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Biochar: More crops, less water
School farm conducting field test of soil amendment
A pile of fine biochar that has been found in Australian field testing to reduce crop water by 10 percent. - photo by Photo Contributed

Manteca Unified students may soon start growing future jobs.

Five acres at the school farm on Louise Avenue will be used for what is believed to be the first San Joaquin Valley field test of the use of biochar to grow row crops and nurture orchards.

Biochar is a fine-grained charcoal made from biomass — biological material such as agricultural waste. It is an organic carbon free of fossil fuel products, geological carbon, and plastics.

It’s been tested in agricultural applications in Australia as a soil amendment. The results have yielded 10 to 20 percent water savings, the need to use less fertilizer, and bigger and more bountiful crops per acre.

The effort is part of a City of Manteca backed initiative to generate and retain jobs. The city’s economic development strategy was refined several years ago to target employment opportunities in agricultural related ventures given Manteca’s strategic location in the world’s richest farming region and  access to rail, freeway, airport and sea port to move farming goods. Agriculture is the No.1 employer in San Joaquin County.

“It makes a lot of sense for Manteca to look into biochar,” Don Smail, the city’s economic development specialist on Thursday told a gathering of Manteca Rotarians at the school district’s cutting edge sustainable classroom located near the school farm.

“Five of the top 10 counties in the United States for agricultural production are within two hours of Manteca,” Smail noted.

(The top seven counties for farm production based on the 2012 United States Department of Agricultural report are from California. They are in descending order: Fresno, Tulare, Kern, Monterey, Merced, San Joaquin, and Stanislaus.)

Smail also noted San Joaquin Valley agricultural is facing a problem of what to do with their biomass waste such as almond prunings, corn stalks, almond hulls, and such.

Much of it has been burned to generate electricity. But in order to pencil out it requires big subsidies from electricity generators such as PG&E. The fact fracking has expanded the estimated natural gas supply to 600 years means biomass electricity generation faces severe cutbacks.

That would leave the valley with a huge amount of agricultural biomass products to dispose of. And since air quality regulations have tightened, they simply can’t be burned.

Smail said the city’s interest is in protecting agricultural jobs, generating new jobs with the goal to ultimately secure a biochar conversion facility for Manteca, to reduce water use, improve air quality, to possibly reduce pollution issues connected with fertilizer, and to yield more food production per acre.

Smail has sat on an advisory board with California State University at Stanislaus for a number of years in a bid to work on ways to enhance the regional economy. CSU Stanislaus is on board for the biochar field test as is the University of California at Merced. Talks are currently taking place with Delta College to use their school farm on the northern edge of Manteca at Lathrop Road and the Highway 99 interchange for additional field testing.

Cole Dutter, who helps oversee the school farm, is in charge of the biochar field test.

The test program will explore the macro effects on water retention, soil nutrients, leaf tissue nutrients, and total production. The experiment will take place over multiple seasons. Monitoring these four factors will allow researchers to gauge the value of biochar to the farmer, the soil and the plants and the environment as a whole. 

The Veritas sandy loam at the school farm and in the Manteca area is similar to the sandy loam where Australian researchers were able to reduce water use and increase yields. Controlled studies in greenhouses have shown biochar used as an amendment in a 1 to 9 ratio allows plants to grow healthier and bigger by help soil retain water and other nutrients.

Dutter indicated students will plant vegetables in two different 2 ¼ acre parcels with one using biochar as a soil amendment and the other grown without biochar.

To assure a controlled test and to have a tight control on all aspects of the experiment, the Manteca school farm will take a delivery of a railroad car of biochar in the coming weeks. It is coming from an Oregon concern that creates biochar from the nearby waste wood of a sawmill operation.

Smail said if the testing is successful, efforts would be made to establish a biochar plant in Manteca. He noted that once the self-contained process is started very little energy is needed to produce biochar.