Carbon Sequestration in Vineyard Soils

Ξ January 5th, 2009 | → 11 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, International Terroirs, Interviews, Technology, Wine History, Wine News, Winemakers, Wineries |

Who could have predicted, as we enter 2009, the banishment of the word ‘green’ and ‘carbon footprint’? Both terms have become quite meaningless in this accelerated world of adaptive public relations and feral free marketers. But a word and its rigorous concept that must be more vigorously promoted and understood for this new year is biochar. So important is the notion that it was included in the 2007 Farm Bill, authored by then Senator Ken Salazar, now President-elect Obama’s nominee for Secretary of the Interior.
Biochar is simply the production of charcoal from a biomass. It is resolutely not the equivalent of a fireplace, though it shares a kinship. Biochar is produced by pyrolysis, the thermochemical decomposition of organic material in the absence of oxygen. But this definition requires significant qualification. Biochar made of wood, what we commonly call ‘charcoal’, has been produced for centuries in the limited presence of oxygen. Traditional methods might include burying wood over which one would then build a fire to char the wood below. Not only was the resulting charcoal used in cooking, still is today, it was also used as an amendment for poor soils. But this is not the same as the ’slash and burn’ method employed by ancient cultures up to the modern farmers along I-5. We are not talking about additions of a transitory ash. Biochar is different.
And just as ancient. Indeed, the recent discovery in the Amazon Basin of what are called Terra Preta do Indio soils confirms biochar’s Pre-Columbian use, soils dating from 500 BC to 1400 AD.
Now, what is especially fascinating about these soils is not only the logarithmic increase in agricultural productivity they continue to allow, but also the extraordinary stability and durability of the carbon added centuries ago. And it is this feature of biochar products that has caught the attention of some of the finest minds in soil and environmental science, David A. Laird and Cornell’s Johannes Lehmann to name just two. I encourage readers to study their representative works linked above.
The intriguing question immediately presented itself to researchers: could this ancient technology be refined to not only dramatically improve soil quality but to also sequester huge amounts of CO2 among other greenhouse gasses that would otherwise be released by agricultural/organic waste? And today it is absolutely a question of the efficiency of modern pyrolysis technology. In fact, oxygen has been eliminated entirely from pyrolysis. All gas by-products are not only captured but can themselves then become a source of energy in the form of syngas or may be further refined.
One leading manufacturer of a biochar machine/kiln, Best Energies, lists the wide variety of organic inputs that may be used to produce biochar: Poultry litter, dairy manure, greenwaste, nut shells, paper sludge, straw, wood waste, woody weeds, distillers grain, cotton trash, rice hulls, and switch grass. You get the idea.
This rather stuttering (and necessarily incomplete) preamble to biochar properly situates the following telephone conversations I had with Hans-Peter Schmidt over the last week (with minor bracketed semantic corrections despite his superb English!). He lives in Switzerland and runs Mythopia, an experimental vineyard where the only European research program on biochar’s effects on vineyard terroir is on-going. I called the gentleman after receiving his fascinating e-mail below:
We started 2007 with a first test field of 3000m2 where we introduce Bio-Char, Bio-Char + Compost, and each with different seeds in between the wine stocks. This year we are going to extend the test fields and trying the method in France, Spain and Italy.
Further on we created a Carbon-Network with several Institutes researching the soil-effects, char stability, water holding capacity and so on. We are going to purchase a first Pyrolyse reactor producing about 1000t/year Bio-Char and Electricity, through that our 40 vineyards all over Europe [will] become climate-neutral by 2013.

Admin Perhaps you could give us a glimpse of your background?
Hans-Peter Schmidt O.K. I started as an anthropologist at the University of Hamburg, and I became a winegrower in my research on the agricultural attitudes of ancient peoples. Quite a curious biography to become a researcher in ecology!
About your vineyards. You have some in Switzerland, some in France, Spain and Italy. Is that correct?
H-PS I have my own domaine in Switzerland, Domaine Mythopia. And this is a kind of research domaine, very small, it’s only about 5 hectares, 2, maybe 2 1/2 hectares of grapes, 3 hectares or so of aromatic herbs, fruit trees and wild, native plants.
How long ago was the vineyard planted?
H-PS They are kind of old vines, about 50 years. I took it over a couple of years ago. And we do the research there. But I also organize the research, the ecological research for a company that is called Delinat. It is an organic wine seller working with about 40 different winegrowers all over Europe. I am occupied to organize the ecological renewal [of the vineyards] for these winegrowers. They do all organic wine growing, but organic is not enough for us. We are looking for more biodiversity, for more respect of the terroir and a climate neutral agriculture. So, it is my job to organize it for these other winegrowers so that they become climate neutral, that they make better terroir wines, and so on.
In what appellations do you work, in France, for example?
H-PS Not an appellation but the Côtes du Var, near Provence, Côtes de Provence, Bordeaux, Côtes du Rhône. [All of Delinat's domaines may be found here.]
Are any of the vineyards biodynamic? Are biodynamic principles in conflict with the production and use of biochar?
H-PS There is no conflict with biochar. Maybe one third of the winegrowers we work with are biodynamic, but in our charge it’s bio-organic. So whoever wants to do it biodynamic is free to do it. It is not an obligation.
What is your take on biodynamics, by the way?
H-PS There are a thousand reasonable things to be done to improve the Terroir characteristics, the harmony of the ecosystem and plant protection before irrational means would become inevitable. I like the positive energy of many biodynamic winegrowers but their theories are too spooky for me. I prefer playing Mozart to my grapes than rotating planetary copper-sulphur-mixtures 20 minutes to the right!
In your email you wrote of “different seeds in between the wine stocks”. Did you mean ‘inter row’ cropping?
H-PS Yes. Usually we start with legume seeds.
Are they all nitrogen-fixing legumes?
H-PS It depends on the soil, on the region, on the climate, but that is only to prepare the soil and enrich it with green manure for the nutrition of the vine; but then we [also] try to get wild seeds from the surroundings to enrich the biodiversity. Usually we have about 100 different species growing in the soil.
Our plantings include:
kg per hectar:
2 kg Rotklee (red clover) (Trifolium pratense)
2 kg Weissklee (white clover) (Trifolium repens)
4 kg Mattenklee (Trifolium . pratense)
7 kg Luzerne (luzerne)
2 kg Phaecelia
1,6 kg Esparsette (Onobrychis viciifolia) (sainfoin)
100g Kümmel (carum carvi) (caraway)
70g Ysop (hyssop)
100g Salbei (kbA) (sage)
10g Thymian (kbA) (thyme)
10g Origano (oregano)
The mix depends largely on the soil and climate. Indigenous plants are preferable. It’s not only for nitrogen but also oxygenation, to bring organic material deep into the soil so that you get micro-organic life not only in the first twenty to thirty centimeters but down to the root zone of the vine. The idea is to prepare the soil in the vineyard for the wild seeds. It is not of interest to have five or ten plants but to save and propagate the native plants.
With respect to the biochar, is it disced in? How is it applied?
H-PS It is disced in.
To what depth? Just a few inches?
H-PS Yeah. It’s just superficial. We don’t know yet the best [depth]. As you know the char is light and it tends to get to the surface; it’s like if you put wood into water, it floats up. So what we have to do is to [figure out how to best achieve] assimilation of the biochar with the soil to [enhance its] biological life. So then we do experiments: how to get it and to keep it deep inside [the soil].
Can biochar be crushed to a fine powder? Or is it applied as it arrives from a producer?
H-PS It is powdery but you still have pieces up to two centimeters.
Who is the current supplier of the biochar product?
H-PS Well, now we have begun to produce biochar ourselves with our own machine and our own bio-material.
Would you tell me the name of the company responsible for the biochar machine?
H-PS Pyreg [site in German].
What material do you burn [pyrolyse]? What is its source?
H-PS Mostly we will burn [pyrolyse] the remainder of vinification, the pomace. But we can’t keep it for the whole of the year because it would compost. So we use other sources, the rest of the pressings like leaves, stems, and we use green stuff from the forest and [countryside].
And the cuttings from the vines at the end of the year?
H-PS No because we try to keep that in the vineyard, it’s a source of [green manure] and potassium that we need.
There must be other sources of material to maintain biochar production all year long, after the Crush, as we call it here…
H-PS Where we live we have communities who have to maintain the roads, they are cutting trees, there are lawns, shrubs, all this material we can use. If you are further south and you don’t have that much vegetation all the year round then we use the remains of olive pressings. Or rape seed pomace. So you can use very intelligently all this stuff. Pyrolysis would work combining different materials. Or sunflower. You can run your car on sunflower oil and use the remains for pyrolyse!
Even with ethanol production you have a remainder that could be used in pyrolysis. This might be a very intelligent combination if you do it on a high scale. You would combine these two technologies.
With small pyrolysis machines, you could use it on a small farm to produce your electric energy and your heating, to improve your soil and to restrain CO2 from the atmosphere. You don’t need that much material. You can scale the machine to a desired output.
My idea is to achieve a general diversification in agricultural production. In fact, not only to bring biodiversity into the vineyard, with flowers, planting trees, but also to have other cultures around and in between vine rows. For example, we do bees, we produce honey, a second product. And we produce aromatic herbs for herbal teas, and different fruits. So we have four, five supplementary products within the vineyard. So thinking in the longer view you could always have enough material to produce all the green stuff needed to produce not only biochar but also energy.
Combining the idea about Permaculture with the idea of climate farming means it’s a diversification of agriculture that [allows] you to calculate the needs of every part of your viticulture.
Since you placed your message (see bold text below) on the International Biochar Initiative’s bulletin board have you received any inquiries from other winegrowers in Europe?
From the Bulletin Board:
We are going to begin in 2008 a carbon-project in a Swiss vineyard in order to improve the auto-defence of the wine-plant, to fix toxic-elements of earlier plant-treatments (esp. copper) and last but not least to improve the climate balance of the vineyard. Has anybody worked already with carbon enriched compost in wine and fruit growing? Is somebody working already on carbon-projects in Switzerland?

H-PS I do not know exactly who contacted me through this [post] but I have received five questions a week about our project. But it is not only for winegrowing, it is for everything concerning climate farming and biochar. It seems that in Europe we are the first to use biochar on a big scale.
More specifically, you are doing side by side experiments in vineyards using just biochar and another with the biochar and compost mix. And you are doing that as a control study.
H-PS Yes.
And also determine how best to keep the biochar in the soil.
H-PS Yes. It’s a huge project we have, with different institutes and universities. There are many parameters that we [are] try[ing] to determine. One question is about the capacity of the soil to keep water, and this capacity, we believe, will grow with biochar which gives us the possibility to grow wine in Spain or in the south of Italy where there is no rain in Summer [so no moisture] without watering. It is not, however, about growing vineyards in the desert but about the possibility of inter row growing of green manure and wild plants to foster the biodiversity. We can better keep the rainwater that falls in the Winter season. We can keep much better the water in the soil which has a huge effect. And there is research on micro-nutrient activity; that is a very interesting question for terroir quality. The vines can better absorb the minerals and phosphorus. [And biochar] increases the bacteria and [therefore] the bioactivity of the soil because of the [porous and durable structure] of the biochar.
There are many different aspects that change through the utilization of biochar. We try to document the best possibilities of all these changes. So what we do, for example, we measure the change of aromatic profiles in the grape. We measure all we can! To better know how to use it [biochar] for better wines, and also the stocking of carbon, how long biochar will keep in the soil without [itself] changing. Another question [we're answering] is if a vineyard usually has been treated with chemicals that still are in the soil then biochar can fix it. These are the kinds of questions we have and we have a network of different researchers doing different [projects] in the laboratory and also on the farm.
Where in Spain and southern Italy?
H-PS We are just starting this year (I began working for Delinat last year.) in Sicily, and in Spain, it’s the Navarra region and Extramadura.
Not in the Penedès?
H-PS We work with vineyards in the Penedès, but the pilot vineyards where we’re going to show how it works, [these are] in Navarra and Extramadura. Later on we’re going to introduce this whole concept of biodiversity and climate farming for the other vineyards.
Could you name a few of the institutes and universities associated with your research?
H-PS The University of Zurich, FiBL, Research Institute of Organic Agriculture, Fraunhofer Institute in Munich, and others you may not know. But these are the biggest.
So it is fair to say you are undertaking a research project that is the first of its kind in Europe.
H-PS Yes. And there is one thing that is great using biochar in the vineyard: you have a kind of permaculture. It’s not like you harvest every year and have to change [bio] cultures. But you can look to the long term impact of biochar on one culture, so you can do it not only with vineyards but with fruit trees or olive trees. This is one thing that is good. And the second thing, quite remarkable, is that we can make publicity with our research! So another agricultural producer doing cereals or beans or whatever doesn’t have much to win on promoting their efforts on biodiversity or climate farming. But with wine, and we sell organic wine, we can make it a marketing tool doing what we do.
So you understand this is a great occasion to be engaged in research and wine.
I understand. And by the way, as far as I know there is no one doing this kind of vineyard research in the United States. Biochar is hardly known here.
H.PS They will if you write a good article! (laughs)
That’s why I’m here. I’ll try! What kinds of grapes does your Domaine Mythopia grow? And where is your vineyard located?
H-PS We do Pinot Noir. We are located in the Wallis [Fr. Valais], between the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc in the High Alps. We are between two mountain chains, 4000 meter mountains. There is a valley, the Rhone Valley. In fact, the Côtes du Rhône gets irrigated from our valley. So this area is a micro-climate, very dry, warm, and we have a special terroir because, being in a mountain region, we have a different soil every 100 meters. From one micro-climate to the next, a different soil.
It is very interesting to make little wines. Sometimes we make a Pinot Noir from only 1,500 square meters, a special wine for that, then on another patch of 2000 square meters we make another wine. All is Pinot Noir, but the different soils [the terroir makes] different wines.
Where might we read the results of your research?
H-PS We are just starting an online journal called ithaka, like the island Odysseus came back to after a twenty years’ voyage. We call it ithaka because we try to bring bees, butterflies, birds, amphibians… back home to the nature of the vineyard. The official start of the journal is in two weeks [1/20].
Will it also be in English as well as French and German?
H-PS Not for the moment. But I like your blog; maybe we could interlink some stuff, translate some articles.
I would like that. Thank you very much, Peter.
H-PS You are welcome, Ken.
Jan. 19th update: here is a new article on Mr. Schmidt’s efforts.


11 Responses to ' Carbon Sequestration in Vineyard Soils '

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  1. Alfonso said,

    on January 6th, 2009 at 2:56 am

    great post..really fascinating stuff!

  2. Administrator said,

    on January 6th, 2009 at 6:43 am

    Thanks, Alfonso. One novel concept discussed by Peter Schmidt that I did not properly develop was that of ‘climate farming’. Of it Peter writes:
    “There is nothing on earth that uses solar energy more effective than plants while growing (with the solar energy, the carbon from the atmospheric CO2 and the water, nitrogen and phosphates from the soil, all are transformed to long molecular carbon riche cells). But if this biomass rots at the end of it’s life-cycle, the whole energy stocked in the plants gets lost. The pyrolyse process can use about the half of the energy stocked in the long carbonic molecules to produce thermal and electric energy. Another 1/3 of the biomass becomes pure carbon that, put into the soil, keeps stable more than 1000 years and won’t burn to CO2 as it would if left to rot. “

  3. Derek said,

    on January 6th, 2009 at 10:52 pm

    Very interesting concept. Thanks for the post! I’m curious what the up front costs are for a smaller biochar machine.

  4. Administrator said,

    on January 6th, 2009 at 11:03 pm

    Derek, I’ll ask Peter Schmidt. And I’ll look into prices stateside. One company you might want to contact in the short term is Biochar Engineering. They are out of Golden Colorado, phone number: 303.279.3776.

  5. Eric said,

    on January 7th, 2009 at 9:23 am

    Fascinating article, is there any more information available about water retention capacitys?

  6. Administrator said,

    on January 7th, 2009 at 10:03 am

    Eric, A number of universities and biochar organizations have visited this page, including Cornell, UC Davis, Stanford, U of Oregon. I am hoping for a comment from some of these folks. And I’ve asked Peter Schmidt to weigh-in.
    I, myself, will look into the matter. Cheers.

  7. Peter Schmidt said,

    on January 7th, 2009 at 12:59 pm

    The Pyreg-machine that we use is still a pilot-plant. The approximate price for a 500 KW plant would be around $500′000 and for 100 KW around $170′000.
    Here are some more features of the Pyreg-plant
    Pyreg 500 KW-plant
    Input: 3600 tonnes biomass (tree lopping)
    Produced Bio-Char: 1000 t
    CO2-Sequestration: 489 kg CO2 / tonne tree lopping
    MW/year (thermal-energy): 1500 MW
    MW/year (electricity): 370 MW

    For CO2-sequestration potential see here:

    Thanks for your comments,

  8. Peter Schmidt said,

    on January 7th, 2009 at 1:24 pm

    Eric, the increase of water retention capacity through bio-char depends very much on the soil and it’s quite difficult to propose precise figures. We just began a research project with the University of Zurich where we analyze different vineyard soils in Spain, France, and Italy with the objective to determine the influence of bio-char on water retention capacity. In the end of 2009 we should already have some tangible results.

  9. Reg Preston said,

    on January 9th, 2009 at 6:02 am

    We produce biochar by gasification (5KW from Ankur India) of sugar cane bagasse and tree stems after consumption of the leaves by goats. Yields from 100 kg dry biomass are 80KWH of electricity and 10 kg of biochar which contains only 35% carbon, the rest being alkaline ash. What is the ash content of the biochar in your system?
    Growth promotion of maize from our biochar is spectacular when soil pH is less than 4.5. No effect on soils with pH over 5.5.

  10. Schmidt said,

    on January 13th, 2009 at 10:50 am

    Dear Reg, As we can’t completely exclude oxygen while the organic material enters the Pyreg-reactor, we get about 8% ashes.
    How does your soil ph evolves after carbon introduction?
    Sincerely, Peter

  11. on January 7th, 2011 at 7:03 am

    [...] There is a great interview from Ken Payton, of Reign of Terroir, with Hans-Peter Schmidt, a Swiss anthropologist turned viticulturist who is doing original research in the use of biochar [...]

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