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Footnotes from the Field

Footnotes from the Field: Mother Earth is Heating Up

in 2019/Climate Change/Footnotes from the Field/Organic Standards/Pest Management/Winter 2019

BC Crop Adaptation & Diversification in Climate Change

Marjorie Harris BSc, IOIA V.O. P.Ag

I have stood on my back porch trying to imagine what a three kilometer high Cordilleran Ice sheet would have looked like here 12,000 years before the last big melt. It is estimated that people arrived in BC’s virgin landscape only 9,000 years ago.

Climate change on a geological time scale is undeniable. Long term climate change trends are difficult to observe from year to year and climate change over a lifetime may be imperceptible especially with a variety of shorter and longer climate cycles that can bring on their own periodic dramatic weather events.

Here in BC our usual climate patterns are regularly perturbed by El Nino, La Nina, and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. The El Nino cycle fluctuates over three to seven years. During El Nino years inland temperatures tend to be warmer and drier with warmer coastal waters that push salmon stocks further north to colder water. La Nina years are characterized with colder inland temperatures with heavier winter snow packs and colder coastal waters. The Pacific Decadal Oscillation pattern shifts temperatures and precipitation over 20 to 30 year periods that correspond with dramatic shifts in salmon production.
We have now entered a new epoch of human induced climate change. Analysis of global climate data provides unequivocal evidence that worldwide average temperatures have risen significantly and at a more rapid pace then usually observed in geologic time frames. The effects of climate change are region specific and variable across the world. The effects are most pronounced in high latitude and high-altitude areas.

What are the predicted impacts of climate change on BC crop production, pest and disease burden, weed control, and water resources?

There has already been a measurable shift to warmer average temperatures year round throughout the province generally speaking. However, climate change impacts vary region to region. Warmer winter temperatures have been more pronounced in the far north. In the southern part of the province the growing season has lengthened. There will be more very hot days in summer and extended droughts with higher risks of fire with drier conditions.

Crop production: Key cash crops will lose viability to grow under new climate conditions. Growers will need to diversify in crop production to meet the new growing conditions. In the Okanagan region, longer warmer growing seasons favor red wine grape varieties over cooler temperature white and ice wine grape varieties. In the Okanagan wine producers are replacing grapevines for varietals that prefer more warmth.

Pest and disease burden: Milder winter temperatures allow a greater number of pests to survive overwintering, increasing the pest burden for the following season. Timing of pest control will need to be adjusted as pest life cycles respond to temperature increases. For strategic pest management increased pest surveillance will be crucial to prevention and management.

Pests will extend range to higher altitudes with warming trends. One example is the spread of the mountain pine beetle from north to south across the province under the influence of milder winters. Many invasive insects and disease vectors such as mosquitoes, ticks, and rodents, will be able to extend their geographical ranges.

For BC, a rare anthrax outbreak occurred in Fort St. John in October 2018, killing 13 bison. Rainy weather and warmer soil temperatures allowed the bacteria deep underground to migrate to the soil surface and become an infective agent.

Weed Control: It is predicted that invasive plant and weed species will expand their ranges with climate change impacts. Weeds with efficient seed dispersal systems will invade faster than weeds that rely on vegetative dispersal. Higher carbon dioxide levels may cause some weeds to grow more vigorously. Disturbed habitats and fields after drought will be more easily colonized; therefore, cover cropping will become more imperative.

Water management: Climate change is predicted to bring substantial changes to water resources. The type of precipitation is already observably shifting to more rain, intense rain events, and less winter snowpacks. Persistent droughts are becoming more common during the summer months.

Most of BC’s alpine glaciers are predicted to continue to retreat and disappear within the next 100 years. Warming spring temperatures coupled with reduced snowpacks will result in earlier springs freshets, reduced summer flows, and increased peak flows for many of BC’s watersheds.

What can we learn from the past: BC’s prehistoric climate records demonstrate that in previous centuries the province has experience more frequent severe droughts than have occurred in the past few decades, irrespective of climate change.

For the last 4,000 years the planet has actually been in a long cooling period. When key crops failed repeatedly, causing food shortages, people migrated to new locations and diversified crop production. Moving away to new lands is not a current option on our fully explored planet.

Anthropological Archaeologist Dr. Jade d’Alpoim Guedes conducted research into the rapid cooling periods of the last 5000 years and made some correlations to climate warming:

“The impacts of warming going forward are going to be quicker and greater, [than global cooling], and humanity has had 4,000 years to adjust to a cooler world,” d’Alpoim Guedes said. “With global warming these long-lasting patterns of adaptation will begin to change in ways that are unpredictable,” she said. “And there might not be the behavioral flexibility for this, given current politics around the world.”
Also mechanized, industrialized agriculture and global agricultural policy are pushing us toward mono-culture of crops, said d’Alpoim Guedes. “We need to move in the opposite direction instead. “Studies like ours show that bet-hedging and investing in diversity have been our best bets for adapting to climate change,” she said. “That is what allowed us to adapt in past, and we need to be mindful of that for our future, too.”

So, the question of the 11th hour is, can we as human beings cooperate together to manage ecosystems and agricultural food systems to adapt and diversify quickly enough to prevent ecosystem collapses and famines?

Marjorie Harris is an organophyte, agrologist, consultant, and verification officer in BC. She offers organic nutrient consulting and verification services supporting natural systems.

WSU Insider, Science and Technology:
d’Alpoin Guedes, J., Bocinsky, K. (2018). Climate change stimulated agricultural innovation and exchange across Asia. Science Advances, Vol. 4, No. 10.
From Impacts to Adaptation: Canada in a Changing Climate 2007

Footnotes from the Field: Intergenerational Soil Stewardship

in Fall 2018/Footnotes from the Field/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Organic Standards/Tools & Techniques
Onions by Moss Dance at Birds and Beans

Intergenerational Soil Stewardship: Our Only Hope?

Marjorie Harris BSc, IOIA V.O. P.Ag

Soil, specifically topsoil, is the foundation of life on this earth. Earth is the only planet with healthy fertile soil on it that we know of yet, in the whole of the universe. Fertile soil is a little-understood mixture of biology and geology whose potential only exists in the topsoil layer. The topsoil layer is composed of the topsoil itself and organic matter in various stages of mineralization and humus production. Degradation and erosion of the topsoil depletes soil fertility, restricting plant growth, vitality, and micronutrient content. Hence, it becomes imperative for one to reach out to a website, and take aid of professionals in combating the problem of soil erosion.

The theme for this month’s BC Organic Grower is: “Bioregionalism: building place based economies.” Agricultural philosopher Wendell Berry suggests that an agrarian economy is based on local adaptation of economic activity to the capacity of the land to sustain such activity.

This is a challenging idea because history shows us that farming as practised in the past and the present always causes topsoil degradation. Through the ages, soil degradation, or erosion, has steered the fate and course of human civilizations and ultimately caused the demise of those civilizations. This story has repeated itself throughout the world and in the history of every type of farming. In the words of Sir Winston Churchill, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” No greater historical comment can be made for agriculture: learn or be doomed. All farming societies exhausted their topsoils within 800 to 1700 years.

The Canadian Organic Standards speak to soil conservation and soil fertility specifically in the following sections:
The general principles of organic production in Annex 1:
1. Protect the environment, minimize soil degradation and erosion, decrease pollution, optimize biological productivity, and promote a sound state of health.
2. Maintain long-term soil fertility by optimizing conditions for biological activity within the soil.

Clause 5.4.3 Tillage and cultivation practices shall maintain or improve the physical, chemical and biological condition of soil, and minimize damage to the structure and tilth of soil, and soil erosion.

Principle of Health

Organic agriculture should sustain and enhance the health of soil, plants, animals, humans and the planet as one and indivisible.

We have run out of new lands to discover on planet Earth. In 1995, Dr. David Pimental of Cornell University calculated that we had already lost 30% of the arable land we were farming to soil erosion. With the advent of chemical and mechanical agriculture the soil erosion problem has increased a hundred-fold in areas. As an example, in the past 150 years, one-half the fertile topsoil of Iowa has been lost to erosion.

Topsoil is a strategic and underappreciated resource. Soil can be conserved, made, and lost and it is the balance of these factors that determines the soils fertility. How we manage the soil resource in our generation will affect generations to come. As long as soil erosion continues to exceed soil production, it is only a matter of time before agriculture fails to support Earths humanity.

What Can We Learn from the Trials and Errors of Our Ancestors?

Çatalhöyük, Anatolia (modern Turkey) was home to a Neolithic farming civilization that lasted around a thousand years starting about 7500 BC. Scientists have studied skeletal remains which have provided a highly informative record of human health. From the skeletal health record they have been able to divide this civilization into three distinct health time periods: Early, Middle and Late. During the Middle period the civilization reached its peak in population and health, and then as soil fertility was depleted the human skeletal health parameters demonstrated decline. By the end of the Late period 52% of human births resulted in infant mortality before the age of two months. Similar skeletal health studies have been conducted on the remains of other farming civilizations globally with outcome of human health declining in parallel with topsoil and soil fertility depletion, supporting the assumption that human health is interdependent on topsoil retention and soil fertility.

Dr. David R. Montgomery succinctly identifies the problem and a potential solution in his book Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations: “Sustaining our collective well being requires prioritizing society’s long term interest in soil stewardship; it is an issue of fundamental importance to our civilization. We simply cannot afford to view agriculture as just another business because the economic benefits of soil conservation can be harvested only after decades of stewardship, and the cost of soil abuse is borne by all.”

What Does a New Sustainable Agriculture Ethic Require from Us?

In Dr. David Montgomery’s more recent publication “Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life,” he outlines solutions to soil conservation and topsoil rebuilding techniques he has witnessed applied in the field around the world. He identifies the main culprit of soil erosion in agriculture as the invention of the plow. The plow breaks the soil structure and exposes the underground community of biota to the surface. “The plow is the villain that set the seeds for soil degradation. Only deserts have bare earth and Nature tends to clothe herself in plants.”

Another challenge is that during one generation a farmer can seldom see the effects of topsoil erosion unless a dramatic natural weather event sweeps the soil away. During day to day farming it is difficult to ascertain the minimal yet additive effects of traditional tillage techniques. Fallow land tillage is a traditional technique that leads to desertification and needs to be abandoned and replaced with topsoil preserving methods. Topsoil conservation and rebuilding requires the focused consciousness of Intergenerational Soil Stewardship to guide agricultural sustainability.

Soil is in a Symbiotic Living Relationship with Plants

When plants are actively photosynthesizing they release 30% to 40% of the sugars, carbon compounds, and proteins they manufacture through their roots into the root rhizosphere. The root exudes these nutrients to feed the underground community of fungi and microbes in exchange for micronutrients from fungi and microbial metabolites that act as growth stimulators and plant health promoters.

When plants are fed synthetic N, P, K they grow big on top of the ground but do not invest in growing a big root system and do not deliver as much nutritious root exudates to feed the underground microbial and fungi communities. As a result the plant does not reap the benefits of vitality factors and micronutrients. The plants overall health is less and the plant tissue has demonstratively less micronutrient content to pass on up the food chain. Micronutrient studies demonstrate that under conventional agriculture the plants have lost between 25% to 50% of their micronutrient content in the past 50 years.

The solution to successful topsoil building Dr. Montgomery observed while touring farms around the world required three things to happen at once: no till planting techniques, cover cropping, and adding organic matter to the soil. Dr. Montgomery has coined the method Conservation Agriculture and the methods can be applied in both conventional and organic farms—because when it comes to soil conservation and restoration, everybody needs to get on board.

Principles of Conservation Agriculture:

1. Minimal or no disturbance/direct planting of seeds (e.g., no till)
2. Permanent ground cover: retain crop residues and include cover crop in rotations
3. Diverse crop rotations: to maintain soil fertility and break up pathogen carryover
4. Livestock assisting in topsoil building: mimic bison grazing, move cattle in a tight herd to intensive graze (high disturbance), and move frequently to produce low frequency grazing.

Benefits of Conservation Agriculture, after a short transition period of 2 to 3 years to allow soil organic matter to build fertility:

1. Comparable or increased yields
2. Greatly reduced fossil fuel and pesticide use
3. Increased soil carbon and crop resilience
4. Higher farmer profits

“This is not a question of low tech organic versus GMO & agro-tech….this is about ‘how to apply an understanding of soil ecology to the applied problem of increasing and sustaining crop yields in a post-oil environment’.”

“Agriculture has experienced several revolutions in historical times: the yeoman’s revolution based on relearning Roman soil husbandry and the agrochemical and green revolutions based on fertilizer and agrotechnology. Today, the growing adoption of no-till and organic methods is fostering a modern agrarian revolution based on soil conservation. Whereas past agricultural revolutions focused on increasing crop yields, the ongoing one needs to sustain them to ensure the continuity of our modern global civilization. The philosophical basis of the new agriculture lies in treating soil as a locally adapted biological system rather than a chemical system.”

Intergenerational Soil Stewardship: Society on a global scale based on an agrarian economy adapted to its bioregion dedicated to topsoil conservation and restoration and the development of soil fertility.

Marjorie Harris is an organophyte, agrologist, consultant, and verification officer in BC. She offers organic nutrient consulting and verification services supporting natural systems.

1. Montgomery, D. (2007). Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations. University of California Press. Montgomery, D. (2017). Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life. W. W. Norton & Company.
3. Pimental, D., Burgess, M. (2013). Soil Erosion Threatens Food Production. Agriculture, 3(3), 443-463; doi: 10.3390/agriculture3030443
4. Montgomery, D. (2014). Soil erosion and agricultural sustainability. PNAS. 104 (33) 13268-13272;

Footnotes from the Field: Celebrating the Flight of the Bumblebee

in 2018/Footnotes from the Field/Land Stewardship/Organic Standards/Summer 2018

Marjorie Harris BSc, IOIA V.O. P.Ag

When I think of the ‘wholeness’ of a bioregional ecosystem and imagine the inner workings to identify which biological organisms could have the greatest influence on the entire system, nothing seems to compete with the influential power of the domesticated honey bee.

This industrious pollinator flies great distances to gather nectar and pollen. The Canadian Organic Standards (COS) Clause 7.1.10 recognizes the prodigious flying capacity of the honey bee by requiring apiaries to be protected by a three kilometre buffer zone from pesticides, GMO crops, sewage sludge, and other environmental contaminants. I decided to calculate just how big of an area a three kilometre radius would cover—an astounding 28.27 square kilometers! Wow! The domesticated honey bee’s influence in a bioregion extends over a huge pollination territory.


CAN/CGSB-32.310 7.1.10 Location of hives
Where sources or zones of prohibited substances are present, that is, genetically engineered crops or environmental contamination, apiaries shall be protected with a buffer zone of 3 km (1.875 mi.).

CAN/CGSB-32.310 7.1.7 When bees are placed in wild areas, impact on the indigenous insect population shall be considered.

In stark contrast to the honey bee’s huge domain is the relatively small realm of influence the humble bumble bee commands. There are well over 450 native bee species in British Columbia and 45 of those are bumble bees.

The bumble bee is the only other social bee that makes honey. Bumble bee colonies are very small containing between 50 to 200 bees. Seventy percent of the colonies are formed by ground nesters, while others nest in cavities of dead wood or pithy stems.

The average bumble bee species will only travel 100 to 200 m from the home nest to collect nectar and pollen. The average domain of pollination influence for a bumble bee is between 0.031 km2 and 0.13 km2. Putting this all into perspective, for each honey bee colony’s influence domain of 28.27 km2 there could be between 200 to 900 humble bumble bee ground nesting colonies competing for many of the same nectar and pollen resources!

Frisky bumblebee. Credit: Gilles Gonthier

The good news for bumble bees is that many of them are specially designed to harvest nectar and pollen from native flowers that honey bees can’t access. The bad news is that native bee populations are in decline due to loss of native foraging habitat, pesticides, and mechanized farming destroying nests by tilling the soil.

Social bee colonies form ‘super organisms,’ with all individuals working for one home. The honey bee’s ‘super organism’ even exceeds in bioregional influence the largest organism on planet Earth, a honey fungus that extends its reach over 10.36 km2 of the Malheur National Forest in the Blue Mountains of Oregon. Honey fungus is a plant parasite that manages its domain by selecting which plants live within its territory. The fertilization by pollination of plants by the bee has a similar selection effect on the ecosystem. By geographic area, one domestic honeybee hive has three times the bioregional influence of the largest organism on earth.

COS clause 7.1.7 recognizes that imported domestic honey bees have an impact on the indigenous insect populations. I would say that even though the vast majority of farmers cannot qualify to produce organic honey themselves, it should be recognized that the conventional production of honey is having a major impact on our native pollinators. Taking the lead from clause 7.1.7, we can conscientiously strive to protect and provide forage habitat and safe nesting sites for the humble bumble bee and other native pollinators.

Brown-belted Bumble Bee (Bombus griseocollis). Credit: Andrew C
Brown-belted Bumble Bee (Bombus griseocollis). Credit: Andrew C

By providing forage habitat and safe nesting sites for bumble bees, we are having a direct influence on the health and wealth of our home bioregional ecosystem. As an environmentally conscious and active community, we can have a positive impact in our bioregion by providing for our indigenous insect pollinators as we mobilize ourselves to address the environmental needs of these indigenous insects.

There are so many delicious wild berries that need the bumble bee. The flowers on these berries are enclosed so it takes a bumble bee’s specialized long “tongue” to get to the plant’s nectar. As the bumble bee ‘buzzes’ on these flowers the muscles it uses for flying releases the flower pollen and sticks to its long body bristles to be transferred to other flowers.

Buffer zones are an excellent starting place to plant native vegetation, trees, shrubs, and flowers that will become oases of survival for the humble bumble bees.
If you need further inspiration, think about the near extinction of the native bee pollinator for the vanilla orchid, which produces vanilla beans, the shiny green orchid bee. All commercial vanilla bean operations must now employ hand pollination!

Another shocker in the news is that Walmart and other interested corporations have been patenting designs for robotic pollinators. I’d rather keep the robots out of the pollination equation, especially since we can set aside buffer zones and wild areas and gradually restore unfragmented sections of land devoted to a wide diversity of native pollinator vegetation, undisturbed nesting locations, and overwintering sites for bumble bee queens.

Check out the link below for a library of seasonal listings for pollinator plants to build your pollinator gardens. Celebrate the amazing bumble bee!

Marjorie Harris is an organophyte, agrologist, consultant, and verification officer in BC. She offers organic nutrient consulting and verification services supporting natural systems.

Feature photo: Bombus Impatiens. Credit: Katja Schulz





Footnotes from the Field: Seeds of Resilience

in 2018/Footnotes from the Field/Grow Organic/Organic Standards/Seeds/Spring 2018
Leet and onion starts at a plant sale

Seeds of Resilience for Thriving Bioregionalism

Marjorie Harris BSc, IOIA V.O. P.Ag

Bioregionalism is a philosophical concept that promotes the harmonization of human culture and activities with those of the environmental bioregion they reside in. There is also an emphasis on local food production for local markets, including indigenous plants and animals.

The organic community has developed into a proactive global sub-culture phenomenon whose regulatory standards happen to work hand in glove in implementing some fundamental bioregionalism concepts. Case in point, the use of organic seed when and where possible.

CAN/CGSB-32.310-2015 Clause 5.3 Seeds and planting stock: Organic seed, bulbs, tubers, cuttings, annual seedlings, transplants, and other propagules shall be used…

The tenants of bioregionlism recognise the uniqueness of each ecosystem’s bioregion as defined by its natural boundaries. Often these natural boundaries are not related to national boundaries: for instance, the bio-geoclimatic subzone of the Okanagan Valley stretches through southern British Columbia into Washington state. The organic sub-culture spans the globe and in this sense the bioregion or ecoregion that is defined is the entirety of the earth system herself.

In some ways Bioregionlism harkens back to a time before modern industrialization, when food production was still predominantly local and relied on hardy regional crop varieties that were grown using traditional farming methods and largely consumed by local peoples. In that pre-industrial model, each community had its own work force that could produce enough local foods to support its local population base.

In a world comprised of unpredictable natural disasters and volatile global markets subject to politico-economic shifts, we find that the organic regulatory requirement for the use of organic seed brings the concept of “resilience” into the bioregionalism equation. On a global basis, the organic community directly supports the establishment of local seed reserves, local seed exchanges, the maintenance of open pollinated heritage varieties, the conservation of regionally hardy varieties, local seed producers, and a seed saver aware community.

This is in contrast to the reduction of seed diversity and the increasing vulnerability of seed supplies managed by the multinational conglomerates.

In the past 60 years we have witnessed a rapid consolidation of smaller regional seed companies into a handful of multinational seed producers. The vast majority of seeds are grown out in select regions of the globe and shipped back to farmers. Risks are inherent when you put all your eggs in one basket, so to speak. A traumatic disruption, such as a volcanic eruption or an untimely winter freeze could wipe out the majority of seed for one crop in a production year.

Forty percent of all hybrid onion seed grown for commercial production in North America comes from a few hundred acres in the Yuma, Arizona. Jefferson County, Oregon supplies 45% of the global market for hybrid carrot seed and supplies 55% of the US domestic market. A main carrot seed producer has reported losing his entire crop due to a winter freeze, significantly reducing seed supplies for a commercial carrot crops.

Another vulnerability that comes with consolidated seed production is hybridization which inherently limits variety and loses some plant characteristics available to open pollinated varieties. Hybrid seeds are a dead end for seed savers as progeny diverge from parent genetics after the first generation. As well, hybrids have not been selected for local characteristics and regional hardiness, as open pollinated seeds are through rogueing.

In Canada, seed production for onions and carrots is a two year process as the plants are biannual seed producers. Contrast that with the longer growing seasons of the more southern USA, where onions and carrots can be an annual crop. Under annual crop growing conditions rigorous rogueing for carrot variety cannot be conducted as only the leaf tops can be checked for shape. Here in Canada, carrots are dug up and the roots rogued out for desired characteristics and replanted the following spring as ‘stecklings,’ with seed harvested in the fall of the second year.

The organic standards provide a globally unified conversation around seed production ideals and philosophy that actively seeks to build bioregional communities with seed and food resilience at their core. The use of organic seed embodies much more than just a commercial value or niche market item as it is the ‘seed core of resilience’ for thriving bioregional communities. Without the seeds of diversity and regionalism we lose the strength of resilience in an uncertain world.

Happy seed saving!

Marjorie Harris is an organophyte, agrologist, consultant, and verification officer in BC. She offers organic nutrient consulting and verification services supporting natural systems.

Photo of leek and onion starts at a plant sale: Moss Dance


1. Onions:
2. Carrots:
3. Carrots:

Footnotes from the Field: Principle of Care

in 2018/Footnotes from the Field/Organic Community/Organic Standards/Winter 2018

A Culture of Caring For Our Children’s Children

Marjorie Harris BSc, IOIA V.O. P.Ag

This past year offered me a renewed and greater depth of understanding for the foundations of organic agriculture that are steeped in a culture of caring and concern for how the long term ramifications of today’s actions will affect tomorrow’s world.

One of my field-person positions required that I obtain a pesticide applicator’s licence. As I worked through the educational material provided through the BC government training program, I was taken aback to read that certain pesticides have been identified that have the ability to kill the soil irreversibly. I do not comprehend how any substances in this category of lethality could even be considered for agricultural use.

Soil fertility is a primary concern for organic and regenerative agriculture. To quote Rodale, “healthy soil, healthy plants, healthy people”. This quote and concept makes a lot of sense to me. The healthier the soil, the more microbes and fungi systems available to actively deliver nutrients to the plants. More nutrients help plants develop strong immune systems and robust growth that ultimately translate into more phytonutrients created per plant. These well fed, healthy plants supply those proteins, carbohydrates, minerals, vitamins, and species unique phytonutrients to the human dinner plate.

The culture of caring for soil fertility over the long term in organic agriculture is in stark contrast to the concept that there would be legitimate reasons to knowingly kill the soil through conventional agriculture methods. This concept was shocking and foreign to me and made me immediately more deeply thankful for the organic culture of caring for the living earth.

The basic Canada Organic Standard requires a buffer zone that can offer growers an opportunity to build in biodiversity zones. The Demeter Canada inspection forms demonstrate an example of deeper long term caring. Here, reflection on caring for, and protecting ancient forest soils and their living biodiversity, is implied in questions:

3.9 No clearing of virgin forest or high value conservation areas.

3.10 Is 10% of the productive farm area a biodiversity reserve?

The biodynamic practice of protecting undisturbed forest soils for future generations is supported by current scientific evidence, which has found that the ectomycorrhizal fungi of the forest can absorb 30% more human created carbon dioxide under low nitrogen conditions than grassland and agricultural soils dominated by arbuscular fungi.

The roots of forest plants are closely associated with their ectomycorrhizal fungi that can deliver extra atmospheric carbon dioxide directly to the plant, causing a 30% increase in growth—this is termed the ‘fertilization effect’. In a recent study into the fertilization effect, the research team analysed 83 carbon dioxide fertilization experiments, which demonstrated that a plant’s ability to take advantage of extra CO2 depended on whether the roots were associated with ectomycorrhizal or arbuscular fungi. The forest-type ectomycorrhizal won hands down every time with an extra 30% plant growth. The arbuscular fungi in the agricultural/grassland was not able to take advantage of higher carbon dioxide levels at all. (Terrer, et al., 2016)

It was determined that the arbuscular fungi need higher levels of nitrogen in the soil compared to the forest ectomycorrhizal fungi, which are able to absorb soil nitrogen even under low nitrogen conditions. The ability to absorb soil nitrogen determines how much carbon dioxide can be absorbed to fertilize the plants into extra growth. During this time of climate change concern, forests and forest soils are a real and measurable ally for their ability to sequester and reduce the increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and therefore help stabilize global temperature.

A final thought on preserving ancient soils comes to mind and that is the power of humates and fulvic acid, both formed by ancient processes that can take thousands of years. The average residence time of humic substances in undisturbed soils based on radiocarbon dating is as follows: humin, 1140 years; humic acid, 1235 years; and fulvic acid, 870 years. Conventional agricultural practices have shortened the residence time of humic substances through excessive fertilizing and by using tillage methods that expose the sod to weathering.

In this age of CRISPR genome editors (DNA editors) being put in the public marketplace for anybody to tinker with gene splicing, the reported power of fulvic acid to repair RNA/DNA is also in the news. Crop farmers tout the capacity of fulvic acid to raise crop immunities and to even repair DNA after genetic modification. Fulvic acids are also available for human consumption and list immunity boosting powers and potential nerve tissue regeneration.

While much of the evidence for fulvic acid and humates is still in anecdotal evidence, the scientific body of supporting evidence is growing. Who knows what the future holds, it may very well be that the information and memory in the ancient soils will save us from manmade DNA disruptions.

The future is in our hands, and in the choices we make day to day. An organic culture of caring for our children’s children with careful soil fertility management techniques that protect the mysteries and unknown wealth of ancient soil biodiversity is an idea and community that gets my supporting vote!

Marjorie Harris is an organophyte, agrologist, consultant, and verification officer in BC. She offers organic nutrient consulting and verification services supporting natural systems. 


Terrer, C., Vicca, S., Hungate, B.A., Phillips, R.P., Prentice, I.C. (2016). Mycorrhizal association as a primary control of the CO2 fertilization effect. Science, 353(6294):72-4. doi: 10.1126/science.aaf4610.

Footnotes from the Field: Ecological Biomimicry

in Fall 2017/Footnotes from the Field

The Art and Science of Organic Agriculture

Marjorie Harris BSc, IOIA V.O. P.Ag

The Principle of Health: Organic Agriculture should sustain and enhance the health of soil, plant, animal, human and planet as one and indivisible.

The Principle of Health, as stated by IFOAM, is the original premise that modern organic agriculture is based on. This Principle of Health was inspired by Lady Eve Balfour’s words from her 1943 publication The Living Soil. Here she writes, “the health of soil, plant, animal, and man is one and indivisible.” Lady Eve Balfour went on to become co-founder and first president of the Soil Association.

Preceding Lady Balfour’s work, in 1940, Sir Albert Howard wrote An Agricultural Testament. Sir Albert’s work was based on his keen observations while living and studying agricultural methods in India from 1905–1924. He was sent as an agricultural advisor on assignment by the British Crown. What Sir Albert discovered was that the Indian method of farming had much more to teach him then he had to teach them. He observed that all waste plant and animal matter was gathered for composting and then returned to the garden as a rich humus substance.

Preceding both Lady Balfour and Sir Howard, Rudolph Steiner gave a series of lectures in 1924 that became the foundation for the organic Biodynamic Agriculture movement. Early on in the 20th century many observers were noticing that chemical based agriculture was depleting the life of the soils and became increasingly concerned. In response to these growing concerns a group of farmers approached Rudolph Steiner as the founder of Anthroposophy for help and guidance. Steiner had established Anthroposophy as a formal educational, therapeutic, and creative system that sought to use mainly natural means to optimize health in all realms of well being.

Mark Gibeau and his compost tea process. Photo credit: Marjorie Harris

The inspiration and reason for the emergence of organic agriculture is the Principle of Health in that healthy soils grow healthy plants that support healthy people. So, how has this played out in the organic standards as we know them today? Are we achieving our goals for health from the ground up?

In Sir Albert’s later book, The Soil and Health: A Study of Organic Agriculture, he says, “the first duty of the agriculturalist must always be to understand that he is a part of Nature and cannot escape from his environment. He must therefore obey Nature’s rules.”

Following the rules of nature leads us to another pioneering concept, “biomimetics,” first articulated in the 1950s by American biophysicist and polymath Otto Schmitt. Ecological Biomimicry is a method for creating solutions for perceived problems by emulating designs and ideas found in nature. This is the point where organic agriculture blurs the lines between art and science and we chase the gold at the end of the rainbow. Because agriculture is a man made artifice placed on natures’ landscape, we need to find natural examples for ecological biomimicry that bring in natural health balances into our farming practices.

How do we preserve or enhance the natural integrity of a forest or prairie soil while growing foods for human purposes? As an example, consider soil fertility management just from the basis of adding waste plant and animal matter and how the following organic standard is interpreted and implemented by the individual operator.

COR CAN/CGSB 32.310 General Principles and Management Standards Section

Soil amendments including liquid manure, slurries, compost tea, solid manure, raw manure, compost and other substances listed in Table 4.2 of CAN/CGSB-32.311, shall be applied to land in accordance with good nutrient management practices.

Mark Gibeau and his compost tea process. Photo credit: Marjorie Harris

A simple overview of employed organic methods:

  • Raw manure, solid manure, liquid manure, and slurries are simply incorporated into the soil according to the timing specified by the standard. Soil organisms are left the task of capturing the nutrients. This method is the least effective for retaining nutrients in the root zone of the intended crop or for developing a good humus body.
  • The Biodynamic approach employs techniques that call into play some esoteric health principles that go beyond the local environment to also consider the cosmic forces that affect the entire planet. A cosmic calendar is followed and the Biodynamic preparations foster fungi and other factors that improve compost production dramatically according to practitioners. Field sprays and teas vitalize the soils along with the compost applications. The resulting plant growth achieved has greater immunity and perhaps a greater concentration of phytonutrients. The soil fertility is measurably enhanced by these methods, the nutrients are stabilized for slow release to crops, and humus and organic matter are increased in the crop root zone.
  • The underlying concept for the Soil Food Web soil health method is based on the concept that Comprehensive Soil Analysis samples demonstrate that the majority of soils around the planet have all of the mineral nutrients a plant needs, it is just a matter of releasing those minerals to the plant in a bioavailable form. Compost teas are cultured in such a way that when applied to the soil the microorganisms released are capable of transforming the minerals into plant bioavailable forms. Composts are also applied. The outcomes are dependent on the qualities of the individual compost teas. The addition of composts measurably enhance the nutrients that are stabilized for slow release to crops, and humus and organic matter are increased in the crop root zone.
  • Standard composting according to time, temperature, and turning produces a product that when applied to the soil, measurably enhances fertility, the nutrients are stabilized for slow release to crops, and humus and organic matter are increased in the crop root zone.

The health principle emphasises that the healthy farming eco-systems is dependent and built on the foundation of healthy soils and cannot be separated from the soil health. The health of plants, animals, and people are interdependent on the health of the soil and plant and animal matter being returned to the soil fertility in a manner respecting Ecological Biomimicry. “How would Mother Nature do it?” Is a relevant question to ask when evaluating our farming and soil fertility practices. The more we can quantify our current practices and have the conversation on sharing the best ecological biomimicry practices across the board, the more we’ll be able to benefit every level of planet health.

Marjorie Harris is an agrologist, consultant, and verification officer in BC. She offers organic nutrient consulting and verification services supporting natural systems.

Footnotes from the Field: the Ladybugs of Snowy Mountain

in Footnotes from the Field/Pest Management/Summer 2017

An Ecological Partnership in Biological Control

Marjorie Harris, BSC, P.Ag.

A magical event takes place each spring in Walter Harvey’s orchard. As the sun warms and thaws the landscape into frost free days, the Ladybugs that spent the winter huddled together in the cracks and crevices of Snowy Mountain’s rocky faced peak emerge in the thousands, taking flight down into the blossom filled orchards below. Along with the Ladybugs, Bumble Bees and other wild bees leave the rocky shelter to join the spring blossom feasts.The ladybugs come in such large numbers to Walter’s orchard that so far this year out of 10,000 trees he has only found a handful of black cherry aphid clusters. When clusters are found Walter cuts them out and drenches them in barrels of water to stop further spread. The Ladybugs are very aggressive at eating the aphids during all life stages from egg to larva to adult—the final result is that very seldom over 25 years has Walter had aphid problems.

During winter hikes several hundred meters above the valley floor up to the rocky faced peak of Snowy Mountain, Walter has observed the Ladybugs crowded into crevices by the hundreds, “It’s a really remarkably beautiful sight,” Walter says, speaking in tones of wonder when considering the complexity of nature. Through biodynamic practices Walter is careful not to interrupt the beneficial organisms’ ecologically balanced systems at work in the orchard and makes efforts to support their natural life cycles.

Grasshoppers sometimes nip overripe fruit and live mostly on the ground in the grass. Physical control methods are frequent mowing, occasional rototilling, and cover crop rotation. However, Walter reports that the orchard hosts a huge population of Praying Mantis who do much of the grasshopper control. The Ground Mantis is the only species native to the Okanagan Valley while the European Mantis was introduced to in the 1890s specifically to control grasshoppers. Both species are present in the South Okanagan. Walter is careful to respect and not disturb the papery egg cases hardened to stems, twigs, trees, or posts, each of which contains hundreds of eggs.

Predacious wasps control leaf roller larva, coddling moth, and nematodes. The Mud Wasp domain is in the grasses and the Yellow Jacket Wasps control the tree canopies. Walter has installed 150 Wren houses around the orchard that are filled yearly. The Wrens are insectivores that provide additional control for leaf rollers and aphids throughout the season.

Nematodes are further controlled by disrupting the soil stage of their lifecycle. In the orchard drive row, Walter rotates cover crops of rye, clover, vetch, and oats to prevent catastrophic nematode populations from emerging. A large flock of free range ducks are run through the orchard after harvest is complete; they eat insect larva, eggs, and nematodes before the winter freeze.

Walter finds that most years his insect allies outnumber his insect pests and his experience echoes that of ancient farmers. Natural enemies were first recorded to be actively employed as biological controls in plant protection in China in 304 AD where large black predacious ants were gathered up and carried to citrus trees to control tree pests. The historical evidence is clear that biological controls have played an important role in plant protection since ancient times and the knowledge and use of these farming tools spread to Yemen and Egypt relatively quickly.

The main groupings of biological controls are: predators, parasitoids, and pathogens. Predatory insects eat pest insects; parasitic insects lay their eggs inside pests and the larvae develop within the host, killing it; and pathogens such as fungi or bacteria consume the pests.

How can these biological controls be encouraged to move into your garden?

First is food: many predatory insects dine on pollen when insect pests are in short supply. Keep a healthy supply of some of these favorite pollen rich producers growing in abundance: Angelica, Calendula, Caraway, Chives, Cilantro, Coreopsis, Cosmos, Dandelions, Dill, Fennel, Feverfew, Marigold, Scented Geraniums, Sweet Alyssum, Tansy, and Yarrow.

Second is water: provide water features throughout the garden containing fresh non-stagnant water.

Third is shelter: Vegetated buffers or clumps of natural flora and fauna that give thick cover provide good homes to beetles, birds, and amphibians.

Fourth is respect to lifecycle: know where the eggs for next year’s progeny will be and carefully sustain them. Protect beneficials from management disturbances, pesticides, and adverse environmental conditions as much as possible.

Table 1: Common Natural Enemies of Crop and Garden Pests of the Pacific Northwest

Marjorie Harris, BSC, P.Ag. IOIA V.O.; EcoAudit Ag-Grow Service; Email:

Photo credit: Marjorie Harris

Footnotes from the Field: Root Cellar Art

in Footnotes from the Field/Organic Community/Spring 2017

Editor’s note: We’re taking a detour from the usual Organic Standards focus of Footnotes to explore the inspiration that can strike while working in the field. A farmer’s life is more than physical labour and paperwork—spending so much time in the natural world opens a window into art for many, including Cathie Allen, who wrote about her art for this issue.

Cathie Allen

“Stored away in the root cellar of my mind” is how Cathie Allen begins to discuss the subjects of her watercolour paintings. Like all full-time organic market gardeners, Cathie’s summer life is consumed by cauliflower, chickens, meals for the crew, and everything else that makes up a farm. Yet, these seasonal images linger, and are “stored away” (and sometimes reinforced with photographs) until winter, when they come back to life with brush and paper.

For the most part self-taught, Cathie acknowledges the inspiration she received from her Mom, who at 90 still paints; she was also strongly influenced by Karen Muntean, who provided instruction at the Island Mountain School of Arts in Wells, BC. Cathie’s work has been described as “fresh”, “keenly sensitive to detail”, with an “earthiness” that saturates it all.

Her recent works, the root series, are filled with good examples. “With these paintings, I wanted to expose some of the beautiful vegetables which mostly grow underground, often unnoticed. Especially nowadays with the huge disconnect between people and their food sources, much more than flavour and nutrition stand to be lost.” Her root series consists of 10 original watercolour paintings, featuring beets, summer turnips, leeks, potatoes, shallots, radishes, garlic, parsnips, carrots, and onions.

The painting with the horses, the one she calls “family portrait”, depicts the four black percheron horses working abreast, pulling a disc. It was these four horses who broke the five-acre market garden, half an acre a year. “Sadly, these four horses are now all buried here, but we have a replacement team to carry on with the farm work and provide me with future inspiration”, adds Cathie.

Cathie’s work has been displayed in Cariboo and Central Interior galleries, as well as being selected for display by the BC Festival of the Arts. She also painted the cover and chapter illustrations for a children’s historical novel, Moses, Me, and Murder.

Cathie Allen has been a life-long painter. She lives and farms with her partner Rob Borsato at Mackin Creek, on the west side of the Fraser River, about 45 kms north of Williams Lake, BC. They have operated Mackin Creek Farm, a five acre, horse-powered market garden, since 1988.

Footnotes from the Field: Organic Nutrient Management

in Crop Production/Footnotes from the Field/Tools & Techniques/Winter 2017

Marjorie Harris, BSc, IOIA VO, P.Ag.

New Techniques for Organic Nutrient Management

As the International Year of Pulses draws to a close it is nice to give a tip of the hat to pulses, the peas and beans, and to their leguminous cousins, alfalfa and the clovers. Research has demonstrated that legumes in symbiotic relationship with Rhizobacteriums biofertilize the cropping system by fixing prodigious amounts of nitrogen from the air. Able to deliver hundreds of pounds of nitrogen per acre, legumes are an extremely valuable green manure crop to include in crop rotations.

2016 marked the 25th anniversary for Canada’s oldest organic vs conventional comparative study conducted by the University of Manitoba at the Glenlea Research Station. The organic cropping research primarily focuses on long term crop rotations for grains and green manures.

This year Martin Entz, lead researcher, in conjunction with Joanne Thiessen Martens, and Katherine Stanley, rolled out a two year consultant training program for their new Organic Nutrient Management (ONM) system. Currently only 10 consultants from across Western Canada are enrolled in the hands-on training working directly with farmers to implement the ONM system.

The ONM program is designed to track the soluble and plant available nutrients Nitrogen (N), Phosphorous (P), Potassium (K), and Sulphur (S) as they move on and off the farm as imports and exports through an 8 year crop rotation plan. The ONM also includes livestock production within the system.

New nutrient monitoring techniques are employed that rely on leguminous plant tissue bioassays to understand how plant tissue nutrient concentrations relate to soil fertility conditions. Interpreting this kind of data is still quite new, although research has proven that this type of data can lend useful insight for long term soil fertility nutrient management strategies.

There are two parts to the data development. Part 1 determines the nitrogen xation and nutrient concentration rates of N, P, K, S for the legume green manure cover crops on a per acre basis. Part 2 creates a net summary balance of N, P, K, S for imports and exports over an 8 year crop rotation on a per acre and per whole field basis.


Part 1: Determine level of nitrogen biofertilization in pounds per acre and green manure nutrient uptake.

Step 1: Dig up legume roots to check for nodular growth and nodular activity. It is important to inoculate the legumes with the appropriate symbiotic Rhozobacterium for optimum nodular development. The root colonizing Rhizobacterium form large ball-like nodules on the roots of peas and beans, and smaller at, hand shaped nodules on clover and alfalfa roots. When the nodules are actively fixing nitrogen the inner flesh of the nodule will turn a reddish color when broken open and exposed to the oxygen in air. If the inner flesh of the nodule is brown, green or clear the nodule is not actively fixing nitrogen.

Step 2: Cut biomass samples of legumes from a predetermined number of quadrants per field. Sort the legumes from the cut vegetation to record the percentage of legume vs weeds and other plants, then send the total biomass for plant tissue nutrient analysis.

Step 3: From the same plant sampled field take soil samples at 6 and 24 inch depths and send for nutrient analysis. Phosphorous and Potassium are relatively stable in the top six inches of soil whereas Nitrogen and Sulphur are more mobile and tend to leach down through the soil profile, the 24 inch depth sample will capture this movement.

Step 4: Enter the plant tissue and soil fertility results into the specified Excel spreadsheet to calculate nitro- gen biofertilzation per acre. The plant tissue results will also demonstrate if the legumes have sufficient P, K, & S for optimum growth. Long term research has shown that many legumes only need a soil test P at 5 – 9 ppm, to produce optimum nitrogen. However, a soil test rating of 5 – 9ppm P will be reported as Low as a standard soil test interpretation. Martin Entz’s research demonstrates that 5 – 9ppm P is sufficient for good legume growth. Most other crops will require supplementary nutrients for optimum growth.

The three main supplementary forms of phosphorus are: livestock manures, rock phosphate, and animal feeds. Rock phosphate has been shown to be a very slow releaser of plant available phosphorous. The ONM general recommendation for supplying a plant bioavailable form of P is a periodic light application of livestock manure, whether composted or spread raw followed by a green manure cover crop to catch the nutrients up into the plant tissue for slower release of plant available P.

Nitrogen Fixing Nodules

Part 2: Determining the net summary balance import and export of nutrients N, P, K, S, through an 8 year crop rotation per acre and per whole field.

Step 1: Send samples of exported farm biomass, seed, plant, and livestock manure for nutrient testing. Enter results into the ONM Excel spreadsheet. The import, export, and nitrogen fixation biofertilization date is entered and automatically calculated per field per year and then summarized over the 8 year crop rotations on a Whole Field (total acreage) and Per Acre basis.

Examples of 8 year rotation: Table 1.1 is the standard crop rotation the farmer has traditionally employed. The farmer noticed that his yields were falling and that weeds were starting to encroach the crop.

Table 1.1 – Traditional Crop Rotation Plan


Table 1.2 – Modified Crop Rotation Plan


This new approach to Organic Nutrient Management over long term crop rotations employs biomass nutrient uptake monitoring and soil testing. The laboratory data generated is entered put into the ONM Excel spreadsheet for net import and export nutrient calculations. The summary results allow the operator to visualize the long term results of various combinations of crop rotations and nutrient supplementations.

Regular green manure crop rotations provide nitrogen biofertilization and assists in the building and maintenance of soil fertility. Higher seeding rates of legume and cover crop can help suppress weed pressures. Plowing down green manure cover crops, straw, and plant waste helps to increase organic matter in the soil. Overall higher soil fertility will increase crop yields and promote healthier disease resistance plants due to sufficient plant available nutrients for optimum growth conditions.

The Glenlea long term research project has proven that organic rotational cropping systems that rely on perennial forage legumes are 222% more energy ef cient than conventional farming techniques. The energy efficiency in the organic management system was attributed to the vast reduction in the use of fossil fuels and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions associated with burning them.

This is a very brief overview of the University of Manitoba’s new Organic Nutrient Management system. For more in-depth information about implementation and to develop long term nutrient management strategies using green manures and nutrient supplements contact Marjorie Harris, Organic Nutrient Management consultant, at



Footnotes from the Field: Biochar

in 2016/Fall 2016/Footnotes from the Field/Grow Organic/Standards Updates/Tools & Techniques
Making Biochar

Marjorie Harris BSc, IOIA VO, P.Ag. with many thanks to Zbigniew Wierzbicki of Elderberry Lane Farm for sharing his knowledge and experience

Turning Wood into Long Term Soil Fertility

Hooray! Biochar has arrived in the new PSL Nov. 25th 2015 edition!

Biochar is considered an excellent way to increase long term soil fertility. As an early pioneer in the farm production and use of biochar, Zbigniew Wierzbicki of Elderberry Lane Farm has always been eager to share the dos and don’ts of his biochar experience. Zbigniew is a strong advocate for the appropriate on-farm use of biochar and its correct production techniques.

The first question is; what is ‘Biochar’?

It seems to have appeared out of nowhere onto the COR PSL. The term Bio-char (biomass derived black carbon) was only coined in 2006 by Dr. Johannes Lehmann at Cornell University’s Crop and Soil Sciences department. Interest in biochar stems from the relatively obscure history and puzzling existence of the Terra Preta (literally ‘black soil’) or ‘dark earths’ scattered throughout the Amazon Basin which have caused much recent scholarly discussion, research and theorizing.

The current consensus is that Pre-Colombian peoples between 2500 to 500 B.P. created the Terra Preta by adding burnt agricultural wastes and pottery kiln ashes to their gardening soils. The Terra Preta soils were first reported in 1542, by the Spanish explorer Francisco de Orellana, to the Spanish court about his discovery of fertile lands supporting a large civilization living in the Amazon rain forest. However, by the time further expeditions arrived, the indigenous Amazonian populations had succumbed to European diseases and the existence of their civilization along with the fertile soils drifted into myth and legend.

In 1885, Cornell University professor, Dr. Charles Hartt described the Amazonian ‘dark earths’. Finally in the
20th century research and interest in the Terra Preta took off after Dutch soil scientist Wim Sombroek reported pockets of rich soils in his 1966 book, Amazon Soils.

Amazingly, these soils created more than a thousand years ago still demonstrate sustainably fertility that support astounding growth potentials compared to their neighbouring poor quality soils. They are rich in mineral nutrients and contain high concentrations of organic matter, on average three times higher than in the surrounding

The Pyrolytic Process

The pyrolytic process involves heating the biomass materials in the absence of oxygen. This causes a chemical reaction process whereby carbon transforms into highly interlinked aromatic chains forming a very porous and absorbent product. Pyrolytic heating causes 75% loss of the original biomass while retaining 50% of the plant carbon. The highest temperature reached during pyrolysis influences the molecular structure and the nal pore size and pore distribution, factors that govern its absorptive behaviour in the environment.

The resulting biochar is highly stable and resistant against microbial decay for thousands of years. Biochar increases overall surface area in the soil that can provide niches for increased microbial populations, which aid in reducing plant diseases, such as damping off, by mechanisms that are still unclear. Studies have demonstrated that biochar treated soils mitigate greenhouse gas emissions by reducing nitrous oxide release by up to 90% and by sequestering carbon compound residence time for thousands of years. Biochar also holds nitrogen, phosphorus, and many other minerals for slow release, while increasing the cation exchange capacity (CEC) and water retention ability of the soil.

Making Biochar

Activating the Biochar

As Zbigniew notes, the fresh biochar must first be “activated” by absorbing nutrients. Scattering a light layer of biochar on the barn oor will let the biochar absorb the nutrients from the straw-manure litter while keeping the barn oor sweet and protecting livestock feet from diseases. Biochar can also be charged by soaking it for two to four weeks in any liquid nutrient (urine, plant tea, etc.). If the biochar is not properly activated before being applied to the soil it will absorb the available soil nutrients to fill its absorptive capacity, depleting the soil. Once properly activated by adsorbing the ammonia (NH3) from barn urine and manure, biochar becomes an excellent slow release fertilizer full of bioavailable nitrogen compounds lodged in the carbon pores waiting for release by microbial action. There is evidence that biochar is beneficial to arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi that develop symbiotic relationship with plant roots for greater nutrient uptake.

How to Make Your Own Biochar

1. How to stack wood: Zbigniew emphasizes that biochar burning must be a top down process. The wood stacking method is opposite from what is learned in Boy Scouts, where small kindling is placed on the bottom, Zbigniew explains. When making biochar you place the large wood pieces on the bottom in a pit or trench and pile the small wood on the top, causing the pile to burn downward. Using this stacking method causes the volatile gases that form as the biomass heats up to be consumed by the high temperatures at the top of the pile instead of being released into the air, as is the case in a normally constructed fire.

2. Dig a trench or pit: and bury all of the roots, slash, and large logs. Compact the pile, and put lighter material on top. The intensity of the fire is so incredible that there is no smoke, it creates a very clean burn, and a large amount of biochar is produced. Cover the red hot coals with dirt or if you have a burning pit, cover it to finish the process in a reduced oxygen environment. This prevents the formation of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) in the kiln. Regular burning creates lots of PAH’s, which contaminate the soil and air.

3. Drenching is optional: Zbigniew drenches his biochar at the very end. The caution here is that the liquid from the biochar is very alkaline and the area the liquid goes cannot be used for gardening. Zbigniew has a permanent ditch for catching the liquid.

4. Activating the biochar: After the material is cold, crush into a fine gravel size for use on the bottom of the barn to catch urine and other nutrient goodies. Poultry barns and large livestock barns can all use biochar on the oor. Biochar is like a magnet absorbing minerals. As it absorbs minerals and urine from the animal waste it becomes activated.

5. Neutralizing the biochar: Remove from the barns when saturated and put into the compost with other crop and farm waste. The composting process helps neutralize it before spreading into the garden soil. The microbes of the garden soils will release the minerals from the biochar as they are needed. Because of this microbial release action the biochar will release mineral nutrients for a very long time.

6. Cautionary note: Zbigniew emphasizes that because biochar is so alkaline and so very long acting, it is very important to test your soils pH first. Although composting does move the biochar pH toward neutral you need to check your soil pH to manage it properly for long term changes.

All photos: Marjorie Harris

Clough, T.J., Condron, L.M., Kamman, C., Müller, C. (2013). A Review of Biochar and Soil Nitrogen Dynamics. Agronomy, 3, 275-293; doi:10.3390/agronomy3020275.
Lehmann, J. (2012). Integrated biochar systems for soil fertility management. Cornell University, Mar 26.

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