Biochar: Midwest Progress Report

Reader Contribution by Stan Slaughter
1 / 4
2 / 4
3 / 4
4 / 4

After spending the past twenty years teaching composting, I have come to the conclusion that compost is the answer. Never mind the question-Compost is the answer. This pretty much puts me in the compost geek zone, of course.  But through droughts and floods, jump-starting new gardens into big production and even battling cancer twice, I’ve found that the “organic matter family”-compost, vermicompost,

mulches and compost teas are powerful tools for getting food production and great nutrition right.

About five years ago I started experimenting with biochar. I collected charcoal from my wood stove, crushed it in a tough plastic bag with the car and charged it by soaking it in compost tea.

Microscopic picture of bIochar.  These tiny pores are the secret of biochar’s power. Imagine each hole as a home for a microbe or a water trove for a fungal hyphae. It’s like putting a high rise condo for microbial life in every cubic inch of your soil.)Photo courtesy of CarbonGold

I’ve had what I believe are great results, Enough so that I’m ready to take it to the next level by building a small scale biochar retort. Fortunately I’m not alone. In the past year I’ve shared ideas with a growing community of Midwest biochar converts and gained more than I gave. Last weekend I completed my first biochar retort and tested it on a cloudy Saturday.

Picture  ( A smoky start to a burn with chips that were too wet.)

Picture ( Paint burning off the barrel and insulation paper charring as my second attempt gets really hot.)

I previously spent a cold day in January completing the first of my New Year’s resolutions helping David Yarrow with two test burns.  David is a wise man in many of the ways of Earth keeping but he’s for sure a biochar expert. He’s even mentioned in Albert Bates’ The Biochar Solution. Together we built a screener so we could remove the smallest “fines” from a pile of wood chips then filled and lit one of his retorts.

Picture (David Yarrow and a version of his TLUD (top lit-up draft) biochar retort)

Once lit these retorts roar into life with a red-hot, clean burning flame that leaves no smoke. A full barrel of wood chips yields about a third barrel of biochar- about 150 pounds. David and his friends, near Lawrence, Kansas are building retorts, testing designs, and testing biochar on plant growth in a controlled experiment funded by a SARE grant this year. Me, I’ll be making more char and conducting more of my own project/experiments throughout this season.

Stan Slaughter, The Eco-Troubadour can be reached at

Stay tuned and visit these sites for more information: