Development of forest waste and thinnings as a local feedstock of biochar could help Eastern Oregon farmers boost wheat production by 5-30 percent, according to researchers with Oregon State University.

The U.S. Forest Service is working with OSU’s Columbia Basin Agricultural Research Station near Pendleton to study the effects of biochar in dryland farming, coating winter wheat seeds in the carbon-rich powder they expect will increase crop yields.

Biochar — a fine-grained, charcoal made by heating biomass at little or no oxygen — is shown to help the soil retain more water and nutrients for plants to grow in a stressful climate. Project leaders planted wheat fields at Athena in September, treating seeds as well as the ground with different levels of biochar from 10 to 40 tons.

By fall, they will measure which of the crops grew best and how much biochar farmers would need to maximize their outputs.

The research will also look at producing biochar from the neighboring forests, using tree limbs and other small brush that is not already earmarked for loggers. Jim Archuleta, soil scientist with the Umatilla National Forest, said harvesting the woods would not only ensure a steady supply of biochar, but reduce fuels for high-intensity wildfires and maintain a healthy ecosystem.

“Given the technology we have to convert this material, I?can’t imagine a day when we’ll get in front of the vegetation,”?Archuleta said. “It’s growing out there, fast.”

The forest service and OSU joined together with OSU to form a cooperative research and development agreement last year. Walking Point Farms LLC, a company based in Sherwood, signed on as a partner to consider the commercialization of biochar products, and Summit Seed Coatings of Idaho is providing the seeds coated in biochar.

As a soil amendment, biochar improves agricultural efficiency by holding more moisture in the ground while bonding with the nutrients plants need to grow. Farmers save on water and fertilizer costs, while profiting from stronger yields.

Biochar is made through a process called pyrolysis, which heats the biomass at such low oxygen that it won’t burn or destroy its chemical structure. Instead of ash, the product is a grainy charcoal similar in properties to activated carbon.

The proposal estimates that, across 15 western states, more than 28 million acres of forest could benefit from management reducing hazardous fire fuels, leaving 345 million dry tons for producing biochar. In the Umatilla National Forest alone, Archuleta said they sell up to 96,000 green tons every year and figures they could make about 12,000 tons of biochar.

With that feedstock available, Archuleta believes biochar could supplement or possibly become a cheaper substitute for the activated carbon that is already used on some farms, but not always affordable on an acre-basis.

“This is a product that can potentially improve sites beyond what commercial fertilizer can do at this point,”?Archuleta said. “It’s sitting around in the forest already. We don’t have to truck it in. It’s already there.”

Converting forest trimmings would not take away logs from the timber mills, Archuleta emphasized. Instead, it would make use of brush that is otherwise burned off regularly in slash piles.

Archuleta became interested in biochar while working as a district soil scientist at the Umpqua National Forest in 2008. They used biochar to treat a forage opening near Fish Creek Desert, which produced green vegetation until well into August.

Since coming to the Umatilla forest in 2011, Archuleta said his supervisors continue to support biochar research. They are in the process of bringing the Oregon Department of Forestry into the development agreement, he added.

Stephen Machado, crop physiologist and agronomist at the OSU Columbia Basin station, said biochar could keep farm fields fertile without local growers having to give up their winter wheat-summer fallow rotation.

While the system provides for two years of precipitation to grow crops, it does not put enough carbon back in the soil, Machado said. Biochar could help solve that problem.

“We are pretty enthusiastic,”?Machado said. “We think this is going to work. Results from other scientists from all over have shown that biochar is very beneficial to plants.”

Columbia Basin researchers will continue to monitor the results of their biochar plots over the next several years.

“If this can help the plants grow quicker for the farmer, I?think that would be a great thing,”?he said.

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Contact George Plaven at gplaven@eastoregonian.com or 541-564-4547.

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