Industrial poultry farms are the site of horrific conditions and troubling practices, but the market potential of a charcoal-like substance known as “biochar” has some farmers looking at their chickens in a whole new light.
USA Today recently reported on a West Virginia farmer who’s transforming the 600 tons of manure his chickens produce annually into biochar, which is considered to be a valuable organic fertilizer for farmers and gardeners.
Recently the agriculturally-inclined have begun to re-examine an ancient soil amendment called Terra Preta (“dark earth” in Portuguese), now referred to as biochar or agri-char.
Biochar is a fine-grained, highly porous charcoal that helps soils retain nutrients and water. Oils and gases co-produced with biochar, in well-designed pyrolysis or gasification equipment, can be used as fuel, providing clean, renewable energy. When the biochar is buried in the ground as a soil amendment, the system can become “carbon negative.” (International Biochar Initiative)
“I thought it was crazy at first, and my wife still thinks it’s nuts,” Josh Frye, 44, admitted to USA Today. Yet the farmer said that he has sold nearly $1,000 worth of biochar to farmers as far away as New Jersey, and plans to sell much more as he refines production. Venture capitalists, soil scientists and even members of Congress have all come to Frye’s farm to see whether his example can be repeated.
If successful, Frye’s little experiment could spark an industry that values the chicken poop more than the birds themselves.
While politicians in Washington bicker and quarrel over the “fairness” of industrial greenhouse has regulations, and the feasibility of a cap and trade system, those concerned about climate change are looking for a cheap green solution that can help them reduce emissions now, instead of later.
“Techniques such as biochar may represent the best compromise between what’s good for the environment, and what’s affordable during the recession,” Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., told USA Today. Capito visited Frye’s farm in August.
The incinerator that Frye uses to convert the organic matter into biochar uses very little oxygen, which means that the process produces no smoke or smell. Frye funnels some of the resulting heat into his chicken houses where it helps keep the hatchlings warm.
And this isn’t the first time that biochar has caught the government’s attention.
Back in September of 2009, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada and four cosponsors introduced the “Water Efficiency via Carbon Harvesting and Restoration (WECHAR) Act of 2009.” The bill establishes a loan guarantee program to develop biochar technology, initiates a program of biochar landscape restoration projects on public land, and authorizes a competitive grant program to fund research on biochar characteristics, impacts and economics.”
Image Credit: Flickr Creative Commons - Nanimo