From Forests to Farms: Biochar May Offer New Revenue Stream

Charcoal derived from wood waste may emerge as a solution to declining demand for wood pellets and could have environmental, agricultural benefits

Photo Credit: Oregon Department of Forestry

BOULDER JUNCTION, Wis. -- Have you heard the term “biochar”? While humans have used charcoal-like material to enhance their crops for millennia, it is enjoying a high-tech renaissance. Interest in what is now called biochar is growing as forest owners, wood businesses and farmers note its potential opportunities for revenue growth. What’s more, regions where timberland is in close proximity to agriculture – such as Wisconsin and other Great Lakes states – hold particular promise for the production and use of this material.

Biochar is a forest product derived from woody biomass, including bark, sawdust, shavings and wood chips from timber harvesting or the manufacture of wood products, from paper and lumber to furniture. Such wood residues have been used for biomass energy for years, but as falling natural-gas prices have impacted demand for products such as wood pellets, the search has been on for other ways to use wood waste.

Biochar could be the answer. A fine-grained charcoal, it is made mainly by pyrolysis, a process of heating wood waste to very high temperatures with limited oxygen exposure. The resulting biochar can be used in agriculture as a soil enhancer to attract and retain water and nutrients, while it holds onto phosphorous and agrochemicals. Plants grow healthier and less fertilizer ends up in surface water and groundwater. It can also be used as an animal feed supplement. Another perk: Biochar retains nearly 50 percent of the carbon from its raw biomass and sequesters it for centuries. The result is a carbon-neutral practice. Indeed, Wisconsin soil scientist Dr. Thea Whitmannotes that biochar carbon is very stable and decomposes so slowly that it stays out of the atmosphere longer.

For forest owners and wood businesses, biochar is a potential new revenue stream. A national biochar survey jointly conducted two years ago by the U.S. Biochar Initiative (USBI), the International Biochar Initiative (IBI), environmental consultant Dovetail Partners, and the Watershed Research and Training Center, revealed that U.S. market potential for biochar is more than 3 billion tons. Just 35,000 to 70,000 tons are produced annually now. Its production is fully scalable using mobile or stationary pyrolysis ovens. As of 2018, there were 135 biochar producers in the United States, according to the USBI. Most of them are found in the West, with some in the South and East. California, with its active forestry near agricultural customers, makes it a model of biochar production and use. Wisconsin and other Midwestern states have few producers.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) in a recent publication noted that the state’s current biochar market is small, with several nurseries using it in their operations. The WDNR Forest Health program has partnered with the UW Madison Arboretum to study biochar’s ability to improve soil quality while controlling invasive jumping worm populations. There are a couple of small biochar producers in the state, such as GreenQuest, that work with agriculture businesses.

“We are focused on biochar as a product and market to help with wood-residue management problems in the state,” said Sabina Dhungana, a WDNR forester. “We are trying to form a biochar community in Wisconsin and have lots of interested people.” Dhungana says that a good starting point for learning about biochar is a webinar that the WDNR presented in 2019.

There are other resources for learning about biochar, too. The USBI provides a list of current biochar-related businesses, including manufacturers of processing equipment. This organization and the IBI provide a forum for producers and users, along with more research and guidelines. While the industry is seeing rapid technological development that could benefit biochar producers, according to consultant Dovetail Partners, interested parties should keep an eye on the establishment of quality standards, scientific verification of biochar’s long-term benefits, price stabilization and market-wide education. Overall, biochar could benefit many entities, including the timber industry, farmers and the environment.

Ardis Berghoff is a contributor to Forest Data Network. She writes regularly about business and enjoys covering arts and culture subjects as well. When she isn't undertaking the written word, she hosts a jazz radio show on a Wisconsin public radio station.

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