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Moving forward: From dead timber to agricultural amendment

Biochar might be new economic development resource

Could Plumas and Lassen counties become new production sources for biochar?

Among other uses, biochar is an agricultural soil amendment made from wood.

Bringing biochar production to the area is a notion Roger Diefendorf, executive director of the Plumas County Community Development Commission, introduced to Plumas County Supervisors serving as CDC Board of Commissioners on Tuesday, Feb. 19.

A former member of a board of directors for a biochar production company, Diefendorf explained he has a considerable understanding of the production and still maintains an interest in it.

While at a recent sustainable farming conference in Grass Valley, Diefendorf said he became acquainted with a representative of another biochar company. That representative told Diefendorf they are looking for new resources. “We have an awful lot of dead trees,” Diefendorf reminded the board.

Diefendorf sees this potential as an economic development opportunity for the area.

With his own connections with biochar industries and the new contact, he said he is seeing what might develop.

What is biochar?

Diefendorf described biochar as an interesting product. It’s essentially charcoal created in the absence of oxygen. In an agricultural application it reduces water usage because it retains moisture, sequesters carbon and contributes to plant growth.

In creating the product a process called pyrolysis is used. This is when organic materials, such as wood, are chemically decomposed at elevated temperatures in the absence of oxygen. According to one company, the process typically happens at temperatures above 430 degrees Centigrade or 800 degrees Fahrenheit and under pressure. “It simultaneously involves the change of physical phase and chemical composition, and is an irreversible process.”

Biochar is a soil amendment and is considered a specialized form of charcoal suitable for use in the soil and in the production of plants. The product can be created from wood, plant matter, including coconut shells, and even manure.

In the process of creating biochar, gas or oil is produced and can be used as clean energy, according to a biochar feature in Western Farm Press. Biochar is the product that is left behind. “The production process essentially concentrates carbon that would have been released back into the atmosphere as the plant or manure decays, therefore reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

There are different processes for creating biochar that can react differently to various kinds of soil.

Because biochar is very porous it retains moisture and nutrients. When plants are grown with the amendment their roots access the water and nutrients.

In 2006, an International Biochar Initiative was formed at the World Soil Science Congress.

In 2012, the University of California, Davis launched a long term experimental research project at the Agricultural Sustainability Institute at Russell Ranch, a 300-acre facility dedicated to dry-land farming.

Discussion

Supervisor/Commissioner Lori Simpson asked Diefendorf if he was considering timber sources on public or private lands?

“When you deal with the federal government it’s a whole nother ball game,” she noted.

Diefendorf said as a former director with a biochar company, they had looked at resources in Lassen and Plumas counties. He added that the Tahoe National Forest has also been discussed.

Simpson said that she was hearing there had been a lot of talk concerning biochar, but she wanted to know if there were any results. She added that as a supervisor she has a lot of experience with federal government projects and little happens. “I’ve got 10 years of this, of nothing happening. I’m just going to say this, I don’t care anymore.”

Diefendorf said that the private company he was involved with was looking to go public, but that didn’t happen. He said there was an investment banker involved in that company and he could possibly raise “5, 6, 7 million dollars.”

“It’s just getting stuff done,” Simpson said. She’s skeptical when it comes to working with a big bureaucracy.

Diefendorf said he didn’t know if a company would be interested in public or private land for its wood sources. There is little private land in either Lassen or Plumas counties. The federal government under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s USFS and Bureau of Land Management hold much of the land.

Simpson ultimately suggested that Diefendorf work with Supervisors/Commissioners Sherrie Thrall and Jeff Engel to start working with those in the biochar industry.

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