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Different regions for different or many solutions

 
John Saltveit
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Hi Eric,
I live in the Pacific NW. We have tons of trees, but in my area we have acidic, compacted clay soil. I have heard that bio char, hugulkultur, and mulching ramial wood chips on the surface all use up carbon, but in different ways. Some people say biochar is better for tropical and subtropical areas, but hugulkultur is better for the North. I am currently using surface wood chips and I have small hugulkultur. I am considering biochar. Do you believe that biochar could help my soil or the carbon problem in my area? Thanks,
JOhn S
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Kim Goody
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It's so funny for me to see this - I've basically had the same question, after years and years of working with wood chips and plant matter to help add carbon to our extremely clay-ey PNW forest soil. We've done some rotations and fallow land times (meaning no watering), in order to prevent the big fear - symphylans. But we also seem to have made better homes for slugs as well. Ducks take care of the slugs, thankfully.

All in all, it has seemed we haven't been able to improve out soil as much as we've wanted, and it would be nice to know if biochar might be a better option. One that hopefully wouldn't encourage symphylans.

So, curious to see Eric's thoughts on that one.
 
John Saltveit
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I know Steve Solomon wrote about symphylans, but I haven't yet encountered them. He grew only vegetables, while I have a food forest. That may have something to do with it. I don't really know.
John S
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Neil Layton
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I've modified a post I created in another thread, which I hope sheds some light on this question.

Intuitively it makes some sense that biochar might produce better results in the tropics and hugelkultur in temperate areas, but I'm not aware of good studies either way. I'm very suspicious of following my intuition without seeking evidence to support it.

The problem is that the field of study of biochar is a mess, scientifically speaking. Few studies have been conducted, and of those few around half found little or negative effect on soil carbon (it's thought the addition of so much carbon stimulates the microbes that turn it straight back into CO2). In some cases where it did show an increase in soil carbon it was compared with adding nothing to the soil (as opposed to using other common amendments such as mulching or green manuring), and nothing is known about how it holds up long term.

When you throw in the likelihood of publication bias it looks like the claims made about biochar may be grossly overblown. There are some studies out there that do show very positive results, but there are all kinds of issues with selective promotion of those studies, among other issues.

Then there are the environmental impacts of widespread use of biochar, and you can read George Monbiot on that here: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2009/mar/24/george-monbiot-climate-change-biochar

There are responses to this, which are worth a read. Whatever the results (and the science remains, as I say, ambiguous), the commercial production of biochar is not a good idea.

There is a whole ongoing discussion about the use of hugelkultur and its effectiveness, and again, few good studies, never mind direct comparison in both temperate and tropical locations.

In response to the question of different solutions in different conditions: probably, but what those solutions are is more complicated. I've yet to find one that works better than planting lots of trees in complex polycultures. That doesn't mean there isn't one, just that I haven't found it.
 
John Saltveit
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I find Monbiot's article to not be very helpful. He puts down wood chip mulch by saying it's not the solution to everything. However it can help a tremendous amount. He puts down biodiversity by saying it doesn't matter much. Well, it does matter in each case, for different reasons. Then he puts down biochar by saying it's not the solution to all of our problems. True, but that's not even an interesting question. A much more interesting question is where can it help and why?
John S
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Neil Layton
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John Saltveit wrote:I find Monbiot's article to not be very helpful. He puts down wood chip mulch by saying it's not the solution to everything. However it can help a tremendous amount. He puts down biodiversity by saying it doesn't matter much. Well, it does matter in each case, for different reasons. Then he puts down biochar by saying it's not the solution to all of our problems. True, but that's not even an interesting question. A much more interesting question is where can it help and why?
John S
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I think you are grossly misrepresenting Monbiot. The way I read it biodiversity is key to his concerns. Where does he say it doesn't matter? I must have missed that. I read his comments on woodchip as woodchip being the precursor to biochar.

It may be that a better question is "where can it help and why?" but the answer to that is that the research is inconclusive, and that you need to be careful where you source your biochar from.
 
John Saltveit
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Here is a section from his article:

Goodall is even more naive. He believes we can maintain the profusion of animals and plants in the rainforests he hopes to gut by planting a mixture of fast-growing species, rather than a monoculture. As the Amazon ecologist Philip Fearnside has shown, a mixture does "not substantially change the impact of very large-scale plantations from the standpoint of biodiversity".

He doesn't consider, for example, that if you are growing a food forest you are going to be generating a lot more wood. He doesn't address positive aspects of wood chips, only negative. I think he's doing more harm than good. Armchair philosophers go out and put down others. Problem solvers go out and make the world a better place. Here is his take on wood chips:

Biomass is suddenly the universal answer to our climate and energy problems. Its advocates claim that it will become the primary source of the world's heating fuel, electricity, road transport fuel (cellulosic ethanol) and aviation fuel (biokerosene). Few people stop to wonder how the planet can accommodate these demands and still produce food and preserve wild places.

I don't have any problem with your original reply in this thread, just his. Saying that the results are inconclusive is completely fair. Making wood chips and biochar out to be harmful is not fair. I don't get where you say I'm grossly misrepresenting Monbiot.
John S
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S Bengi
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Mulch isn't better than bio-char in temperate regions. It is simple that mulch will last 2 year in the temperate region but only 3 months in the tropic. But bio-char will work in both. Additionally temperate regions 'frequently have forest fires that make their own bio-char, or save the biomass and make peat. That doesn't happen as much in the tropics.

Biochar created at low temperate will be acidic and have alot of oil/tannin in it's pore that your plant roots will not like, until it has been weathered a bit.
Biochar has alot of pores and the microbes that take up residence it it will rob your plants of mineral until it reaches equilibrium, in the tropic that could be 3 months in temperate places 3+ years.
Biochar that hasn't been properly precharged with minerals will suck it out of the soil until it reaches equilibrium and rob your plants vs in the tropics where they add pee/feces/manure to charge it.
Biochar that is made at too high a temperature will be too alkaline and too charged to hold and then exchange minerals, until it has been weathered a bit

We have basically lost the skill of how to make biochar and in the tropics nature corrects mistakes quickly whereas in temperate regions it takes longer. And most likely the studies that failed, where not a 3+ yr study.
You don't add biochar, huglekulture, and artificial fertilizer and immediately plant some lettuce and 1 month later say that the hugleculture is a failure. Hugleculture takes a year to really get going, artifical fertilizer start working immediately and after 6 months odds are that all that the N and P has been completely washed away, biochar on the other hard takes 3+ years for it to really start working. Biochar esp in temperate regions is more like planting a 10 yr to harvest walnut tree and less like 3month to harvest wheat/corn.

Additionally the PNW is considered a temperate RAINFOREST. So mulches will not work the same way how it works for someone in Michigan(colder) or in Texas (dryer). Being a rainforest, I would use some biochar, just realize that nature will take some time for it to start working, and that there are good ways and then better ways of making biochar, that will affect how long it takes for it to work.

One think that is known for sure is that biochar will not turn into greenhouse gasses until 1000's of year unlike mulch(1yr-3yr) and huglekulture (3yr-10yr)
 
Neil Layton
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Okay, let me spell out how I read Monbiot's point here.

* People want to chop down virgin rainforest in order to plant a "mixture of fast-growing species".

* Chopping down rainforests loses biodiversity.

* That "mixture of fast-growing species" has similar levels of biodiversity to "very large-scale plantations".

* Therefore, from a biodiversity standpoint, chopping down virgin rainforest in order to plant a "mixture of fast-growing species" is a bad idea.

If you have read almost anything else Monbiot has written on environmentalism you will know he is a tireless campaigner for biodiversity.

In the kinds of quantities some people have been talking about growing wood for biochar, suggesting it can be harmful is completely fair. Converting agricultural wastes to biochar might be another matter, but that's been said.
 
Neil Layton
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S Bengi wrote:

One think that is known for sure is that biochar will not turn into greenhouse gasses until 1000's of year unlike mulch(1yr-3yr) and huglekulture (3yr-10yr)


There was a lot in the rest of your post worth thinking about, but I'm not allowed to ask for your references.

That said, there are studies in which soil carbon declined after the addition of biochar, it's thought because of the accelerated action of micro-organisms.

That does not mean that the use of biochar is always a bad idea, but that the conditions under which it's a good idea remain unclear, and there is a lot of theory, many claims of which only some are well substantiated, and little good research.

I stand by my position that different solutions will work better under different conditions, but that more research is needed to match solutions to conditions. Hopefully Eric Toensmeier's new book covers this in detail, but I haven't read it.
 
John Saltveit
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If those are Monbiot's positions, I'm glad, because he sure didn't explain them in the article you posted. He should have written and explained it much more clearly.
John S
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S Bengi
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I completely agree that as good as permaculture is cutting down a virgin rainforest plant a food forest isn't good for biodiversity. And as good as biochar is, cutting down a virgin rainforest for it is doesn't make sense.

And yes aerating the soil/tilling to create a swale/adding biochar, while it is good, can cause the soil microbes to burn thru the biomass in the soil faster in the short term. But if done right it will help nature to create more leaf/above ground biomass that ends up as more soil biomass but it is time dependent.

Attached is a chart on biochar stats, at low enough temp the biochar even absorb soot from the fire starter.
 
Tyler Ludens
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S Bengi wrote:I completely agree that as good as permaculture is cutting down a virgin rainforest plant a food forest isn't good for biodiversity.


Where in the permaculture ethics or principles has it ever been suggested that one should cut down a virgin rainforest to plant a food forest?

"...the end result of the adoption of permaculture strategies in any country or region will be to dramatically reduce the area of the agricultural environment needed by the households and the settlements of people, and to release much of the landscape for the sole use of wildlife and for re-occupation by endemic flora."

"What is proposed herein is that we have no right, nor any ethical justification, for clearing land or using wilderness while we tread over lawns, create erosion, and use land inefficiently. Our responsibility is to put our house in order. Should we do so, there will never be any need to destroy wilderness."

Bill Mollison, the Designers Manual
 
Eric Toensmeier
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I'm afraid I don't have the perfect answer as to what works in the Northwest. I found essentially no scientific information on the carbon impacts of hugelkulture, so I will have to remain agnostic on that front. I do very much agree with some of the commenters about the potential dangers of land grabs and the industrial production of biochar. these are the same arguments that we use against industrial scale biofuels, and a range of other "carbon grabs" that use climate change as an excuse to further nefarious ends of greed in land acquisition. We always need to look to the social and ecological impacts beyond merely climate mitigation, or we can get into some dangerous waters very quickly. With that said the IPCC is enthusiastic about biochar and report a global average of a 15% increase in yields. I think the jury is still out on whether it is the right choice for any particular soil or climate. In Sandy soils and tropical sandy soils in particular it can make a big difference in improving cation exchange capacity and reducing nutrient leaching while sequestering carbon.
 
Gravity is a harsh mistress. But this tiny ad is pretty easy to deal with:
The stocking-stuffer that plants a forest:
FoodForestCardGame.com
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