DREW — Orange flames wrapped around layers of smoking black and gray pieces of wood that were once small trees crowding a remote section of the Umpqua National Forest. Wildland firefighters with the U.S. Forest Service stood in a clearing, breaking up the charcoal inside a kiln before piling on more logs and sticks.
Umpqua Biochar Education Team, a committee of the South Umpqua Rural Community Partnership, partnered with the Umpqua National Forest Tiller Ranger District to transform 40 piles of logging slash into biochar, a form of charcoal used in soil to hold in nutrients and moisture.
Though the team’s biochar production has often gone toward small gardens, this was its first large-scale project to be used for agriculture.
At the end of the day, the crews poured buckets of water into the sizzling kilns to mix it in and cool off the smoldering char. Once the product had cooled, the crews piled it into white plastic bags to be shipped to small farms in Douglas, Jackson and Josephine counties.
WINCHESTER — About 30 people gathered around a kiln at a Biochar Expo held at Umpqua Communi…
“If treated properly, biochar makes an excellent soil amendment and fills a number of other purposes, including holding carbon in soil,” said Don Morrison, a retired Forest Service soil scientist working with UBET. “We’re taking carbon and instead of putting it in the atmosphere we’re putting it into the soil.”
Carbon released into the atmosphere can contribute to climate change, so Morrison said it’s important to harness it back into the soil.
“Agricultural soils worldwide have lost 50 percent of their carbon in the last 75 years,” added Kelpie Wilson of Wilson Biochar Associates. “This is a way of putting carbon back into the soil. Carbon that will stay there.”
About 20 UBET members and wildland firefighters camped out from Monday to Wednesday to burn the leftover branches and logs from a thinning project east of Tiller. Members designed and built a variety of large kilns, some short and five-feet-wide while others stood like tall cones.
Among 200-year-old trees, the 30-year-old understory trees had been packed into the 15-acre section, creating an overabundance of potential fuels. When a crew began thinning the forest, there were about 800 of these small trees per acre, but now there are about 150 per acre left. The U.S. Forest Service usually conducts a prescribed burn to clear out the extra fuels to prevent larger wildfires from catching in the area.
“Well there were way too many trees in the understory for that,” Morrison said. “Now that stand will be a lot more resilient to wildfire.”
The U.S. Forest Service sold the small trees to the team for a nominal amount, according to Morrison.
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Wilson said the farmers will use the char in their animal barns to absorb urine and ammonia, improving the environment for the animals and the people working in the barn.
After sitting in the barn, the charcoal can be mixed with compost and later used in soil for crop production. Biochar also absorbs nitrogen and moisture so the soil its mixed with stays light and fluffy.
Dennis Morgan, a member of the team, added the char provides hiding places for microorganisms.
This project is over a year in the making, as all the slash had been spread out along a quarter-mile road to dry by June 2016. In September of that year, team members realized there was no remaining money in their budget so all work would have to be done by volunteers. Early fall rains caused them to wait until 2017 to begin the burns.
The group raised $2,000 through advance sales of the biochar to hire a contractor to pile about 80 percent of the logging slash, pay for fuel for the use of a farmer’s tractor and buy other supplies.
“This is my first experience learning anything about this,” said Andrew Sandri, a U.S. Forest Service engine operator helping with the project. “We’re just filling it up, torching it, continuing to feed it and building up the charcoal.”