Largest replicated biochar trial in Ontario gets provincial funding

Thursday, September 22, 2016

School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability soil researcher Maren Oelbermann, received $173,000 in funding from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) to study the effects of biochar on temperate soils.

Woman in blue jacket and brown capris walking in a field of cornMaster's student Meaghan Mechler working at Professor Maren Oelbermann's biochar field trial site.

Biochar is simply charcoal, made from burning organic matter under high temperature and low oxygen levels. And it’s use as a soil amendment Oelbermann says is “new, but not new.”

Indigenous people in the Brazilian Amazon have been adding biochar to soil for millennia, though it's unclear if the practice was accidental or on purpose. Even if the origin of the practice is debatable however, the effect of adding biochar to the acidic and nutrient poor Amazonian soil is undisputed. It increases the soil pH and makes nutrients more available to plants, producing dark, rich soil, high in organic matter. A stark contrast to the red, leached, nutrient poor soils typical in the tropics.

The use of biochar on temperate soils, on the other hand, is a relatively young field. In Southern Ontario, where the soils are not acidic, previous research indicates large quantities of biochar are needed to show a positive effect.  The question Oelbermann's study seeks to answer is, can the addition of moderate amounts of biochar to temperate soils also improve soil health?

The study will be conducted over three years on 6 hectares of farmland in Huron County. The team will examine three treatments and each will be replicated three times. They will measure the effects of biochar on various aspects of soil health, its ability to sequester carbon, mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and its resilience to long-term climate change.

If the results are favourable, Professor Oelbermann hopes the use of biochar could be an affordable, sustainable alternative to help farmers manage their lands using less nitrogen fertilizer. Which in turn, will contribute to environmental sustainability and long-term soil and food security for Canadians.

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