Del. Farmers Hear About Emerging Soil Additive

7/20/2013 7:00 AM
By Michael Short Delaware Correspondent

SMYRNA, Del. — Delaware State University’s Cooperative Extension Program hosted a small group of farmers recently for a soil management workshop.

About 20 farmers showed up to the June 26 workshop to learn ways to improve productivity and become better stewards of the rich Delaware soils. They heard about an emerging technology known as biochar, a technology that supporters say has almost unlimited potential to improve soils.

At its most basic level, biochar is made by taking poultry litter, manure, grass, weeds, sawdust or almost any organic material and heating it at high temperatures with little or no oxygen. The result of this “cooking” is a charcoal-like material that adds nutrients to the soil, but is longer lasting and much more stable than traditional fertilizers.

Graduate student Uuganbayer Buyantogtokh told the audience that biochar doesn’t runoff easily like traditional fertilizers, which in many cases translates to a significant impact on water quality.

Instead, she said it’s a long-lasting soil additive that releases nutrients slowly while reducing soil compaction and creating a more porous soil which can hold water better.

It’s an old technology that has been used for centuries, but is now finding new favor, according to Jeff Wallin, the co-founder of The Biochar Company located in Berwyn, Pa.

“It’s an emerging technology,” Wallin said.

The Biochar Company’s website describes biochar as “revolutionizing dirt”. Wallin says that biochar will be to this century what compost was to the last century.

He describes biochar as a more permanent and organic method to improve soil than traditional fertilizers. It is currently being used in a trial study at Longwood Gardens in southern Pennsylvania. It can also be made from almost any organic material.

“It can be made from almost anything,” he said.

Wallin suggests that 5 percent biochar in the top few inches of soil may be ideal for growing conditions. That, however, can be a large and costly investment that amounts to a major earthmoving operation.

He suggested adding biochar a little bit at a time to soil to reduce the cost and make the operation more manageable.

“All biochar is not the same,” he said, emphasizing that the material should only be bought from a reputable company which manufactures for the single purpose of being a soil additive.

For those with doubts, he offers the following advice: “Test first and trust later. Try it once and see if it works for you. Buy a bag and try it on your garden.”

In addition to improving soil, he said biochar removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by holding it in the soil for long periods of time, making this an environmentally sound approach with potentially good ramifications for the environment.

For more information on Wallin’s business, go to

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