In 2005 Bob Wells decided to start farming in Eastham.
He started planting things and soon realized that he was planning to start a farm, basically with a pile of sand.
At the time, he didn’t know much about soil fertility, but Bob knew something had to be done and started reading. His wife works at the Eastham Public Library, and she brought home a book called 1491, about precolonial Native American culture and land use in the Americas.
“And in one chapter of that book there are several paragraphs about a soil called terra preta found in the jungles along the Amazon River, which is some of the most fertile soil in the whole world,” says Bob. Told.
This got Bob’s attention. He learned that terra preta is a man-made soil, created intentionally by indigenous Amazonian communities by adding charcoal and pottery to increase the fertility of the local clay. Clay is distinctly different from Cape Cod sand, but both soils are poor in nutrients and low in organic matter, so Bob says the fire-based techniques used in the Amazon won’t help his land either. I thought.
“Wow, I thought I had to try it. I knew how to make charcoal and I went out and made some and tried it on the famous Eastam turnip row and it turned out that the turnips that grew It’s more than doubled in size because we experimented side by side and were completely blown away.”
When a fire burns, various components are left behind depending on the amount of oxygen available and temperature, but the two main by-products are ash and charcoal. In the Amazon, this charcoal (also known as black carbon, pyrogenic organics, or biochar) burns organic matter such as low-oxygen brushes and kitchen crumbs, essentially smoldering fires and turning chars into farmland. Leave it alone or ship it to them.
“And one of the big keys to terra preta and biochar is that it doesn’t decay,” Bob said. It can’t be eaten by anything so it just stays there but it has all these other attributes it really helps the soil so you get a very thin layer in the process of not decomposing , doing so every year for generations, sometimes hundreds or even thousands of years, accumulates this black, rich soil.
Scientists believe this actually reflects how the morisols of the Midwest and similarly rich grassland soils around the world were formed. This is attractive for so many reasons – not only because rich soil is important for food production, but also for the longevity of the biochar.
“And that longevity creates a situation in which we take in a part of a plant, a part of that plant’s body, a tree, or whatever we use, or grass, and make it unmanageable. It doesn’t break down the soil, turning it into a form of carbon that doesn’t exist,” explains Bob.
“So we’re interrupting the natural carbon cycle at that point and taking it out of the cycle so that it collapses and produces carbon dioxide and methane and, for example, when we just leave it alone There is no going back to what is made. Rotting logs in the forest.”
It’s not true that biochar never decomposes, but it does take hundreds or even thousands of years to decompose. It has an amazing impact on climate change and is also very important when thinking about food production, both on small local farms like Bob’s and on large Midwestern operations in the United States.
“We’re not burning the plains, we’re mining the soil for its nutrients. It feeds us all in most of the world.”
Learning about biochar prompted Bob Wells to travel to the Amazon to see the riverside communities that are the birthplace of terra preta. But he didn’t just travel to the Amazon. He expanded his focus beyond his land and founded a company to help create biochar production systems in farming communities around the world.
The company Bob created is called New England Biochar and does consulting all over the world.