Category Archives: Carbon & Soil Organic Matter

Building Better Biochar Breakthroughs: A Roadmap for Biochar Research

By Embrey Bronstad, Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, Washington State University

What is the first thing you think when you hear “Black Gold”? Is it the theme song for the Beverly Hillbillies? A baritone “Texas Tea”? Well, some people think “BIOCHAR!”

Hand holding a handful of dark, soil-like substance

A climate and farming boon: Biochar! Photo: Flickr user mavnjess under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Now, if you are reading this article, you probably know what biochar is. You have probably heard about its benefits when integrated with compost or used in dairy lagoons. A clear opportunity exists for the implementation of biochar technology to mitigate climate change through its ability to sequester carbon. Indeed, a recent estimate suggests that implementation of biochar at scale in Washington State could offset between 8 and 19% of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions (Amonette 2021a). Application of biochar to agricultural soils may also help producers adapt to climate change by improving soil water-holding capacity in settings where water resources during the growing season are expected to become scarcer. Also, by enhancing formation of soil organic matter, these amendments would increase soil health and resilience, thereby helping to ensure continued high levels of agricultural production as the climate changes. In addition to these climatological and agricultural benefits, biochar has great potential to address wildfire risk, improve forest health, restore ecosystem services, and revitalize rural economies (Amonette et al., 2021b).

Despite a burgeoning library of research into biochar over the last two decades, there remain significant knowledge gaps, Continue reading

Get out the Map! A Soil Health Roadmap for Washington

By Karen Hills, Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, Washington State University

Two hands holding a handful of dark soil

Maintaining and improving soil health can result in benefits both on- and off-farm. Photo: Chad Kruger.

Soil has been called “the living skin of the Earth.” The effort to maintain the health of this “living skin” in Washington got a boost in 2021 when the State Legislature passed the Washington Soil Health Initiative with a $2.1 million annual allocation (half of which goes to Washington State University). Washington State is just one of many states in the U.S. where interest in soil health has resulted in initiatives focused on maintaining soil health on working lands, but, notably, no other state’s soil health initiative is investing as much into research as Washington’s. Soil health is defined by the USDA NRCS as “…the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans.” Soil health is often described as a “win-win” with positive outcomes both on-farm and off-farm. For example, on-farm benefits include improved soil tilth, nutrient cycling, water holding capacity, and disease suppression. Off-farm benefits include reduced soil erosion and improved water quality, as well as reducing the impact on our climate, most directly through carbon sequestration.

The win-win nature of soil health allowed the Washington Soil Health Initiative to gain support from commodity groups in Washington as well as environmental organizations. Continue reading

Here’s the Dirt on Carbon Sequestration Potential in Cropland Soils

By Nicole Bell, Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, Washington State University

Aerial view of green and dry center pivot circles with the Columbia River in the background

Soils with carbon sequestration potential can include irrigated croplands in the Columbia River Basin. Photo: Doug Wilson/USDA ARS

In this era with record-setting temperatures multiple years in a row, scientists are looking for methods to sequester carbon to slow the process of climate change. Agriculture plays a key role in not just the global economy, but also the global carbon cycle: cropland soils have the potential to be either sinks or sources of greenhouse gases, notably carbon dioxide. The conversion of native ecosystems to cropland agriculture has resulted in enormous carbon losses, estimated to be between 20-70% of the original carbon stored in native soils in the US. The Pacific Northwest is an agricultural powerhouse: in 2017, Washington, Idaho, and Oregon produced $22 billion in agricultural production on over 42 million acres. That’s a lot of soil. I recently read a white paper by Georgine Yorgey and colleagues at Washington State University titled “Carbon sequestration potential in cropland soils in the inland Pacific Northwest: Knowledge and gaps,” that summarizes research on carbon sequestration in the inland Northwest. It turns out that it is not a one-size-fits-all answer: the potential of certain croplands to either release or sequester carbon depends on climate, the cropping system, the soil type, and other factors. Fortunately, though, some soils do have great carbon sequestration potential. Continue reading

Climate Friendly Farming Policy Considerations for the Inland Pacific Northwest

By Doug Finkelnburg, Area Extension Educator – Dryland Cropping Systems, University of Idaho Extension

Quote: America’s farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners have an important role to play in combating the climate crisis and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, by sequestering carbon in soils, grasses, trees, and other vegetation and sourcing sustainable bioproducts and fuels.”  - President Biden’s Executive Order on  Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad

https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/01/27/executive-order-on-tackling-the-climate-crisis-at-home-and-abroad/

Efforts are underway at the federal level to combat climate change on the agriculture front. USDA has just finished a “listening period” to help develop and refine actions they may implement to accomplish this. Just what those actions may be and what effects they may have on the day-to-day operation of Pacific Northwest farmers is an understandable cause of some uncertainty and trepidation.

Farmer and NRCS soil conservationist looking at a shovelful of soil in a harvested wheat field with standing residue

No-till farming near The Dalles, Oregon, a practice to improve soil health to increase water infiltration and retention, that also sequesters carbon. Photo: NRCS/Ron Nichols under CC BY-ND 2.0.

Recently I spoke with a farmers’ coop manager who asked what programs or policies are likely to be put into effect and whether long time direct-seeders would stand to benefit or lose out. Our discussion (summarized and edited) highlights a few important questions: “If the greatest gains in carbon sequestration are going to be made in the most organic matter-depleted fields, how will those who have already stockpiled organic mater to near a maximum point benefit?” and, “Will there need to be a system of soil carbon auditing or compliance enforcement?” and the inevitable big one, “Inland Pacific Northwest agriculture is very different from Midwest agriculture, will these new policies unfairly benefit some farmers over others?” Continue reading

Developing Biochar Markets in the Pacific Northwest

By Embrey Bronstad

This is part of a series highlighting work by Washington State University (WSU) researchers through the Waste to Fuels Technology Partnership between the Department of Ecology and WSU during the 2017-2019 biennium. This partnership advances targeted applied research and extension on emerging technologies for managing residual organic matter.

Biochar has the potential to provide a win-win for climate, soils, and forest health. Previous posts on AgClimate.net have discussed the effects of integrating biochar with composting facilities, engineering biochars for specific applications, and potential for biochar use in Washington to draw down carbon dioxide. The Pacific Northwest is particularly suited for a supporting a thriving biochar industry, both because of the ubiquity of waste woody biomass as a biochar production feedstock and the extensive agricultural acreage that could benefit from biochar application. Many researchers in the region have developed a library of evidence documenting the numerous benefits of biochar use.  So why aren’t more people producing and using it?

To increase adoption of any product, more than just the scientific benefits must be taken into consideration.  Markets have to be developed, which means knowing the minimum selling price at which biochar can be produced and the maximum purchase price potential buyers are willing to pay.  It also helps to know what the optimum application is for maximum return, for example, when are crop yields improved enough to justify the cost of putting biochar on the field?

The structure of the facility (left) and a front loader by a mound of chipped wood

Figure 1. A biomass power plant that has been modified for biochar production uses forest residues from areas of high fire hazard areas as feedstock. Photos: Josiah Hunt.

To this end, researchers from Washington State University sought to evaluate the potential market for biochar in the Pacific Northwest using techno-economic analyses that coupled both biochar production costs and agricultural returns for a number of crops. Continue reading

Municipal Compost Use in Agriculture: A Question of Cost and Value

By Karen Hills

This is part of a series highlighting work by Washington State University (WSU) researchers through the Waste to Fuels Technology Partnership between the Department of Ecology and WSU during the 2017-2019 biennium. This partnership advances targeted applied research and extension on emerging technologies for managing residual organic matter.

 

Pile of organic material surrounded by earth-looking compost piles

Figure 1. Composting organic waste diverts this material from landfills and yields a product that improves soil properties. Photo: DVO, Inc.

Composting rather than landfilling organic waste, such as food waste and yard trimmings, has several benefits from a climate perspective. A recent study in Washington concluded that composting organic waste likely decreases greenhouse gas emissions from organic waste compared to landfilling (Jobson and Khosravi, 2019). Other benefits of composting organic waste include saving space in landfills, and producing a valuable organic product that can improve soil properties when applied to the landscape.

The expansion of municipal composting programs has led to an increased supply of compost in many areas, including around Seattle, Washington. Agriculture could provide an outlet for large volumes of this compost. However, despite the increased supply of municipal compost, the interest from farmers in using it seems to have lagged. I was part of a project team at Washington State University that drilled into this question further, particularly the potential value of compost in agriculture. Continue reading

Boutique Biochars: Exploring Engineering Strategies to Increase Phosphate Adsorption

By Karen Hills

This is part of a series highlighting work by Washington State University (WSU) researchers through the Waste to Fuels Technology Partnership between the Department of Ecology and WSU during the 2017-2019 biennium.

Researcher in lab.

Figure 1. Michael Ayiania is a Postdoctoral Researcher working on approaches to engineering biochars at Washington State University. Photo: R. Esquivel-Garcia.

Biochar is produced by pyrolysis of woody (technically, lignocellulosic) materials. By controlling the conditions under which it is produced, researchers can engineer biochar to be more effective for particular purposes. In previous articles, I explored work looking at the potential for biochar to draw down atmospheric carbon dioxide and increase water holding capacity in soils. Michael Aniayia (Figure 1) and his colleagues in the lab of Dr. Manuel Garcia-Perez at Washington State University, engineered biochar for a specific purpose – adsorbing phosphate, a nutrient that, because it is also common in wastewater and manure, can pollute waterways. Aniayia’s objective was to evaluate strategies for producing biochar in order to improve its ability to remove phosphate. Continue reading

Check it Out: Can Biochar Be Used for Carbon Dioxide Drawdown in Washington State?

By Karen Hills

Bag full of biochar, a black gravelly material

Figure 1. Biochar has the potential to improve agricultural soils and sequester carbon. Source: USDAgov, licensed under CC PDM 1.0.

This is part of a series highlighting work by Washington State University (WSU) researchers through the Waste to Fuels Technology Partnership between the Department of Ecology and WSU during the 2017-2019 biennium.

In a recent study, Jim Amonette at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Washington State University Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources developed an improved method to estimate the technical potential for biochar (Figure 1)—made from forestry residues and waste wood (Figure 2) and applied to agricultural soils in Washington State—to store carbon, drawing down atmospheric carbon (C) and contributing to mitigating climate change. Amonette selected twenty-six counties in Washington State for application of this improved method (Figure 3). For each county, Amonette developed seven biomass feedstock and biochar process scenarios including one for waste wood harvested from municipal solid waste alone, and six for waste wood combined with forestry residues from timber harvesting operations. The research generated results for each of the 26 counties. Continue reading

Check it out: New Resource on Cropland Soils’ Capacity to Store Carbon Through Improved Management

By Georgine Yorgey

Field of recently ploughed soil

The question “How much additional carbon could cropland soils store through improved management?” led to a new resource being developed. Photo: Leslie Michael.

When you work at a land grant university, people sometimes reach out to you with questions.  I love this aspect of my job, as it often gives me a chance to bridge the divide between research and the real world.  In 2019, one of the questions I got most often was “How much additional carbon could cropland soils store through improved management?”

Over the years, we had already worked to gather the available evidence from across the Pacific Northwest region and help managers interpret that evidence.  But these questions provided us an excuse to re-visit the question. Working with colleagues from Washington State University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources and the Department of Biological Systems Engineering, we prepared a white paper summarizing the existing experimental and modeling evidence relating to the carbon sequestration potential of cropland soils in the Pacific Northwest. Continue reading

Exploring the Frontier of Improved Soil Health in Potato Production in the Columbia Basin

By Athena Loos, Field Representative, McCain FoodsText linking soil health and climate change, and link to a previous article on the topic

During the 3.5 years that I have worked with growers in my role as a Field Representative with McCain Foods, I have met numerous growers who are playing an active role in exploring the biological component of soil health. (Growers generally have a good understanding of the chemical and physical characteristics of our soils.) One of my graduate projects was focused on soil health in the Columbia Basin, which allowed me to gain knowledge on this topic and have these discussions with growers. Farmers essentially are among the most committed environmentalists. The last thing they want to do is ruin the soil they depend on for their livelihood. If you ask around the Basin, you will find that land has been passed on through generations. This is a big motivation for growers to improve soil health; soil is a bank account for future generations.

Continue reading