Farmers Exploring ‘Super Soil’ As Alternative To Chemicals

Roger Pion, Donna Pion and Luke Persons have researched and built a machine to produce biochar, a carbon soil builder that reduces the need for chemical fertilizers in agriculture. Photo provided by Rutland Herald.

Rutland Herald - As any successful farmer or gardener knows, trying to plant in soil starved of nutrients and moisture almost guarantees failure.

Working with soil treated with carbon "biochar," however, is like working with dirt on natural steroids.

Biochar is a powerful soil-builder that improves soil fertility and water retention. It reduces the need for chemicals and fertilizers and holds onto nutrients and water like a paper towel.

Even better, biochar persists in the soil for hundreds of years, proving its value as a "sustainable" resource in food production.

Only a handful of companies in Vermont make biochar - charcoal made in a process that turns soil into super-soil. The result is rich soil bursting with nutrients, moisture and organic materials.

Partners Roger and Donna Pion, and Luke Persons, are newcomers to the field of biochar production through their joint business venture, Green State Biochar. Roger Pion and Persons are biochar filtration specialists.

"We've all known each other and have worked together in multiple undertakings - mergers and acquisitions," Donna Pion said. "(Roger) had a lot of experience in that. One day he and Luke asked, 'What do we do next?' We wanted to do something meaningful."

Donna Pion, the general manager, said the company's goal is to increase farm productivity and mitigate the challenges of runoff into waterways. Biochar also reduces the excessive use of chemical fertilizers, and combats climate change through "sequestration" of greenhouse gases.

In late 2015, Green State began construction of a machine that would produce biochar at the company's Barton facility. The machine has been operating since June, producing 360 pounds of biochar per day, Pion said.

"We use this biochar for our filtration units, which are installed on farms to prevent runoff from manure pits and to clear detergents from cleaning waters," she said.

Pion said the company hopes to have two biochar machines running next year.

The business received a boost earlier this month as the winner of $10,000 in legal services from the Intellectual Property Practice Group at Downs Rachlin Martin, which has offices in Vermont and New Hampshire. The firm has more than 55 attorneys who represent businesses owners, venture capitalists, technology businesses and Fortune 100 companies.

Green State Biochar was chosen from a long list of applicants from across New England, said Kevin McGrath, an attorney in the IP Group at Downs Rachlin Martin.

McGrath said Green State is an "environmentally oriented business" that shows "great promise in the areas of agriculture, waste management and water quality."

"It is the type of homegrown company that the state of Vermont has sought to encourage," he said.

Green State will produce biochar for use in agriculture and manufacturing, and install and monitor filtration systems that reduce groundwater runoff and remove odors and algae from water resources.

"Our focus is more on the filtration units," Donna Pion said. "We don't have any (significant) competition with the filtration units - at least, not in this state."

She said the Green State Biochar's main clients are dairy farms, and "our mission is to control runoff from dairy farms."

The company owners plan to increase daily production to one ton per hour and begin large-scale production of filtration systems on a 50-acre plot in Greensboro Bend.

"This is not a software company. This is not a food company. This is a little obscure," Donna Pion said. "We are off to a good start as a startup company with an obscure product."

Vermont Biochar in West Danville is another Vermont biochar company owned and managed by timber harvester Michael Lowe. The company began manufacturing and selling biochar from wood pulp 10 years ago, he said.

He said the crushed charcoal produced on site is saturated with microbes. This increases crop nutrients and soil fertility, and neutralizes acidity and toxins.

"It holds nutrients that you need in the soil and prevents those from running off," Lowe said. "It's very stable. It lasts hundreds of years."

Lowe said biochar is made in a pressurized combustion process called "pyrolysis" that converts wood or food waste into a soil enhancement that retains carbon and increases soil diversity.

" Really, what you are doing is heating (waste) in the absence of oxygen," Lowe said, noting that biochar has a more stable structure than regular charcoal, so it lasts longer in the soil.

"It can handle waste and produce multiple positive products for the environment for human needs," making biochar a useful tool in farming, horticulture and forestry, he said.

Many of his customers are garden enthusiasts or landscapers looking to supercharge their soil and control moisture loss and runoff.

Lowe said one of his clients, a landscaper, likes using biochar because composting manure is "really heavy and it takes her a lot of time to spread it. In the end, it's something that lasts a long time in the garden."

As a soil fortifier, the reward of using biochar is often a "huge production of vegetables," and other environmental benefits, he said.

A seasonal operation, Vermont Biochar operates in the spring and fall, producing around 20 yards of biochar per season. Each yard contains roughly 600 pounds of biochar, for a total of 18,000 pounds per season, Lowe said.

The biochar is sold by the gallon, which treats about 10 gallons of soil.

"It's really what you want to achieve," said Lowe, who still sees a resistance to the "cultural acceptance" of biochar, which has yet to be embraced by Vermonters as an alternative to more traditional soil enhancement methods, he said.

" I think the attitude will change when we start looking at the cost of what we are doing. We need to figure out what the benefits are and focus on them economically in Vermont," Lowe said.