Final B4SS Farmers’ Workshop in Kapsabet, Kenya (November 2017)

Final B4SS Farmers’ Workshop in Kapsabet, Kenya (November 2017)

The Final B4SS Farmers’ Workshop took place in Kapsabet, Nandi county, Kenya in November 2017. The workshop was led by Dr David Lelei from the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) and Henri Biwott, the son of a local farmer, who has been key in keeping close communication with farmers participating in the Biochar for Sustainable Soils (B4SS) project.

David Lelei presented the results of the experimental biochar trials and farmers were divided into groups to discuss their experience with biochar. The results show that the treatment that promoted the highest crop (maize) growth was biochar and cow manure, followed by biochar and diammonium phosphate (DAP). In the B4SS project in Kenya, the biochar was not mixed (“charged”) with fertilisers prior to application, but rather incorporated into the soil soon after fertiliser application.

As a modest gesture to thank farmers for their participation in the B4SS project, David Lelei and Ruy Anaya de la Rosa handed out Australian Burke & Willis hats to male farmers and Aboriginal designed tea towels to female farmers who were all happy to receive these gifts.

During the feedback provided, all farmers showed interest in learning how to produce biochar by themselves. Therefore, we took the opportunity to run a demonstration of the Kon Tiki soil pit kiln. The local area is a large producer of tea, and so wood from tea bushes often becomes available. This time, a tea company had uprooted large quantities of tea bushes, which had reached maturity, and gave us this feedstock for free. Henri made sure that the wood was dry, and we chopped the trunks that were too large to fit in a small soil pit. The production of biochar was clean and relatively fast.

The final B4SS farmers’ workshop in Kenya was successful mostly due to the leadership and guidance provided by Dr David Lelei and Henri Biwott. The farmers were grateful to Starfish Initiatives and the B4SS project, and expressed motivation to continue experimenting with biochar and fertilisers by themselves to grow maize and other crops, such as beans and capsicum. The B4SS project in Kenya will soon communicate the results through the B4SS good practice guides and a scientific article. Stay tuned.

Training in biochar production and filming the B4SS video in Peru (October 2017)

Training in biochar production and filming the B4SS video in Peru (October 2017)

We went to San Ramon to meet the 21 B4SS project participant farmers and train them in biochar production. During the previous trips to the central jungle in Peru, we have identified that the most appropriate technology for the local farmers to make biochar is the soil pit Kon Tiki kiln. Brenton Ladd (B4SS project coordinator in Peru) presented the results of the biochar field trials, and stressed that biochar must not be produced from standing trees and raw biochar should not be applied directly to soils. This was also a good opportunity for Brenton, Renato Gambarina (APRODES local manager) and Eduardo Lavalle (APRODES general director) to discuss the creation of the B4SS good practice guides and the sustainability of the biochar project in Peru.

As part of the good practice guides, the B4SS hired a Peruvian film production company to help us make short videos and communicate, in simple words, the benefits of using biochar for sustainable land management in Peru. Estefany Loret de Mola and Sebastian Dumler, Brenton’s students, volunteered to talk about biochar and the B4SS project in the videos. Since they are not professional actors, it took us some time to record the scenes. This activity became exhausting because of the mosquitoes and other bugs annoying us, while we were operating a soil pit Kon Tiki kiln in an ambient temperature of 39oC. Fortunately, the students and the film makers are young and fit, and so this task was also successful.

Back in Lima, we met with Pedro Carbajal who is in charge of planting and landscaping of the public gardens and parks of the municipality of Lurin, which has provided the B4SS project with the green waste generated in the municipality for producing biochar. Furthermore, the municipality of Lurin is getting a biochar formulation back from the B4SS for application to the public green spaces. We took Pedro to the B4SS research station in Lurin where Brenton showed us how the biochar site has been improving and expanding quite rapidly.

Muchas gracias a Brenton, Eduardo, Renato, APRODES staff, Estefany, Sebastian, Dennis, the 21 B4SS participant farmers, Pedro, and the filmmakers at “En el Blanco” for advancing the concept of biochar in Peru. It was a surprising pleasure to find out that there are 500 new farmers interested in knowing more about producing and using biochar for sustainable land management in the central jungle.

B4SS farmer field days in Jimma (September 2017)

B4SS farmer field days in Jimma (September 2017)

Every September, Jimma University organises the annual farmer field days. In September 2017, the main focus of the field days was on the Biochar for Sustainable Soils (B4SS) project. Prof Berhanu Belay and Milkiyas Ahmed led the activities, which started at the auditorium with presentations of the B4SS project achievements and a poster session. The B4SS supported four Master students to conduct biochar field experiments at Jimma University, and this was an opportunity for them to talk about their positive findings. About 100 people, including 60 farmers, participated.

The farmers, agricultural extension staff, students and academics showed interest in the various technologies that Jimma University has used to produce biochar from different feedstocks. The Kon Tiki kiln attracted special attention due to its low cost and simplicity.

After the demonstration of the biochar production methods, we went to visit the field trials, in which the effects of biochar on maize and soybeans are evaluated. Jimma University has produced different biochar formulations, and, on average, the formulation that consists of biochar from coffee husk co-composted with animal manure has resulted in savings of about 40% NPK fertiliser compared with the application of 100% NPK fertiliser. Some farmers had several questions about how to produce the biochar formulation themselves.

In order to connect with the farmers and increase their confidence in adopting biochar technologies, we went to the house of champion farmer Ibrahim Aba Fita, whose biochar story has been published in UNEP’s website. Ibrahim and family hosted us enthusiastically and showed us their agricultural practices, including biochar production, formulation and use. He produces biochar from wood and enset  (false banana) leaves in a Kon Tiki soil pit kiln and also mixes the biochar with animal manure prior to application to soil. He reports improved soil structure and increased crop yields.

Finally, we went to have our farewell dinner with delicious Ethiopian food and, of course, lots of coffee at the beautiful gardens of Jimma University.

Amasegenalo to Milkiyas and Berhanu for organising the B4SS farmer field days. They were a success!

Visit to Thai Nguyen (August 2017)

Visit to Thai Nguyen (August 2017)

In August 2017, Ruy Anaya de la Rosa went to Vietnam and visited B4SS local project coordinators, Lan Anh and Kien, who both work at Thai Nguyen University of Sciences. The main purpose of this trip was to finalise the B4SS baseline survey report. Therefore, we focussed on this work, and the report has now been finalised, and approved by the Scientific Panel.

The next day, we went to the Quang Chu commune, north of Thai Nguyen, where the B4SS project activities take place. Unfortunately, it has been raining a lot this season, and it was raining as well on that day. Therefore, we could not run the B4SS brick kiln or access the biochar demonstration sites. The constant rain has made it very difficult for our partners to dry the feedstock for biochar production. The people have been taking the feedstock inside when it is raining, and taking it back outside when the rain stops. However, the rain comes and goes often at unexpected times, and people cannot plan accordingly or spend too much time doing this tedious work. As a result, some of the corn stover that was originally intended for conversion to biochar has decomposed next to the kiln and will not be used for biochar production. Fortunately, our partners managed to get hold of some acacia wood and sawdust, which they will use for making biochar this season.

On a rainy day, it was a good opportunity to sit down in a Vietnamese café and interview Kien about the B4SS project and biochar. The story of Kien is worth sharing as he is also a farmer who has 8 years of experience in biochar and has used five different biochar production technologies. Kien has received training at Nanjing Agricultural University, China, and together with Prof Stephen Joseph has also trained the B4SS participant farmers in Quang Chu commune. An article about him will be prepared as a contribution to UN Environment’s GEF Communications Work. Thank you so much Lan Anh and Kien for all your passionate work in the B4SS project.

Australia and New Zealand Biochar Conference (August 2017)

Australia and New Zealand Biochar Conference (August 2017)

Adam Blakester (Starfish Initiatives) and Ruy Anaya de la Rosa (B4SS) attended the Australia and New Zealand Biochar Conference (ANZBC) 2017, which was held in Murwillumbah Civic Centre and Showgrounds on 10-12 August 2017. Members of the B4SS Scientific Panel,  Stephen Joseph and Lukas van Zwieten were also present, while Prof Johannes Lehmann recorded a lecture for the ANZBC17 participants. Biochar Don Coyne did a great job organising the conference. The main objective of ANZBC17 was to narrow the gap between scientific research and commercialisation of biochar products.

Furthermore, this platform provided an opportunity for the various biochar groups from different States in Australia and New Zealand to share experiences and knowledge on biochar. Although the activities are not implemented in Australia or New Zealand, Ruy presented the Biochar for Sustainable Soils (B4SS) project to the participants who showed interest in joining the 2018 Biochar Adventure Experience in Peru. Based on the lessons from the B4SS in China, Ruy suggested to the ANZBC17 participants to collaborate with fertiliser companies in Australia and New Zealand to produce biochar compound NPK fertilisers and introduce them to markets.

Prof Lukas van Zwieten gave a keynote presentation on “The facts about biochar: what we know from 10 years of study”, and Prof Stephen Joseph’s keynote talk was on “The commercialisation of biochar; how to move from research to commercialisation”. Prof Johannes Lehmann discussed the possible interactions between the various components in soil organic matter and biochar, including priming, aggregation and mineral interactions.

The third day at Murwillumbah’s showgrounds focussed on the demonstration of various biochar production technologies including the Kon Tiki kiln, which has been used in the B4SS projects in Ethiopia, Indonesia, Peru and Vietnam, the Carboniser, a Thermal Reactor and Multi Function Retort for mobile biochar production, a trough kiln, a flow pipe kiln and a recycled gas cylinder gasifier stove. Moreover, there were two workshops on 1) how the regional/local biochar potential can become a reality in climate farming initiatives and 2) how to easily make biochar as a carrier medium of mycorrhizal fungi.

Thank you very much to Biochar Don for bringing together most of the big biochar players in Australia and New Zealand, and for all his biochar work. As Don says: Chars!

Training farmers to produce biochar in Indonesia (July 2017)

Training farmers to produce biochar in Indonesia (July 2017)

Ruy Anaya de la Rosa (B4SS), Gerard Cornelissen (Norwegian Geotechnical Institute, NGI), Erlend Sørmo (NGI), and Ludovica Silvani (NGI) conducted training workshops in biochar production in the two B4SS project areas in Indonesia in July 2017.

In Lampung, South Sumatra, we met with our local partners, Jubi and Bu Neneng (Indonesian Soil Research Institute, ISRI) who explained us the progress made in the B4SS project so far, including the baseline survey, field trials at ISRI’s research station and the preparation for training the farmers to produce biochar in Kon Tiki kilns during this trip. Then, we went to the house of the leading farmer to meet the beneficiaries of the B4SS project in South Sumatra. Farmers were advised to dig a Kon Tiki soil pit and dry feedstock for producing biochar with low emissions. When we arrived at the demonstration site, we noticed that the soil pit they made was relatively big with a diameter of about 3m and depth of about 1.2m. The farmers that were most active in biochar production said that the Kon Tiki soil pit was too big for them to operate safely.

The feedstock that the farmers saved for producing biochar was corncobs. They said that they dried the corncobs under the sunlight and stored them in bags prior to our visit. However, we chopped some corncobs in half and noticed that the core was moist and spongy, and therefore the pyrolysis process in the Kon Tiki kiln was initially smoky. We explained them that it is important to dry and store the feedstock appropriately because otherwise the pyrolysis process in Kon Tiki kilns will be slow and smoky. Although most farmers did not seem to be very worried about the smoke, they showed concern about the longer time they need to produce biochar with wet feedstock than with dry feedstock. Hence, some farmers spread the corncobs on a plastic blanket laid on the concrete floor to allow them to dry under the sunlight, whereas others went to their farms to collect dry cassava stems, which they typically pile up and burn in the fields. They realised that adding dry cassava stems to the wet corncobs in the Kon Tiki soil pit reduce smoke and accelerate biochar production. We noted that it is important to understand the local perceptions about drying feedstock in order to provide informed advice.

After the production process was finished, the NGI team demonstrated hot enrichment of biochar in a drum, where they dissolved NPK fertiliser in water and added some of the hot biochar that was just produced in the Kon Tiki kiln. Hot enrichment of biochar allows the nutrients in the chemical fertilisers to go into the expanded pores of the hot biochar faster than cold enrichment. However, some farmers said that they would prefer to do cold enrichment of biochar, even if it takes longer to “charge” the biochar with nutrients, because hot enrichment in a drum requires collective work and the biochar is too hot to move comfortably with a shovel into the drum. Moreover, they would need a mask to cope with the black dust arising from the drum when the hot biochar gets in contact with the water. At the end of the day, we all enjoyed learning about biochar production from each other.

The next day, we went to ISRI’s research station to see the demonstration site where the effects of two treatments of biochar made from cacao shells + NPK fertiliser on maize yield are compared with those of NPK fertiliser alone, NPK fertiliser + lime, and NPK fertiliser + ash made from the same amount of feedstock as the biochar. The results show that the (unwashed) biochar applied at a rate of 15 t/ha provides the highest effect on plant growth. At the site, the NGI team took samples of the maize roots split in half and took photographs to conduct a shovelomics study. It was clear that the roots of the maize plants treated with biochar were bigger and more abundant than those of the plants treated with NPK only or lime. In the afternoon, three farmers invited us to see their fields where they will use biochar to grow cassava, maize and rice.

In Lamongan, East Java, we met with the 10 participant farmers. Bu Neneng explained them the potential of biochar to improve soil functions and the activities of the B4SS project. We also heard about farmers’ common practices, concerns and challenges to grow mainly maize and, to a lesser extent, peanuts. Based on NGI’s biochar research work in Zambia, Gerard said that a significant amount of biochar is removed from the soil together with the roots of the peanut plants during harvest, and therefore biochar would need to be reapplied to that soil the following season. After hearing this, farmers suggested to only try biochar to grow maize in their fields. We then conducted a similar training workshop in biochar production in Kon Tiki kilns as the one we did in South Sumatra, and farmers here also thought that hot enrichment of biochar in a drum barrel is a lot of work.

This was another week of intense B4SS work, which would not have been possible without Jubi’s and Neneng’s assistance and leadership in coordinating the farmers, students and ISRI’s staff who were also very helpful and eager to learn about producing and using biochar for sustainable land management. Special thanks go to the NGI team that has been very important in promoting biochar in Indonesia. Terima kasih!

Visit to Nanjing (May 2017)

Visit to Nanjing (May 2017)

In May 2017, Ruy Anaya de la Rosa visited Nanjing Agricultural University (NAU) to discuss the progress of biochar research and implementation activities in China with Dr Xiaoyu Liu, the local coordinator of the B4SS project. About three weeks before Ruy’s visit, the Chinese government published the guidelines for managing crop straw during and/or after harvest. The ten different pathways mandated by the government provide alternatives to straw burning in open fields since this polluting activity has now been banned in China. For example, there are red bands placed around the fields with various warnings, such as: “You are responsible for not burning straw in your field, otherwise you will be punished”. The guidelines for straw management include direct incorporation into soils, mulching, feeding it to animals, using it for growing mushrooms, using it in biodigesters, and converting it to biochar for soil amendment – among others.

“You are responsible for not burning straw in your field, otherwise you will be punished”

Ruy also gave a presentation to students and lecturers at NAU on the progress and lessons learned so far in the other five participating countries of the B4SS project. Similar to China, all countries in the B4SS project are designing and evaluating biochar formulations, which are mixed with nutrient-rich materials, such as manure (in Peru), compost (in Ethiopia), bokashi (in Indonesia), diammonium phosphate (in Kenya), and NPK fertilisers (in Vietnam). However, China leads the production of biochar-compound fertilisers and is now scaling it up to an industrial scale.

We also had the opportunity to visit a biochar demonstration site where wheat will be harvested soon. It should be noted that significant differences between the biochar-amended plots and the control (regular application of NPK fertiliser) across the whole field were not easy to see with the naked eye. Nevertheless, just for fun, Ruy cut two heads of wheat, one from the biochar-amended area and another from the control plot and he could see a benefit. Dr Xiaoyu Liu mentioned that differences of ≤20% between treatments are difficult to observe in the field. Therefore, we have to wait for the results from the lab analyses in order to provide a scientific output from this experiment.

Ruy is very grateful to Dr Xiaoyu Liu, Prof Genxing Pan and Prof Lianqing Li for all the efforts made to advance biochar research, development and implementation in China, for their work in the B4SS project, and for their friendly and enthusiastic collaboration.

Possible Ethiopian Dark Earths and B4SS progress in Jimma (April 2017)

Possible Ethiopian Dark Earths and B4SS progress in Jimma (April 2017)

Prof Berhanu Belay, local B4SS project coordinator in Ethiopia, moved from Jimma to Injibara since he has been recently appointed President of Injibara University. In April 2017, Ruy Anaya de la Rosa visited Prof Berhanu and saw the construction of Injibara University. Furthermore, they visited an area close to Injibara where several farmers have been managing acacia tree plantations to produce charcoal in earth-mound kilns, and about 20% of the charcoal residues (mostly in the form of powder) is incorporated into soils to grow cereals, such as teff and barley, intercropped with acacia trees.

Although the Ethiopian farmers in the region have not heard the word “biochar”, they have been adding charcoal to soils for many years. Berhanu and Ruy wondered if these soils could be called “Ethiopian Dark Earths”, as compared with “Amazonian Dark Earths” where the concept of biochar originated.

Ruy also visited Jimma University and saw positive results from the ongoing field trials and from the theses of three MSc students that the B4SS supported. The students have found positive effects from the addition of different biochar formulations to soybean, tomato and chili pepper grown in pots, and are currently preparing the manuscripts to submit to scientific journals for publication. Moreover, Jimma University is experimenting with biochar added to chicken feed. They said that the chicken houses where the biochar-feed has been introduced produce less unpleasant smell than the chicken houses that have not received biochar.

We also visited some B4SS participant farmers and Ruy was very happy to meet Ibrahim, a local champion farmer who has successfully adopted biochar production and use. Ibrahim received training in biochar production in Kon-tiki kilns from Jimma University and is now making biochar from different available feedstocks. Besides using biochar to grow maize and soybeans, as part of the B4SS project, he is adding biochar to more land and is also teaching neighbours and relatives how to produce and use it.

Finally, we travelled to a new site, about 25 km from Jimma, where biochar is being introduced by Jimma University to the local farmers since the current project farms are being threatened with the expansion of Jimma and may be converted into human-made infrastructure in the near future. The B4SS partners are working with the agricultural extension officer who organised the construction of a Kon Tiki kiln prior to our visit for us to demonstrate its operation. We used feedstocks that are locally available, such as leaves from the enset tree (also called false banana) and some cacti that are grown and placed as fences for cattle and properties. Several people from the community gathered to learn about biochar.

Many thanks to Berhanu, Milkiyas, Amsalu and Gebirieli for showing Ruy that the B4SS project in Ethiopia is making good progress!

Visit to the B4SS project in Kapsabet, Kenya (April 2017)

Visit to the B4SS project in Kapsabet, Kenya (April 2017)

In April 2017, Ruy Anaya de la Rosa and Edmundo Barrios, coordinator of the B4SS in Kenya, visited the project site near Kapsabet, Nandi Country, Western Kenya. David Lelei (ICRAF) and Henry, the local leading farmer, welcomed us at the B4SS demonstration site. David and Henry have collaborated with the farmers in the establishment of the field trials. Their work has been essential to explain the farmers the benefits and potential risks of applying biochar to their farms. Thanks to these champions, the B4SS project in Kenya is making good progress.

During the participatory workshop, the farmers selected the types of treatments and two main crops: maize and beans. The most common treatments applied at the farmers’ fields are: 1) control (no fertiliser application); 2) biochar from sugarcane bagasse applied at a rate of 10 t/ha; 3) diammonium phosphate (DAP) applied at the recommended rate; and 4) biochar + DAP. Some farmers who usually use manure also included a treatment with manure on their field plots. David Lelei explained that the demonstration site includes more treatments and crops than those being evaluated at the farmers’ fields.

The next morning, we went to 7 farms that are located in one of the water catchments and talked to the farmers about their experience with biochar so far. Although it had not rained much during this season and farmers are getting worried about the lack of rain, most of the farmers reported positive benefits from using biochar in the previous season. In fact, there were some farmers that wanted to add biochar to all their farms and not only to the small plots. From the previous season’s crop yields and observation of plant growth in this season, most farmers said that the most promising treatment is the biochar + DAP.

In the afternoon, we went to the second catchment and visited more farmers who reported similar results as those visited in the morning. Some farmers also said that, in general, there were more weeds in the biochar-amended plots than in the areas that received no fertiliser (control) or only DAP. One farmer, Harrison, said that biochar is beneficial to the soil because it retains moisture and releases it slowly to the plants when they need it. Furthermore, he wanted to know how to produce biochar himself or where to buy more biochar for all his land.

The following day, we visited the third catchment and had an spontaneous meeting with most of the participating farmers from all catchments. Many farmers reported that the maize plants growing on the biochar-amended plots have a darker green colour and thicker stalks. In many farms, this was noticeable. Also most farmers said that it was much easier to work with the soil that received biochar additions, due to the decrease in soil compaction. The treatments with biochar + DAP have consistently resulted in the highest plant growth. At the meeting, after the acknowledgements and the speech of the village’s chief, a female farmer thanked us about working with them to learn more about biochar, and now she is sharing her experience with others that did not believe that biochar application to soil could be effective in increasing plant growth. Special thanks to Edmundo, David and Henry for championing the B4SS project in Kenya!

Visit to B4SS partners in Oslo (March 2017)

Visit to B4SS partners in Oslo (March 2017)

Following the launch of the Stockholm Biochar Project pyrolysis pilot plant, Ruy went to Oslo and gave a lecture on carbon offsetting, footprinting and biochar at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. The next day, he presented the Biochar for Sustainable (B4SS) project to staff at the Norwegian Geotechnical Institute (NGI). In an organisation, sometimes the only person that knows about a project is the main project leader (in this case Prof Gerard Cornelissen who is coordinating the B4SS project in Indonesia), and so it was a good opportunity for NGI’s director and colleagues to understand more about the global B4SS project. Thanks to Erlend Sørmo, Gerard Cornelissen and Jan Mulder for their active support and warm hospitality!!