Soil scientist and ecologist Jon Nilsson has been working on the reclamation of drastically disturbed land since 1985, gaining over three decades of agricultural experience in the process. But his favorite tool in the work of restoring depleted soils has an even longer track record: Biochar, a highly porous charcoal made by burning organic material at high temperatures with little oxygen, was first used by the indigenous people of the Amazon roughly 3,500 years ago.
“It’s a carbon-capture technology to grow plants — the opposite of throwing carbon into the air to make fertilizers to grow plants,” Nilsson explains, noting that biochar can lock carbon in the soil for up to 2,000 years. “You’re utilizing biomass waste and farming the waste to make a better crop.”
At Mills River-based CharGrow, Nilsson “charges” biochar’s tiny pores with nutrients and microbes that help build soil vitality. He compares the resulting BioGranules to a bank vault in the soil, pointing to studies conducted at Virginia Tech where the product boosted tomato yields at first pick by over 50 percent. Other field trials have found CharGrow’s products to increase germination, drought tolerance and disease resistance.
“With charged biochar, you’re building a better biome for the plant, permanently changing soil’s ability to hold nutrients, water and beneficial biology,” Nilsson says. “You can buy a carbon-sequestering tomato that was organically grown and also contributed to building the biome — it’s a path out of climate change.”
Editor’s note: As part of our monthlong celebration of this region’s commitment to sustainable ways of living and working in community, Xpress is highlighting some of those who are making a difference by taking action on a variety of creative and inspiring initiatives.