Friday, February 18, 2011
Have you heard about the "New Normal"? That phrase seems to be creeping around and challenging our thinking a lot these days. Gas prices too high? Maybe that is the New Normal. Unemployment through the roof? New Normal strikes again. Worried about drastic weather changes due to climate change? You guessed it, the dreaded New Normal. The phrase has embedded into it that the good old days are gone and now we have to adjust. The idea of accepting negative change as normal has a hint fatalism in it, but it is also going for realism. This is the just way it is folks. Or is it?
We are lucky enough to live in an area where there are some thoughtful folks thinking about the current day issues and proposing a different sort of New Normal. In the Prairie Farm area a group of people has formed a group called the Hay River Transition Initiative. They are looking at the coming changes that will be necessary in communities to respond to a low energy future. They are thinking of community-wide solutions and acting proactively to prepare for change. One thing that they have noticed is that a low energy future does not necessarily mean a dismal life. One unintended result our current unlimited access to cheap fossil fuels is the ease with which people can live lives in complete social isolation. In fact, not only does cheap energy allow us to isolate from other people, but it also allows us to disassociate from the need to use our bodies for productive work. The coming changes could bring people together as we discover that not only do we need each other, but we also enjoy being together in community. What if the New Normal is a party, where everyone works and plays together?
The Hay River Transition Initiative people are having an open event on Saturday March 5th. People from the Prairie Farm area will be gathering to share skills and experiences. Check out the flyer.
Sunday, February 13, 2011
by Analisa and Jeff DeGrave
Hues of blue, green, brown and misty white
Sin duda, the highlight of our travels with the Farmer to Farmer delegation to Honduras, was our time in the small community of Río Negro. Located in the cloud forest of Montaña de Comayagua National Park, Río Negro has a pleasant climate and a landscape that defies the camera’s technological ability to capture the depth of its beauty, one that is defined by hues of blue, green, brown and misty white that comes in with the clouds. Our first night in Río Negro we saw this vista lit up by the warming red and orange hues of a sunset while every day after it included a palette of vibrant flowers, electric-blue butterflies, and the deep greens and reds of coffee plants. Rainbows would occasionally appear through the foliage during our hikes through the cloud forest as if this colorful visual effect were dropped into the landscape by Walt Disney himself by request of our skilled Farmer to Farmer presidente, Andy Gaertner.
The brilliance of a night sky
While some of the houses in Río Negro have electricity powered by the micro-turbines installed by Adalid and Hector, at night the community is dark, as the city of Comayaguas’ electric grid does not reach the community. Without the light-pollution to which we are accustomed, looking up at the sky we stood silent in awe of the brilliance and expanse of night. Only in Alaska and the Boundary Waters have we seen such entertainment by the stars and moon of the evening sky.
Like our fellow Farmer to Farmer companions in Honduras—Andy, Zac, Deb and Pete, we stayed in “eco-huts” while in Río Negro. We had the pleasure of spending two wonderful nights at the eco-hut of Lucio and Ana Luisa Yanes. We arrived late in the evening after enjoying a delicious and lively dinner at Avilio and Betilia’s home. The ever considerate and helpful Hector dropped us off at the driveway to the Yanes’ home, and with the use of our flashlight we walked into the darkness to meet our hosts. Lucio and his grandson kindly escorted us up the steps to our eco-hut. Lucio invited us to light the solitary candle to show us around the hut. In the terminology of what one might find in an on-line hotel guide, our hut was “tranquil, spacious, clean and very quiet; private bathroom and a ‘direct from the cool mountain stream’ shower were included; gracious and friendly hosts; delicious and generous breakfast available upon request; magnificent vistas of the cloud forest. And a curious canine friend to greet you in the morning.” Having purchased a bottle of Avilio’s homemade wine (made of passion fruit, cashew fruit and naranjillo), we enjoyed the tranquility and candlelight of an early Valentine’s Day as we heard the rain gently tap on the metal roof of our tropical “cabin in the woods.”
We met our host, Ana Luisa, in the morning when she invited us to sit down for breakfast in the kitchen of her house. At the table we were drawn to tantalizing smells of our morning meal and the vista of her kitchen window. From this window, Ana Luisa and her family have a spectacular view of the valley—one of those views that is permanently frozen in one’s internal scrapbook. As Ana Luisa prepared our tortillas by hand on a traditional grinding stone, she explained that fewer and fewer families use this technique due to the affordability of pre-made tortillas. I guess technology has its downside, too. We enjoyed a hearty breakfast of rice, beans, meat, eggs, tortillas, cheese, and vegetables—and, of course, coffee. Taking in the view of the valley and savoring our breakfast, we laughed at the Yanes’ dog, who tried to dodge the eye of Ana Luisa while perching his head and paws onto the outside windowsill to inspect this morning’s fixin’s. You can see by the photo that our mornings came with what was perhaps one of the most beautiful breakfast window vistas one can every imagine. At no additional charge.
Back home in Wisconsin as we reflect on our brief time in Honduras, the most enduring memory of our experience in Río Negro is the generosity and character of our hosts. The Hondurans’ hospitality, generosity, and kindness were truly the warmest colors of all.
Wednesday, February 9, 2011
Monday, February 7, 2011
Bocashi fertilizer at Don Chico's farm, contains biochar.
When I was recently in Honduras, my organic farmer friends kept talking about using crushed charcoal as a soil amendment. They mixed it with worm compost to make a soil mix for a tree nursery, and they mixed it with other ingredients to make bocashi fertilizer. My friend talked about the discovery of black dirt in the Amazon, known locally as “terra preta,” which was discovered to be a human-made soil that has persisted for thousands of years without losing fertility. The studies revealed that ancient civilizations mixed charcoal with pottery fragments to create a soil resistant to the weathering effects of rain and heat. I came back from Honduras curious about soil charcoal, and I discovered that there is a lot of excitement here in the States about using charcoal in the soil to sequester carbon to reduce greenhouse gases and also secondarily to improve the soil quality. They call it “Biochar.”
As an organic farmer I am aware that there are many “miracle soil amendments” out there. For $59.99 I can buy a bag of this or that microbial mix or mineral mix. You can buy fish meal, and bone meal, and fish bone meal. It is seductive to think that all that is necessary to grow incredible vegetables is to find the secret magic short-cut formula. The list of odd soil amendments is long and varied. In BioDynamic farming there is a preparation that involves burying a cow horn with manure in it and then waiting a year and then using that potentized horn manure to inoculate some rain water for spraying on your fields. At our previous farm, we tried using horn manure and actually had very good results. I don’t begin to know why. There are many mysteries in soil health and in human health.
As a person who was trained as a scientist, I am skeptical of things that I can’t explain; I am also drawn to them. Charcoal seemed to be another such thing. The magical dust for the soil? The missing ingredient in our soil health recipe? Maybe magic is real. My interest was piqued, so I did some internet searches. Sadly, there is no magic here. It is actually pretty straightforward. Charcoal is carbon from organic sources that is stable in the soil; because it has been cooked, it doesn’t have any food value for soil organisms. This means that it does not decompose. This is a bonanza for the soil structure and fertility.
Carbon is what makes soil black: the blacker the soil, the more carbon. Carbon in the soil is always the result of the decomposition of dead plants, insects, and animals. As these plants decompose, the nutrients are released through the action of the soil microbes and soil fauna. These ionic nutrients are available to plants to help growth and vigor. As the dead material decomposes and releases nutrients, some of the carbon is released in the form of the gases carbon dioxide and methane and some of it stays in the soil as humus. Over time, if no carbon is returned to the soil in the form of new dead plants or manure, then the soil will slowly lose its microbial life and soil fauna. The soil will go from black and crumbly to gray, brown, or red. This is bad for the soil and for the planet. An agricultural soil without much carbon in it requires more and more chemical fertilizer to make up for the lack of nutrients. To make matters worse, the stable carbon in the soil (humus) on the cellular level looks like a convoluted honeycomb with lots of charged surface area for retaining ionic nutrients. Without such carbon, the soil does not retain nutrients as well. To further complicate matters, the humus particles in the soil improve the soil structure, because they are relatively large and contribute to the crumbly texture that allows air and water to penetrate. Without carbon, the structure disintegrates and water is more likely to run off and the depleted soils can become crusty and hard and vulnerable to erosion.
In organic farming, one of the main ways the farmer amends the soil is by adding sources of carbon. Cover crops, straw mulch, manure, compost, dead leaves, and other sources are all added to the soil. Of course, because the microbial activity is always “burning up” the carbon, the organic farmer is always thinking about how to add more and more carbon. However, too much carbon (like sawdust) can tie up nutrients (especially nitrogen) while the microbes are decomposing the dead plant material, so it is a balancing act. But generally, if a person is adding more carbon than is being burned up each year, then the soil is improved structurally and in nutrient holding capacity and carbon is being “sequestered” in the soil, at least temporarily. The promise of Biochar for organic farmers is that by adding charcoal to the soil, all of the benefits of adding carbon will be realized without all the losses to decomposition. The carbon in the Biochar will also be sequestered for a very long time. Of course, non-charcoal organic matter will also have to be added for the available nutrients, but when those nutrients are available, the Biochar will act like humus and hold on to the ionic nutrients.
The prospect of adding Biochar to the soil is exciting for us in this part of Wisconsin, but the real promise for Biochar is in the warm tropical climates. As air temperature rises, it increases the biological activity of the soil. Decomposition of organic matter is much faster in the tropics. Also heavy rainfall in the rain forest area means that water-soluble nutrients that are not bound in the soil are quickly washed away. This means that in tropical ecosystems, most of the carbon is not usually in the soil, instead it is tied up in the vegetation. This means that the amount of carbon that can be sequestered is limited to the living vegetation. In a functioning old growth rain forest, that is still a lot of carbon, but in a pasture or farmed fields, it is not very much. Also, because of the temperature and fast decomposition, tropical organic farmers have a hard time adding enough carbon to improve the soil. If people are going to continue to live in the tropics, then the long term soil health is important. Without soil health, farmers are forced to clear more and more forests to find new soils that have not been totally depleted. This clearing can have a disastrous effect on the local micro-climate, drying up springs, increasing temperature swings, and decreasing rainfall. In the global climate, the clearing of tropical forests is even worse, releasing all of the carbon stored in the vegetation and contributing to global climate change. If Biochar could be widely applied in the tropics, then less arable land would be needed to feed the same number of people. Then less forest would need to be cut down and therefore carbon could be sequestered in the forests and in the soils.
There are complications and questions. Where would the carbon source come from to make charcoal on a large scale? Could we ever add enough charcoal back into the soils to make up for all of the coal, gas, oil and wood that we are currently burning up? To impact the climate, we will actually need to sequester MORE carbon than is being added to the air. I have been talking Biochar to anyone and everyone lately. A friend (Thanks Peter!) mentioned to me that in his understanding, Biochar may be the ONLY way to really sequester carbon, because the traditional way to sequester carbon by planting forests only sequesters for as long as the trees are alive, then they decompose and release much of their carbon back to the atmosphere. Another question is whether we could sequester carbon fast enough to halt the wheels of climate change.
Here's an article from someone who made her own biochar.
Video promoting biochar.