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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture

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Fledgling Biochar Company Makes it Better, Faster, Cheaper to Build Healthy Soil

February 18, 2013 |

Soil is not just a growing medium; it is an ecosystem whose health affects the yield and taste of produce. “Synthetic fertilizer increases [crop] yield,” says J.D. Tovey, chief marketing officer of Carbon Cultures, “but it’s artificial. Biochar is about increasing the health of the soil.” And that is the mission of Carbon Cultures: to build healthy soils, healthy forests, and healthy people through the use of biochar.

Biochar is essentially a charcoal that is created by the burning of biomass at low temperatures, and its use as a soil amendment has a long history. Long-time farmers know what biochar is, Tovey says. “My grandfather would talk about it,” but people new to farming aren’t necessarily aware of biochar and its benefits. A famous example of a biochar-amended soil is the Terra Preta soil found in the Amazon Basin. This soil’s creation by humans occurred between 450 BC and AD 950, and centuries later, it is still a fertile soil, demonstrating that “biochar doesn’t lose its effectiveness,” Tovey says, and contributes to the long-term fertility of soil.

A portable kiln developed by Carbon Cultures for the production of Biochar. Photo Credit: Carbon Cultures.

Carbon Cultures owes its beginnings to the National Science Foundation’s Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) Bioresource-based Energy for Sustainable Societies program based at the University of Washington. The program’s purpose is to train students on how to balance the social, technological, and environmental aspects of sustainable energy. From a cohort of 14 students, 3 now remain committed to building a sustainable biochar business: Jenny Knoth, CEO; Ken Faires, CTO; and J.D. Tovey, CMO. The first conversation about the technology occurred in summer 2010, Tovey recalls, and in January 2012, Carbon Cultures was formed.

The partners saw a unique opportunity to develop an efficient process for producing large volumes of biochar that could be sold at a reasonable price. “There’s a lot of people that do it [produce biochar] in small amounts, but it’s expensive,” Tovey says.

“We found a way to make it better, faster, cheaper.” This is accomplished by using portable kilns that can be taken directly to the slash pile. The kiln looks like a tent when its laminate stainless steel mesh foil panels are set up around the woody biomass. The simplicity of the design masks its complexity though. “It looks simple, but it’s not,” says Tovey. It took many versions to develop the model currently in use.

The kilns come in sizes of 4, 6, and 7 feet and can accommodate woody debris that is 3-5” in diameter. Depending upon how large and wet the wood is, 1,000 lbs. of wood can be reduced to roughly 300 lbs. of biochar in 1.5-2 hours. Carbon Cultures’ production costs are about half of their competitors, according to Tovey, and they are nearing their goal of $1,000 a ton for large orders. To properly amend a large volume of soil, 2-4 tons per acre are needed. When compared against the fertilizer cost of $100-$180 per acre, the use of biochar is greeted with skepticism due to the large up-front costs. Tovey admits that farmers find it “hard to stomach that large amount [of cost], especially if their neighbors aren’t doing it.”

To address this skepticism, Carbon Cultures is actively seeking to develop partnerships to create biochar-amended demonstration plots to showcase its benefits. One partnership that will be underway shortly is with the Center for Urban Horticulture at the University of Washington.

As Knoth works to develop the large-scale partnerships, Tovey spends most weekends at the University District Farmers Market engaging in educational outreach to backyard gardeners and local organic farmers about biochar’s benefits. Though extension offices in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington have posted extensive information available about biochar, many people are still unaware about this product, Tovey says. Biochar “helps mediate the texture of soil” and increases its water and nutrient holding capacity, but the benefit that Tovey finds “the most exciting” is the creation of living spaces for bacteria and mycorrhizal fungi that contribute to healthy soils and plants and increased productivity.

Though most of Carbon Culture’s customers are shoppers at the U District Farmers Market, Tovey is working to expand the sale of their product to local nurseries and garden centers. A 4 lb. costs $10, and unlike fertilizer that has to be reapplied each year, the purchase of biochar is a one-time cost spread across the soil’s life. And reapplying biochar isn’t needed for 10-20 years depending upon how actively the soil is being used and the volume needed is a fraction of the original application.

Though the company is still funded by grants, Tovey does see the company becoming profitable in the near future. Carbon Cultures is capable of scaling to generating tons of biochar quickly once customers begin placing those orders, but we are at the “chicken and egg part” of the business model, he says. “We can’t flood the market with cheap biochar because we won’t make a profit, yet we can’t charge too much because then the market won’t develop.” Tovey also adds that while farmers are used to investing in new machinery, Carbon Cultures has to prove to them that making an investment in the soil is just as worthwhile and profitable.

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