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Charcoal and topsoil loss

August 24, 2008

When I read stories like “Where Food Begins” I want to add National Geographic to the president’s reading list. Because, his one-page “intelligence briefings” just aren’t doing the job.  Here’s a real, tangible threat to national and global security – one we can do something about for very little money (but which the free market won’t fix) – so you’d think that “conservatives” would want to do something about it.

Turns out, the ancient Amazonians knew how to do something about it.  They systematically buried pottery and charcoal in their fields over a two thousand year period.  Weird, but get this – the result was rich soil six feet deep instead of 8 inches like the rest of the Amazon basin.  And if we did something similar in our mechanized fields, we could lock up enough carbon in the soil to offset a huge chunk of our carbon dioxide output in the bargain. 

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  1. Lucas
    August 24, 2008 at 11:43 | #1

    I think that there is almost nothing “free market” about farming.  Most of the incentives to do anything are created by the farm bill.  However, the instant farmers can start selling carbon credits for something that’s relatively easy to do, I suspect that we will see some improvement in topsoil management.  It might be slow at first, but once farmers realize that this also improves the value of the land, it will probably become standard practice.

  2. August 24, 2008 at 14:44 | #2

    Charcoal … Does what I use for grilling qualify?  Pre-use or post-grilling?  When I have composted in the past, I have always included ash and spent charcoal from the grill.  Currently I use the ash straight to amend the soil when I till in the Spring.  Seems to work pretty well.

  3. August 24, 2008 at 19:10 | #3

    That’s a good tip about adding ash to compost. I’ll have to try that.

  4. August 24, 2008 at 20:33 | #4

    Wait – ash is very different from charcoal.  Putting ash in compost will raise the pH until it loses nitrogen and kills a lot of the life you want it to have. 

    Charcoal is wood that’s been carbonized (reduced to mostly carbon) by heating in a low-oxygen environment, driving off the volatiles.  It’s very stable, absorbs and holds moisture and nutrients, and makes a dandy matrix for microorganisms to do their little soil-chemistry projects.

  5. August 25, 2008 at 06:20 | #5

    Good to know!

  6. August 27, 2008 at 06:08 | #6

    that is so cool! I didn’t anything about those pots and fertile soil! Too bad it takes 2 thousand years, cos our soils need rescuing ASAP!

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