,” he said. “But introducing organic carbon into the soil profile starts a chain of events.” He believes Wisconsin’s Central Sands are one of the best places to use this process.

While applying manure in various forms provides nutrients, Anderson maintains that using the “charcoalized” wood as a soil amendment can begin a cycle of improvement in the soil that will take time, but which can last for decades.

“It’s not a quick fix or a silver bullet but it can change things to remedy the imbalances in the soil,” he said. As it improves the soil it will also bring with it an improvement in water management, he adds. “Every agricultural product is a carbon product – farmers are really carbon and water cycle managers,” he adds. “Everything about agriculture is about managing something.”

Anderson says he’s absolutely convinced that in the future, farmers will think about things the way he does. He talks to as many farmers as he can to sow the idea of biochar and its use as a soil amendment. “It’s a long-term process but I want this to happen.”

He even thinks biochar can be used practically with precision-farming techniques – which would mean applying more of the biochar soil amendment in areas that have been pre-determined to have the greater need for the material.

If agriculture takes action, he said, it can “forestall onerous environmental consequences and regulations.”

Amazon inspiration

The idea for amending the soil with charcoal isn’t new. Today’s scientists get their inspiration from the “Terra Preta” soils in the Amazon basin, where 2,500 years ago or more, native farmers amended their soils with burned wood. (Some have theorized that the charcoal was used to sanitize human waste and then both were incorporated into the soil.) The Amazonian farmers used this practice for hundreds of years, Anderson said.

In that region of Brazil known for its fairly poor soils, the Terra Preta plots remain fertile to this day, even without the application of additional fertilizers.

Anderson notes that as a soil amendment, biochar works best when it is “charged” by composting it with other organic materials. He has been in contact with several private groups including the Midwest Food Processors on how to move forward with biochar. Talks are also underway with the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Hancock Experiment Station and the Wisconsin Geologic Survey to do a pilot study on biochar.

Anderson grew up in Rockford, IL and earned a degree in Soil Science at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, where he also studied botany and chemistry. He then earned a Masters in geology and worked toward a PhD. He mapped 135,000 acres in the Indiana soil survey program, working with Purdue University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

He developed a manual for standardizing aquifer descriptions that was adopted by the Indiana Legislature and supervised that state’s Hazardous Waste Hydrogeologists. Later, he worked for one of the world’s largest hydrogeology firms Geraghty and Miller, now Arcadis. He has more than two decades’ experience as a professional geologist and soil scientist.

In 1998 he founded his own consulting firm, Madison Information Systems and Analysis, LLC (Madisan) and in 2005 began to focus on agriculture, helping farmers develop greater vision for agricultural management.

When he talks to farm groups, he mentions the way that soil, water, biology and chemistry interact to create an interface where “agriculture happens.” Cation exchange in the soil, he explains, can be vastly improved with the introduction of biochar into very sandy soils.

Trove of fuel stocks

Wisconsin is a treasure trove of materials that could be used to create the biochar necessary to improve soils – switchgrass in the southwestern area of the state, corn stover in many parts of the state and woody crops in the north. In addition, he points to downed trees in many urban areas that could be turned into biochar.

One of the first limitations is having enough biomass to get started, but he doesn’t think that’s a problem in Wisconsin.

“There are many kinds of waste that could be turned into biochar -- forestry waste, paper, cardboard, wood pallets, construction waste. It can be blended with manure or food processing waste and select municipal waste,” which will make it an even better soil amendment, he told the grower’s group.

“We’ve got huge amounts of waste that we could re-define as products for this process of water and carbon rebalancing for Wisconsin. There are opportunities for using what we are now wasting,” he said.

He notes that biochar made from different fuel stocks like prairie grass is different from that which would come from trees. The process of using biochar as a soil amendment is taking hold in areas of Europe and he feels the Central Sands in Wisconsin would be a great place to use it. “That’s where it would provide the greatest bang for the buck.”

Phased-in approach

Anderson favors a phased-in approach in areas of greatest need and especially those areas where water extraction is an issue. The addition of biochar increases soil carbon levels, increases the fertilizer use efficiency and water-holding capacity, improves soil conditions for soil life forms, can increase the pH and improve water quality.

He explains that the whole idea of biochar is not a “quick fix” but adds, “I have not talked to anyone yet who thinks this is a dumb idea.”

In New Zealand there is a close collaboration between the forestry industry and agriculture to improve soils through biochar use. There, he adds, it is viewed as infrastructure improvement.

In addition to all the benefits that will accrue to the soils, Anderson says that the use of biochar recognizes a more holistic view of carbon and water. “It’s a way to replenish the carbon and water system.”

A few years back the term “carbon sequestration” was a buzzword and this process would do that. “Limitations will rapidly come upon farmers,” he said, either in the form of a resource that rebels or regulations that are put in place. “That’s the lesson of this whole thing is balancing.

“The Earth bats last and it tends to win,” he adds.

Noel Anderson, a licensed soil scientist and geologist, believes that small bits of charcoal, like those he’s holding here – called biochar -- can have a big impact on improving Wisconsin soils. He speaks to grower’s groups whenever he can to promote the idea of carbon balancing.