Making Your Own Biochar

Walkamin farmer Michael Rocca is building what will be one of the biggest biochar-producing machines in Australia to create “black magic” for the soil.

Biochar is a charcoal-based organic fertiliser that has been found to improve soils and soil health.

Michael has been using biochar on his cane, peanut and maize crops for the last five years and has seen great results, with an increase in yield of around 10 to 15 per cent.

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Nitrogen loss through runoff and leaching is a major issue for farmers in the Wet Tropics, and it is something innovative Walkamin farmer Michael Rocca is trying to reduce by manufacturing and trialling a solution.

Biochar is biomass (plant material) burned in a low oxygen environment resulting in permanent storage of carbon in the soil.

Michael first trialled biochar in partnership with Terrain NRM, the Northern Gulf Resource Management Group and James Cook University.

“It has proven to be a highly effective addition to my soil for both increasing yields and stabilising nitrogen,’’ he says. “Its wider use has been limited by both supply and cost, so I thought I’d make my own.”

He built two self-funded prototypes for biochar production and then secured funding through Terrain NRM from the Australian Government’s Reef Rescue Innovation Funding Programme to further the project.

He is working towards producing the biochar so it is affordable for growers to trial commercially.

“This third prototype machine should allow me to produce 680kg an hour of the product,” he says.

The aim of the Michael’s biochar project is to undertake trials and get the application right.

“The loss of carbon in the soil is a big issue for me, which was part of my motivation to get involved. Biochar permanently lifts soil carbon and stays in the soil. It doesn’t break down so I can take advantage of its benefits over the long term.

“The product is like a sponge for moisture and nutrients.”

When coupled with a fertiliser, biochar retains the nutrients and makes them available to the plant at its root zone. While enhancing plant health and yield, it also benefits water quality as less nitrogen is leached into the environment and to the Reef.

Michael has seen an improvement in soil health, yield, leaf size and root development over a range of trials on different crops as a result of using the biochar.

“The first trials here were small pot trials,’’ he says.

“The results were quite surprising. The plants grew faster, came out of the ground quicker and the roots came out of the bottom of the pot faster. They had larger root systems, bigger leaves and there was a quite noticeable difference in plant size and health.”

The trial is the result of Terrain NRM’s Reef Rescue Innovation Funding program. The program, which was funded by the Australian Government, helps growers to develop their ideas through on-farm trial projects. It also helps them to link with technical advice, identify and overcome barriers to developing innovations and bring proven ideas into the mainstream.