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Product from agriculture waste could become ‘big thing’ for farmers
Iowa businesses seek help from new USDA grant to fight climate change
CEDAR RAPIDS — Like many, Zach Mann sees dollar signs in Iowa’s rich, black soil.
Iowa’s fertile farmland has been a powerhouse for producing cash crops like corn and soybeans, but at a heavy environmental cost.
Recent technology has created the potential for unleashing new opportunities for his business and for farmers to grow value, markets and revenue streams from Iowa soils — while also protecting the environment and safeguarding natural resources.
Mann’s Cedar Rapids landscaping company has partnered with a team of former Iowa State University researchers to sell a climate-friendly additive to fertilizer that some experts tout as key to soil rejuvenation and carbon sequestration. It may also help with water quality.
For the last few years, Ever-Green Landscape Construction & Supply in Cedar Rapids has been selling a product developed by Advanced Renewable Technology International, based in Prairie City, made from biochar. The lightweight black residue is produced from burning wood chips, plant residues, manure or other agricultural waste products. Burning the biomass in low-oxygen conditions, through a process called pyrolysis, creates a carbon-rich substance, or charcoal.
“It’s like a carbon sponge,” said Mann, president and owner of Ever-Green Landscape Construction & Supply.
The biochar, he said, soaks up nutrients and serves as a habitat for many beneficial soil microorganisms that are known to promote soil and plant health.
The business has been selling 5-gallon buckets of ARTi’s biochar for the last three-plus years to homeowners to improve soil quality in their vegetable gardens and raised garden beds, holding more nutrients, improving water retention and preventing leaching. It also improves the soil’s carbon storage potential.
Mann now hopes to grow that side of his business in a move to become carbon-neutral, thanks to a recently announced program created under the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill signed into law last year by President Joe Biden. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced last week the U.S. Department of Agriculture will award up to $10 million in grants to help universities and private partners develop a “supply chain road map” to convert agricultural waste into construction materials and consumer products in an effort to fight climate change and bolster rural economies.
“This program will help farmers take field residues and waste products and turn them into value-added products that create wealth and drive economic development in rural areas,” Vilsack said.
Mann has partnered with ARTi to apply for a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant in the hopes of building a pyrolysis rector at his business, using its tree trimmings and miscanthus grass used in erosion control socks it manufactures and sells for use at construction sites to create biochar.
“We hope to use enough biochar to accommodate the amount of CO2 we emit into the atmosphere with our trucks running down the road and our grinder,” Mann said.
If successful in obtaining the USDA grant, Mann said he and officials from ARTi would work to calculate how much carbon the company would need to sequester through biochar to achieve net-zero carbon dioxide emissions and set a timeline.
“That is my end goal,” Mann said.
According to ARTi, 1 ton of biochar sequesters 2 tons of carbon dioxide.
ARTi specializes in biochar production and sales and also develops, designs and manufactures modular pyrolysis systems for the production of biochar from waste biomass. Bernardo del Campo, the company’s president, said it is working toward a future in which the technology becomes standard practice.
Del Campo heralded Vilsack’s announcement of the grant program.
"We need public entities to lead the way and show where we go and showing the vision,“ del Campo said. ”And then the private industry, when the path is done, they will jump in and run. … Based on this, we’re going to see all sorts of business opportunities develop that before were just talks.“
ARTi has also partnered with former Ever-Green owner Dale Peterson to pilot a biochar-based filter to remove nitrates from his 1-acre pond in Toddville.
Peterson sold Ever-Green to Mann, a former longtime employee, in January, and started a new landscape nursery business, Green-Link & Associates, with Ever-Green Landscape Construction & Supply serving as its “parent company.”
Peterson said he has raised “thousand and thousands” of catfish in the pond over the last 15 years. But over time. nutrient load has caused algae to buildup, creating “a certain amount of toxicity that causes it not to be a productive pond.”
Should the water filtration project prove successful, Peterson said he intends to expand into aquaculture.
Mann predicts that by 2027 “biochar will be a big thing.”
"It holds the nutrients in the ground rather than releasing the nutrients,“ limiting runoff, Mann said. ”Over time the idea is you don’t have to use as much fertilizer."
Del Campo, too, noted biochar can also be added to compost improve the compost process, the compost product and the nutrient value.
In the meantime, economies of scale will need to kick in.
“The economics for direct field application of biochar are speculative, and with optimistic assumptions (e.g. crop yield benefits, carbon sequestration credits, and fertilizer offsets) only marginally economically viable given the absence of a biochar market and limited number of production scale biomass pyrolysis plants,” according to the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service.
Peterson, Mann and del Campo, though, see hope in emerging carbon markets, which offer financial incentives in exchange for taking greenhouse gases like carbon out of the atmosphere for extended periods of time.
A reliable carbon market and USDA assistance programs could offer a financial incentive that would offset those costs, the trio said, creating a “win-win-win” scenario of protecting the environment, generating new revenue, improving soil health and setting the stage for better production in the long term.
“You’re seeing an economic movement that you haven’t seen in the past,” del Campo said. “There is an incredible opportunity from all of this. … We’re improving the soil quality and assisting farmers produce better food and sequestering carbon.”
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