BIOCHAR COMES TO MARTHA’S VINEYARD!
We had just completed a 12-acre biochar project at the Yew Creek Land Alliance property west of Riddle in the fall of 2020 when a young journalist from the Capital Press (Oregon’s newspaper for farmers, loggers and ranchers) came to visit to report on our work. Maggie Craig had heard about our project from UW board member Eric Stauder who was part of our biochar crew. Eric and Maggie had spent time together on a USFS botany crew and had kept in touch. Eric suggested that the innovative work we were doing integrating biochar into our habitat restoration efforts might be of interest to CP readers. Maggie pitched it to her editor who gave her the go-ahead.
Eric and I showed Maggie around and explained how we used flame cap kilns to char logging slash from our thinning work and return it to the soil where it becomes biologically active. In her article “Biochar to go: New process will make carbon-rich soil supplement on-site”, Maggie explained to her readers that biochar increases soil water holding capacity, keeps nutrients from leaching, and provides habitat for beneficial soil microbes thereby increasing soil productivity. Not only does the resulting increase in tree growth capture more carbon from the atmosphere, but the pyrolyzed biomass changes to a form that locks its carbon in the soil for centuries to millennia.
Several months after the article was published, Maggie returned to her family’s home on Martha’s Vineyard off the coast of Cape Cod, MA. Inspired by what she learned about biochar from her visit to Yew Creek and her subsequent research, she became intrigued by the idea of bringing biochar production to the island. We kept in touch, and worked out a plan for me to visit in October to do a webinar and hands-on demonstration for interested island folk.
Although I am an avowed biochar evangelist, I was initially a bit skeptical. Coming from the expansive western forests of towering conifers, how would biochar production be anything more than an inconsequential hobby in the highly fire-resistant hardwood forests of New England? But Maggie was enthusiastic and sent me a couple of research papers on historic fire in New England and a recent study of the surprisingly high fire risk on MV and nearby islands. Once I dug into the literature, I too was hooked.
It turns out that the original Wampanoag inhabitants of the island (close kin to the Indians that famously befriended the Pilgrims on the mainland) had underburned the forests there for millennia to encourage wild huckleberries, cranberries and grapes (hence the “vineyard” part of the name that “discoverer” Bartholomew Gosnold gave to the island). After most of the original hardwood forests had been cut centuries ago for firewood and European-style agriculture, about 10% of MV (now a state forest) was planted to red and white pines (not native to MV) in a misguided depression-era attempt to create a lumber industry. Unfortunately, decades of nor’easters and hurricanes have beaten the trees up to the point that there is “nary a strait log” in the forest. This has left an economically nonviable and uncharacteristically flammable forest surrounded by charming wood frame historic houses and multi-million dollar McMansions. The fire risk analysis showed that many of these structures are now highly vulnerable to wildfire.
Removing the flammable ladder fuels from the understory and gradually converting the forest back to a native hardwood ecosystem would reverse this problem, and producing biochar from the resulting slash would recharge depleted forest soils.
We decided to build a kiln based on a design I developed for a project on Guam using surplus 55 gallon drums. I had tested the design at Yew Creek, but the pandemic prevented me from joining my colleagues on Guam for a hands-on demonstration (someday…). Maggie secured the barrels and cut them to shape, and I grabbed the hardware to bracket them together from a Home Depot on my way to the ferry.
We fabricated the kiln on a Sunday, and on Monday I did a Zoom presentation that was attended by folks from the state forest, organic farmers, county officials, landscapers, shellfish growers and others – many of whom came to the demonstration the following Tuesday. The weather cooperated and a burn using brush and invasive bamboo went off without a hitch against a beautiful backdrop of Menemsha Pond surrounded by New England fall foliage.
In mid-November, another nor’easter hit the island and brought down a major trove of biomass. Maggie and a colleague who manages the grounds of a large estate are preparing to turn the storm damage into more biochar rather than simply piling it, torching it, and sending another plume of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.
Maggie and I are hoping that the biochar seed we planted on Martha’s Vineyard will grow like wild grape vines, inspiring others to ramp up the production of biochar on the island and spreading its tendrils to the mainland.