Come to Meadowcreek today and you’ll see black mounds which yesterday were fires. When the mounds have cooled, we will harvest the key ingredient for millennial soil.
Soil is our most precious natural resources. Healthy food only comes from healthy soil. Yet man is much better at destroying soil than creating it. Fertile soils all over the planet have been degraded and eroded away. Formerly powerful cities built on these soils are now ruins and abandoned. Hundreds of these abandoned cities stretch from Turkey through Jordan, Iraq and Turkmenistan into China. I’ve visited many of them and always wonder how time and again man has destroyed his own civilizations by destroying his soils. And, in doing so, releasing carbon to heat up the planet.
At Meadowcreek we are contributing to reversing this trend. We are taking the first step in making soil which should last for thousands of years. We are sequestering carbon in a form that can last for millennia: biochar.
What we now call biochar was first discovered in the Amazon. Portuguese settlers noticed mounds of rich black soil dotted the Amazon jungle. These mounds were remarkably productive year after year. Tropical jungles have notoriously thin soils. The teeming life of the jungle recycles all nutrients immediately since the high temperatures volatilizes nutrients from soil. Most of the best soils in the world are in colder climates such as Iowa and Ukraine.
But in the tropical Amazon are rich black soils rivaling the best Iowa and Ukrainian soils. These islands of rich soil surrounded by poor tropical soils were called terra preta de indio or black earth of the indians. Researchers dug down into the black mounds and found ancient biochar was their foundational ingredient. The pre-Columbian Indians used biochar to make the poor soils of the rainforest productive for harvest after harvest.
The Amazon tribes had discovered how to trap carbon in the soil. By slowly burning biomass at low temperatures with little oxygen, carbon dioxide can’t be formed. There is no oxygen to unite with the carbon. Instead the carbon links to itself forming porous material composed mainly of carbon and minerals.
If the resulting biochar is then buried in the ground it can stay there indefinitely, keeping the carbon out of the atmosphere, and nourishing the soil. It is less prone to nutrient leaching. The carbon molecules latch onto any nutrients which pass by. These nutrients are then released by soil microorganisms for use by plants, cutting down on the need for fertilizers and reducing the emission of methane and nitrous oxides, which are also greenhouse gases. Biochar also retains water, making soils with biochar more resistant to drought and able to reduce flooding.
The smoldering piles of today are just the first step toward millennial soils. The biochar must be innoculated with earthworms, fungi and bacteria. Only living organisms can make healthy soil. Biochar is just the substrate. Soil is a living system composed of living systems. All the components of healthy soil were once living organisms.
Soil scientists have long thought of clay, sand and gravel as being the substrates for soil. Before the wonders of terra preta were discovered, they were right. Nature works with what it has. If clay, sand and gravel are all nature has, it will do its best to create soil with them.
When man provides as substrate the massively linked carbon/mineral complex called biochar, he has provided a substrate for soil formation superior to anything else we know.
A beauty of biochar is that anyone can make it. All you need is biomass, a match and a little knowledge. You’ve probably got access to the first two. Come on out to Meadowcreek and you’ll take the next step in learning how to create soil for the millennia.
Biochar by itself, however, won’t do anything. It is only a substrate. All it does is provide the best habitat for soil building organisms. It’s the living organisms colonizing the biochar which make the soil rich, productive and healthy.
So we mix soil with the biochar as soon as it cools down. The living invaders find a home better than any they’ve ever known. We love making homes for the soil critters at Meadowcreek. We take care of them and they give us healthy food.
Biochar can help your garden or farm or community be more resilient. For more examples of this quality of resilient systems known as ecological integration, see Chapter 5 of our book at this link.