Burnt wood may be able to save the soil — even in Kansas.
Trisha Jackson, a professor of physical science at Pratt Community College, wants Kansas farmers to learn an easy-to-use technique to rejuvenate soil health.
Biochar, a carbon product made from organic material — usually wood — helps soil retain water and absorb nutrients.
Jackson, who earned her doctorate from the University of Kansas, worked at the biochar research program while she was a professor at South Dakota State University. While there, she studied the effects of this regenerative farming technique.
"In a single growing season, we experienced larger crop yields, higher sugar content and nutrient-dense produce," Jackson said. "I had such great results from that study I wanted to come home and implement it here in Kansas."
Jackson grew up on a farm in Sterling. While living in Pratt, she and her husband tend her mother’s land in Sterling. They use biochar, which they make in a pit, to regenerate the nutrient-deficient acres at Hometree Gardens.
To make biochar, tree branches must reach a high temperature with little smoke.
"The temperature and the pressure rearranges atoms," Jackson said. "Biochar, with its porous structure, provides a home for microbes, stores nutrients and retains and filters water."
Jackson recently held an impromptu biochar demonstration for a few farmers. She wants farmers in Kansas to learn how to make this soil nutrient.
"Once the wood becomes carbon, it must be inoculated," Jackson said. "When you see the burning hot orange-coal color that you see on Kansas sunsets, you know you have it."
Adding compost tea to the carbon moves along the nutrient process.
"Compost gives it that short-term food supply. Biochar brings it home," she said. "It’s just beautiful. It’s full of life."
Adam and Maggie Pounds, who run Simple Abundance Farm, an urban farm in South Hutchinson, watched the demonstration.
"We’re fascinated by the chemistry behind it," Adam Pounds said. "And the opportunity to use forest products in Kansas is pretty exciting."
Along with increasing crop health, this technique can be used for lawn care and animal bedding. Research has also been done on cattle feeding.
Grant Rardon, of McPherson Turf Care, who already maintains a worm farm, said he is looking into using biochar with fertilizer to increase fertility.
Kingman County farmer Russell Smith started using biochar three years ago.
"I own 80 acres of severely degraded farmland," Smith said. "I actually have no top soil. It literally has the fertility of a parking lot."
Smith started researching composting and came across biochar. Along with making his own biochar, he builds a triangular-shaped unit called a Hemi-cube Cone Kiln for farmers to make their own soil enhancer.
Jackson’s goal is to educate farmers on how to enhance their soil naturally and consequently grow better crops.
"I felt there was a disconnect between the research community and the farming community," Jackson said. "One gram of powdered biochar has the surface area of a football field."