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UNCP professor updates local Master Gardeners on biochar

November 13, 2009

UNC Pembroke plant pathologist Dr. Deborah Hanmer had an attentive and engaged classroom of students on November 9 when she hosted 11 of Robeson County’s Master Gardeners.


Biochar Dr. Hanmer holds biochar used in a plant pathology test

Dr. Hanmer discussed biochar, which is being studied as a soil additive that may work to hold nutrients in poor soils for centuries. The professor is conducting ongoing research on biochar at UNCP.

A quick poll of the master gardeners revealed that few had heard of charcoal as a soil additive.

“Biochar as a soil amendment is a relatively new idea that was discovered by studying Amazonian soil called Terra Preta,” Dr. Hanmer said. “Terra Preta soils were created by ancient indigenous peoples of the Amazon.  Scientists want to know why 1,000-year old soil is still so fertile.”

Produced by heating wood - and sometimes chicken manure - at high temperatures and in low oxygen conditions, studies show that biochar has several benefits including enhanced soil fertility, carbon sequestering and production of gas for energy, Dr. Hanmer said.

Sponsored by N.C. Cooperative Extension Service, the Master Gardener program provides advanced training and asks its graduates to volunteer and educate others.

The Master Gardeners seized on the idea of biochar quickly and peppered Dr. Hanmer with questions.

Carolyn Britt wanted to know more about converting livestock waste to biochar. She offered to contact some local producers to discuss biochar production.

Doris Bryan wanted to know where she could purchase biochar, which is still relatively scarce, Dr. Hanmer said.

Louretta Cain wanted to know more about the size of the fields of Terra Preta that have been found in Brazil.

Polly Cunningham wanted to know more about adding biochar to compost for maximum impact on garden soil.

“Combining biochar with compost is a good practice because fresh biochar will absorb water and nutrients, which may initially make the nutrients less available to plants,” Dr. Hanmer said. “Because of its sandy soils, Southeastern North Carolina is a good place for biochar use.”

Dr. Hanmer said the study of biochar is ongoing internationally as are her studies locally.

“I am interested in how it affects root-rot pathogens,” she said. “I am hoping that biochar inhibits root rot.

“Besides getting the word out, I would like to get a unit to make biochar for further study,” she said.


Master GardenersNot in order: Polly Cunningham, Lournetta Cain, Linda L. Clark, Carolyn Britt, Betty Colville, Angus McCormick, Farleigh Rozier, Dan Cunningham, Helen George, Maureen Thompson, Doris Bryan, Kerrie Roach, extension agent and Dr. Deborah Hanmer, UNCP Biology Department.