Biochar and Northern Soils
For farmers in the Yukon, cooler growing conditions, nutrient deficient soils, lack of processing opportunities and high shipping costs are some of the major challenges. However, industry and research efforts are in progress to bring some new innovations and benefits to farmers and industry.
“We farm 140 acres about half an hour north of Whitehorse, Yukon on the Takhini River in the hamlet of Ibex Valley,” says Warren Zakus of Zakus Farms. “We grow hay, vegetables and raise a flock of laying hens. We mostly grow beets and carrots, which are sold in our local store, and also sell vegetables, eggs and hay at our farm gate.”
Zakus is also Vice-President of the Yukon Agricultural Association and notes that their agriculture industry is relatively small, but they do have about 110 members. “One of our challenges is the lack of meat processing, which is preventing the few small livestock producers from expanding,” says Zakus. “Our association has been working with the government to build a facility, and after a long and difficult project, we recently acquired a piece of land on a long term lease for that purpose. We are excited and although it will still be a long process to get the building and system in place, it will help our industry a lot.”
Another big challenge for Yukon farmers and others in northern areas is nutrient deficient soils. “For soil improvement, we are looking at manure or fertilizer, both of which have to be trucked in, which greatly increases our costs,” explains Zakus. “Once we have a processing option for livestock producers, we can look forward to expansion in the industry and a more local source of manure. Because of those challenges, I have been researching the opportunity of using biochar for the past several years.”
Zakus has been producing biochar for about seven years and experimenting with using it on his own farm for soil improvement. Biochar is a charcoal product that is created from organic materials like wood chips, using technology called pyrolosis where the wood is heated without oxygen. “I conducted some unofficial test plots in my garden, which have shown some promising results and definite improvements in yield,” says Zakus. “I’m currently working with the Yukon College and other partners on several projects to investigate potential benefits of biochar on our northern soils.”
Biochar Shows Promise
In collaboration with the Yukon College, Zakus is involved with several different biochar projects, and is providing biochar for the various projects. The first is to develop a larger more automated biochar production oven and process for his on-farm commercial biochar operation using wood chips. “We are now working on designing a third machine, incorporating what we’ve learned from my first two prototypes,” says Zakus. “This system is much larger and we are trying to automate the process so it can run on its own without a lot of user intervention.”
In 2011, the Yukon College along with other partners initiated a three-year biochar project to investigate the potential for biochar to enhance soil productivity, agricultural productivity and food security in the north. Zakus is one of three trial sites for the project. “We are growing brome in our test plot, the Yukon Agriculture Research Farm is testing vegetables and the Yukon Grain Farm is trialing barley,” explains Zakus. “We have developed an annual application rate for biochar, which is being applied on each plot. For the first two years, the plots will also receive recommended fertilizer applications. The objective is to see if the biochar trials will continue to perform in year three, although I think we probably need five years to really see the effects.”
The College and partners are also conducting a soil remediation project for both mining and hydrocarbon remediation. Biochar is showing good potential in both of those areas. “Part of the project is to compare different types of biochar and to explore making biochar out of different materials to determine which product works best,” says Zakus. “Some feedstocks work better than others, and factors such as process time, oxygen content and other variables can make a big difference in the end product.”
Biochar is a fairly light product and can easily be blown away in the wind, so researchers are also assessing application techniques. For agriculture, it is usually broadcast and tilled into the soil. For soil remediation applications, researchers are experimenting with hydroseeding, pelletization and other options to make it easier for application.
“We are seeing benefits for soil remediation but not huge benefits for agriculture that warrant the costs just yet,” says Zakus. “For soils that have adequate nutrients, there may not be much of a response from biochar applications. However, for nutrient deficient soils, biochar could have great potential for use as a cost effective soil improvement product. Depending on the research findings combined with other factors such as opportunities to reduce the cost of biochar and the generally rising cost of fertilizer, biochar could prove to be a great local option for improving northern soils and agriculture production.”
“Our northern soils are nutrient deficient and combined with cooler growing temperatures through the summer can be a challenge for crop production,” says Warren Zakus. “We’re hoping that biochar can enhance production and help make better use of the nutrients that are available in the soil.”
Warren Zakus is Farm Management Canada's Provincial Producer Representative for Yukon.
Email: info [at] zakusfarms [dot] ca