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Selling Biochar - Worth the Effort?

 
pollinator
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Hi there group brain, need your advice! Anybody out there selling handmade char (not innoculated, so not officially biochar) for people's gardens and plant pots?

I have been making a lot of basic char from the endless stream of cuttings and trimmings on my 3.2 acre property. It has to be dealt with somehow, and I'm trying to reduce the fire fuel load so I can't just dump it.

It's all from natural wood, no dimensional lumber. Green piles are left for one season because the birds love it (insect food source probably). Leaves and ash are as minimal as I can manage with a controlled open burn. I would say it's about as sustainable as it gets.

I have five garbage bins of extra char at this point, and more to come. I could just spread it in my orchard and soil development zones. But it would be interesting to try to sell it and thus convert waste into cash. It certainly takes more time and effort to make char than to let it burn down into ash; I should try to get something back.

How would you market? How would you distribute? Large lots or small lots? What do you think people would pay? And is it realistically worth the hassle?
 
pollinator
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Charcoal production has been a cottage industry for a very long time.  One that went away with the industrial revolution in this country, especially with the rise of chemical fertilizer becoming cheap and abundant.  You would likely have to create a market for it locally, as shipping will make it cost prohibitive.  But yes, it could work if you have others in an area that are trying 'alternative agriculture', gardening, or permaculture.  

Don't forget the filtration market for charcoal filtration of ponds and pools in your marketing.  
 
Douglas Alpenstock
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Good points. I suspect the traditional cottage industry was more about fuel than soil amendment. It certainly does makes for an amazing barbecue, but since it's not compressed I go through a large volume. Actually, that might actually be a decent angle -- sustainable, no-additive, local grilling charcoal. Six degrees of separation is the way to market here.

I'm not sure about the pool filtration angle. Char is not anywhere near as "adsorby" as activated charcoal -- different process. But powdered and rinsed char may be useful as a clarifying agent in natural ponds and dugouts. Thorough rinsing would be important to remove the fertilizer component, as algae would thrive on it.

I begin to think a guerilla approach may be best. Urban green/organic gardeners need it, but lack the resources to make it. Those are the connections I need to cultivate. And every spring, they mention that "they know a guy" and I get some text inquiries.

I don't know. Seems every time I get a head of steam about this great idea, the likely returns just don't seem worth it. People have no idea how it takes a giant brush pile to make a barrel of char.
 
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I would charge it with nutrients and sell it as potting mix.
You would need some other ingredients,  but the color alone will drive sales.
Rabbit poop and worm castings both fetch a pretty penny for relatively small bags, I would the biochar in a similar way.
Maybe grow some starts  and sell them along side the bags of potting mix, as evidenced of effectiveness.

 
Douglas Alpenstock
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Wise comments, and I appreciate them.

Given the big picture, and the amount of time and effort needed to build a brand and sell small volumes, it's clear that this enterprise would never break even.

Oh well. That's life. I'll keep making char, though, because I guess I'm hopelessly contrarian.
 
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If there were someone producing it near me, I would buy it by the ton of the price were reasonable. I can't make nearly enough for my own use.
 
Douglas Alpenstock
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Thanks, Trace, for the vote of confidence.

I mean, it reduces landfill waste, supports soil fertility and food security, sequesters micro-dollops of atmospheric carbon, deactivates diseased and invasive plant materials, blah blah blah and etcetera, you guys know the speech.

Somebody out there understands it and wants it, but they don't have the resources to make it themselves. I just need to throw the hook in a promising lake and see if anyone bites.

Edit: If I present it as a trade/swap, I might get more traction. I don't care about cash, only value. And fresh farm eggs are delicious legal tender IMO...
 
Trace Oswald
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Douglas Alpenstock wrote:Thanks, Trace, for the vote of confidence.

I mean, it reduces landfill waste, supports soil fertility and food security, sequesters micro-dollops of atmospheric carbon, deactivates diseased and invasive plant materials, blah blah blah and etcetera, you guys know the speech.

Somebody out there understands it and wants it, but they don't have the resources to make it themselves. I just need to throw the hook in a promising lake and see if anyone bites.

Edit: If I present it as a trade/swap, I might get more traction. I don't care about cash, only value. And fresh farm eggs are delicious legal tender IMO...



I think the idea has a few things going for it.

There are already companies making it for sale. They wouldn't be if it wasn't profitable.

People know about climate change and want to do something about it. Permaculture is becoming more recognized. You have a market.

On a small scale, you can get started with no money, or practically none. If you find the market is better than you expected, you can scale up. If it doesn't do well, you aren't out anything.

It's a business you can feel good about.

An aside to all this. Please take this as constructive criticism. I owned a successful small business. It only takes two things to make a business successful. A decent idea, and the willingness to make it work. It seems like you didn't get an immediate positive response to your idea in this thread, and that's all it took for you to decide it was a bad idea and wouldn't work. I can pretty much guarantee if you start a business with that mindset, it will fail. If you want to do this, go for it, but do it with the idea that you will make it work, and then make it work.

 
pollinator
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I’d work from the starting position of figuring out how much you have put in to make it.

What is your hourly wage? How many hours per big bin? How much expense in sundries like equipment to make it?

Then from there work out your “per unit production cost”. If that cost looks halfway reasonable, and people may pay it in your area, then you potentially have a plan. If not you may end up working for substantially less than minimum wage.

My personal experience is that I make decent amount, but find plenty of uses for it myself. It goes in the chicken run, it gets mixes with well rotted woodchips as a potting mix, it gets mixed with other mulches when I’m mulching beds.

I don’t intentionally inoculate my char; instead I work on the basis that inoculation happens naturally in the soil, provided there is plenty of organic material and soil life.
 
pollinator
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a couple places in my area were doing it on a bigger scale and trying to make a go of it and as far as i know are now mostly using it for their own plantings. a lot of energy goes in, it can be hard to hit good price points.
 
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Douglas,

This is a tricky proposal.  I see two obstacles to overcome.  First is the market price which at this point is not established.  Second is making the char a value added product which is a product worth more than the sum of its parts.

Count me in with William.  Can you charge up that char and make it bio char?  Can you mix in some decaying matter and let it break down together for a week or two to ensure that you have a product full of life?  Do you have garden or lawn “waste” that you could throw in?  Personally I would consider growing comfrey and mixing comfrey into the mix and let it decay in the char.  But there are a hundred variations of this project.

It’s a good idea, but I think it needs a little development.

Eric
 
William Bronson
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Hmm,  comfrey charged biochar...
That sound marketable AND effective!
Do you have any kids or other young people in your life?
Someone who could do the selling for you in return for a commission?
 
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I sell mine locally at $150/cubic yard, uncrushed.  Time is always in short supply so I only will sell one cubic yard to a person so they can gain experience with it, but truth be told I'd rather just keep everything I make.  Mine is mixed softwood and hardwood, mostly softwood and weighs about 200 lbs per yard, so a ton would set someone back $1500.  I'm not sure how many folks would buy in that volume, but I would.  I should probably step up my process and see how far I can go with this.  

I do like the idea of value added products, but then I'm pretty sure I couldn't bring myself to sell it!  As it is I could spend the rest of my life getting my land fully biocharred up.
 
Eric Hanson
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William,

Glad you like the idea of comfrey charged biochar.  I would think that comfrey would be the ideal green to go on the char as comfrey both grows fast and breaks down very quickly.  I would think that comfrey, chopped up and mixed into the char for about a week would make a nice, fast decomposing addition to the char.

Eric
 
Greg Martin
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One of us has to do a trial with comfrey charged biochar and report back!
 
Douglas Alpenstock
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Trace Oswald wrote:An aside to all this. Please take this as constructive criticism. I owned a successful small business. It only takes two things to make a business successful. A decent idea, and the willingness to make it work. It seems like you didn't get an immediate positive response to your idea in this thread, and that's all it took for you to decide it was a bad idea and wouldn't work. I can pretty much guarantee if you start a business with that mindset, it will fail. If you want to do this, go for it, but do it with the idea that you will make it work, and then make it work.


Trace, you're absolutely right and your insight is warmly welcomed. I have been chasing my tail for 12 years with this idea, talking myself into and out of it. I needed to bounce it off some unconventional thinkers who would get it and give me perspective.

If I can get this thing out of my head and into a pilot project, I will know if there is demand and an enjoyable side hustle. If it goes nowhere, I can count it as education.
 
Douglas Alpenstock
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Greg Martin wrote:I sell mine locally at $150/cubic yard, uncrushed.  Time is always in short supply so I only will sell one cubic yard to a person so they can gain experience with it ...


Good info, Greg, thanks. At least I have a starting point for raw product picked up at my driveway. If I have to add handling in small amounts, juggling phone calls, and transportation, the price would have to jump accordingly. But I would rather keep time and expenses at an absolute minimum.
 
Eric Hanson
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Douglas,

Realistically, how much char do you think you can make in a period of time (a week, month, year, or whatever)?  I assume that you have some type of kiln correct?

I am thinking that maybe instead of selling it by the yard, that you could sell in quart or gallon sized containers—start small and engage more customers who have never heard of biochar before.  

I do think that getting some form of decomposition going on will turn the char into biochar and will be much better for garden soils.  I suggested comfrey due to comfrey’s easy, rapid growth and its ability to break down quickly.  Even better might be to get an active compost component or somehow introduce worms into the mix, but these are just ideas.

Douglas I think you have great instincts to sell this.  I assume that you basically have the char for free, only costing you your labor?  That’s not a bad place to start.

Good Luck.  I would love to hear how things work out!

Eric
 
Douglas Alpenstock
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Thanks to everyone for their input so far! Continuing to mull this over:

I think I would do some summer burns and some winter burns. I have to ensure safe fire conditions and give brush piles time to dry (and feed bugs to my wee birds!).

Spring/early summer and late fall would be prime time for demand. I think having people reserve an amount (no deposit or obligation) for an upcoming burn would be a good way to gauge demand. A group text and/or email would be the only low-administration notification I can think of.

Generally, I wouldn't fuss with amounts less than 5 gal./20l at this point.

It wouldn't be hard to infuse the finished product with a bit of compost or compost tea, but that adds substantial complexity. And while I have access to lots of municipal compost, it's not fully organic (big turn-off for the likely market?). The comfrey angle is interesting as a future prospect.

I would also sell the raw stuff for DIY types and BBQ purists.

Marketing sweet spots (free):
- a well-known store that sells products for eco-minded folks and I believe has a community bulletin board
- community garden and urban garden associations
- local Kijiji ad section where people are selling compost and getting a lot of views
- and, easiest of all: word of mouth via my own neighbourhood, where young families are moving out from the city every year, building gardens and growing chickens (and having all their friends out to admire their work)

 
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If you're interested in larger purchases I would explore connecting with your local hemp/cannabis producers. Out here on the US west coast cannabis producers are pretty keen on biochar and they appear willing to spend some money on soil improvement. My understanding is that you have a sizeable industry up north there and I would think they'd be your most likely candidates for bulk purchases should you decide you'd like to go that route
 
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Also, consider population density; how many potential customers are within XX km of your operation?
All sorts of interesting niche businesses are viable in the US or southern Ontario.
Unless, maybe, you could sell online?  Shipping costs can be low.
 
Douglas Alpenstock
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s. lowe wrote:If you're interested in larger purchases I would explore connecting with your local hemp/cannabis producers.


Excellent angle! I couldn't supply large operations. But it's now legal to grow half a dozen plants (roughly) for your own use. Not my scene, but I don't object either.
 
Douglas Alpenstock
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Douglas Campbell wrote:Also, consider population density; how many potential customers are within XX km of your operation?



Hadn't thought of that -- it's a good question to ask. Apparently it's something like a million people within a one-hour driving radius. So if 0.5% have vaguely heard of biochar and can't make it themselves, I might have a niche market.
 
s. lowe
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Douglas Alpenstock wrote:

s. lowe wrote:If you're interested in larger purchases I would explore connecting with your local hemp/cannabis producers.


Excellent angle! I couldn't supply large operations. But it's now legal to grow half a dozen plants (roughly) for your own use. Not my scene, but I don't object either.


Ah didn't realize.that, I see the garden stores that cater to the cannabis crowd selling smaller volumes of char. You might find your local store and be able to get your stuff in retail
 
Douglas Alpenstock
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What do you think of this idea -- adding flour to char to kickstart its journey to biochar?

https://permies.com/t/131861/Adding-flour-biochar
 
pollinator
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For what it's worth, the local organic farm supply/weed grower's emporium (one of the more famous ones in the US) sells "the best organic biochar" for $30 per cubic foot. And guess what? It isn't even charged! Says right on the bag that it will lock up nutrients unless it's pre-charged... I think there just might be some money in it after all. You could sell a 5-gallon bucket (0.67cu ft) of real, actual BIOchar for $20. Add some comfrey and I'd say $25 easy.

I am really into this thread. I have perhaps 200 gallons of char in barrels awaiting bio-fication and about 4 more acres to get fire safe. So I have the slash to start cranking it out. Don't worry, we aren't in competing markets, hahaha.

Anyways, would you (Douglas) like to share you methods for creation? I make mine using a controlled burn pile and I am always looking for others who do as well, to compare notes, I guess.
 
Douglas Alpenstock
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Dan, that's a great post, thanks. I had no idea what raw char would retail for. Whatever the market will bear, I guess. I wonder if anyone is actually buying it? But people are lazy, so who knows. Anyway, I'm more "wholesale direct." I'm just not shameless enough to charge that much.

It also helps to ride a trend. We talked about charging. Kombacha biochar anyone?
 
Douglas Alpenstock
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Since you ask: my method is beyond basic. No frills. Controlled open burn in a shallow pit, hot enough to prevent smoking, with constant and aggressive packing to keep oxygen out of the coals. More ash than I'd like sometimes, but still not a lot. Keep adding small amounts, burn hot, pack, pack, pack, and then douse and cover afterward. I have a notion of sprinkling sand (I'm on a sand hill) to further remove oxygen.

It's a volume operation. Around here, char is a byproduct of dealing with the endless conveyor belt of wood slash. I leave piles for the birdies, but they have to be dealt with eventually. Fire load reduction, as we're up on a steep hill, and the former owners were lazy/clueless, so we're cleaning up their mess too.

I'm currently experimenting with a scrounged steel drum, top cut out with an angle grinder, and half of the "middle" cut out as well. The bottom is the pit, the middle is the burn/pack zone, and the top is the chimney and feeder for long branches. Lower than low tech, but I get to enjoy a little bit of fire without being smoked to death, and I get a nice batch of char after. Plus, it's easily yoinked toward the next brush pile that needs dealing with.
 
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A few random thoughts that occurred while reading this thread.

1) Presales: only make what is pre ordered, then you know your market and volume required.

2) Finding your Market: Facebook groups, farmers markets, cannabis production, organic/permaculture farmers and gardeners, nurseries...

3) Packaging: paper garden waste bags or BYOB - bring your own bucket!

4) Supply: looking long term, you may exhaust what your property has to offer for BioChar creation. Maybe initiate contact with local tree trimmers, arborists, landscapers etc. and offer your property for "disposal" of their waste. This could allow for specialized loads of fruitwoods, soft woods, hardwoods...
 
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I like your enthusiasm and taking time to study this in advance. I've done the entreprenurship thing.  Executive MBA, launched some corporations, including a coffee company which is vaguely similar to this, obtained $50K seed grants, etc.  I've also made a biochar retort and produced biochar on a small scale. So I'm going to put on my "shark tank" hat the same way others have vetted my ventures.

Those experiences are setting off my alarm bells for this venture.  Some of the concerns I have are production, in that you need to monitor the retort or kiln, as the temps get pretty high and a fluke wind sending an ember could be trouble.  That's not a good use of your time for making profit. Where will you store the biochar free from bugs and rain? How will you package and distribute it? You may already have answers to those questions but no matter what that is time, money, and resources.

I also have concerns on the business side.  I think you will have a hard time finding customers, and if you do, you will have a harder time finding repeat customers.  Those who would be repeat customers probably need large quantities and would be looking for a wholesale price.  I like the ideas mentioned here about creating a smaller packaged product that includes biochar as a base or ingredient, but marketing it as something richer to the marijuana growers or what have you.  Even if that goes flawlessly, which I have alarm bells about, you're still spending the most valuable resource of all, which is your time, for a low gain. As for money, the coffee company spent $75K on bags.  I think that figure is absolutely ridiculous but still, attractive packaging costs money. Scheduling dropoffs and monitoring inventory is a hassle, even at one store. Farmer's markets might be an option, and then the question is how much can you sell on a wednesday and saturday per week?

I suppose I'm saying that production, distribution, logistics, and marketing are all small drains that together add up to a large drain.

Now if you are rabidly passionate about biochar, you know for a fact that you have X number of customers that will spend Y dollars, and that amount is worth it to you as a lifestyle business once you have subtracted costs, labor and time, then ignore everything I just said.  If that is the case I suggest you make small batches, package them as simply and attractively as you can, create a laminated placard explaining the product to those who have no idea what biochar is (99.5% of the population). Then either find an independent garden center who will let you set up a display (they will expect a cut) or get a guest stall at a farmer's market (competition for those is tough and you need to register before the start of the market season. And they also may expect a cut.)  See how people react to the product and what questions they ask.  If you get a warm fuzzy for how that is going, ramp up.

I'm not trying to sound harsh, but realistic.  You seem like the sort of person who has passion and can find an angle that works, but I am not convinced this is it.
 
Dan Fish
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Douglas, you and I seem to be in the same place. Both of us are playing the fuel load reduction game, and starting behind by having to clean up after previous owners (mine pushed HUGE piles of manzanita over a hillside with a 50% slope. Good times) and both of us have too much biochar to use and are "just not shameless enough to charge that much" to make it a viable business. Also our methods are prett dang similar. I burn as much as I can in two spots that are backed up to a hillside. Basically a one sided trench. It works pretty well somehow. I dunno, these kinds of things are why I love permies. Just to know that things are the same all over.

I still may just see what it costs to get a small booth at the little farmers market here. I could bring like 50-100 gallons of biochar and a fresh batch of compost tea. It's funny because we have a very active farmers market here but a lot of the attendees are tourists or 2nd homers straight outta the San Francisco Bay Area who I kinda think would eat this stuff up. And maybe if someone pulls up in a Mercedes I wouldn't have quite the qualms about charging $25 for something I spend almost zero (extra) effort on... Hahaha.

Also for the record I agree with Rob. I would never suggest to make this into a "real" business. Like he outlined there is just way too much hassle and risk to go that route. But if you are already creating a surplus that someone wants to buy? Maybe!
 
s. lowe
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Just to add a little perspective to the conversation, the brands of biochar that I see available tend to be brands that do wholesale dry amendments. They have many other revenue streams and lots of consumables.that they sell repeatedly to the same.people. it seems to me, from the outside, that it is those sales that facilitate the infrastructure that makes producing and packaging biochar economical.

The few, apparently, strictly biochar brands I've come across have been local/regional and short lived
 
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I wonder about removing large amounts of biomass from your land. If you want your land to stay healthy and rich, and if selling the biochar sounds like it might not be financially profitable, maybe it would be better to keep the biomass onsite. And reduce fire hazard by burying the biomass, either as wood, like hugelkulture, or as char. (Since I am trying to start a garden in barren desert, I feel very greedy and miserly about any biomass I can get to my land, and I don't want any of it to escape, except weedy seedheads, and gifts of vegetables to friends.)
 
Eric Hanson
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Douglas, GREAT THREAD!  Dan, following you and Douglas with great interest.

It seems like you guys have a great deal of fuel stock with which to utilize.  If I could make a suggestion, and it is only a suggestion, consider making a dedicated kiln for production as opposed to the trench style.  It will be vastly more efficient than the trench, giving you more char for less labor. Rob made some excellent points and I would think reducing your labor to output would be a great way to start.

I once made a kiln as a simple proof of principle project.  It was based on a gallon paint can, two soup cans and a can for beans.  It was a miniature TLUD design.  There are very easy-to-make TLUD designs that are based on a 30 gallon oil drum placed in a 50 gallon drum.  These plans are all over the Internet and will reliably give you 30 gallons of char with minimal labor input (load the wood, start the fire, put on the lid and wait).  But there are also designs out there that give 200 gallons or more per batch.  I saw one design intended for 3rd would jungle/forest use.  It was mobile and could be moved from village to village.  It produced 1000 gallons of char per batch.  It was extremely helpful as the locals could cut the wood and make the char which actually used less wood than burning the wood straight up in a traditional fire.  Since you (both of you Dan and Douglas) are interested in bulk scale production, I would think that a large scale kiln could really cut down on your labor to output.

Also, just how much excess wood do you guys have?  This kinda blows my mind as even though I live in a forested area, I consider wood to be scarce as it takes so long to grow.  There are exceptions (Autumn Olive), but if I went all in on clearing I would exhaust my supply of brush in about a month—if that long.  So I am curious, do you guys have a year of supply?  2 years?  More?  Do you guys have any plans for what happens after the supply runs out.  Bamboo makes excellent char but takes a couple of years to get established.

Are you guys still considering pre loading with comfrey or something similar?  Comfrey grows so fast and abundant and breaks down so quickly that I see real potential for adding comfrey to the mix.

These are all just my thoughts, questions and ideas.  I think Rob made great points.  I love how this thread is evolving.  Great job!

Eric
 
Eric Hanson
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Dan, I have a specific question for you.

You mentioned that you have huge piles of wood down a steep hill.  How do you get that wood out?  A winch seems practical to me but I don’t know your specific details.

Just curious,

Eric
 
William Bronson
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I would plant willow for a feedstock.
Not only is it fas5 growing,  it's good fodder, plus willow charcoal is desirable to artists.

We have bunnies at my house.
They love willow leaves and bark almost as much as they love apple and pear.
They strip the branches clean and turn the bark and leaves into great fertilizer.
Take the stripped branches and turn them into charcoal.
Combine bunnie manure  tea  with the charcoal for a very marketable product.

 
Dan Fish
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Hi Eric!

How much material do I have available? It's absolutely insane. I only own 5 acres and I have only cleaned up about 1.5 and maybe another half acre done to 50%. My stupid right elbow is all messed up so it's making it slow going. I have burned enough brush, limbs, small trees (under 4-5" diameter, bigger than that I buck up and stack for firewood or future hugelin') and shrubs to bury my house and garage 3x over. And it's all either dead, dying or manzanita. Think about what you would get if you put a rainforest through a 10 year drought and that's about what I have. It will be nice enough when it's finished though. My little patch (and most of California) just has been left alone and fire excluded for so long that it's out of control and choking itself to death. That's why I just burn in a semi-controlled open way. I have to get this stuff done to have any chance of the forest coming back to health and I don't feel like I have the time or need to go for maximum efficiency with the biochar production. In the future, I have hundreds of acres around me that my neighbors would be ecstatic to have me take fuel out of. That is when I will definitely take the time to try to make higher efficiency char, deploying methods like you outlined.

As an aside:The manzanita is the worst part, it weaves itself together and around everything so the effort is like dragging it 5x farther it seems. Also, it's sharp and pokey and it burns hotter than a bucket of gasoline, hahaha. It catches fire insanely easy so in most cases, it has to go. It's a cool tree though, my wife makes fences out of the big stuff and the little berries are tasty. It just really likes to take over where not much else wants to grow.

And yes, regarding the stuff pushed over the side of the hill, I do winch and/or drag it when I can. A lot of it comes down to just hand dragging it though. It gets stuck around trees I want to keep. Or that I want to keep the hillside at least! It's not really wood like logs but more like the illegitimate son of wood and brush. It's not heavy but exceedingly awkward to hook up. The problem is is that my winch setup leaves something to be desired... For some reason I am struggling to find someone to weld a winch plate on my truck so I have it on my rear tow hitch and hooked up to a (non-charging) deep cycle battery. So I only get like 3-400ft of pull before it has to go back on the charger. So like 6 turns or whatever. Frustrating.

I dunno, it's kinda awful work but you definitely feel like you earned your beer at the end of the day.
 
Dan Fish
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Also. William, I am very glad to hear that. I planted 10 willow sticks last fall and they are growing nicely. I plan to expand  on that and to use them for all kinds of stuff! I am also digging some bambee from a friends house later this week!
 
Dan Fish
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Oops, one more thing I wanted to put out there. I do plan on using comfrey in my biochar in the future. I bought 25 root cuttings this spring but I kinda screwed up. I overestimated just how hardy they would be and only 4 have popped up. I know I can easily start many more from those but for now supplies are limited! There are actually a few more I just realized I never went and checked though. Cross your fingers that I have more than I think!
 
Eric Hanson
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Dan,

I hear you about the comfrey.  For such a prolific plant it can be pretty fragile in its early months.  I went through this too.  

But fear not.  Keep trying and eventually they will get established.  And once established they are bulletproof.  I heavily mulch mine with woodchips and they love it.  Also, once they get established they apparently can’t get too much nitrogen so they really grow.  And once established, you can divide them and get multitudes of new plants if you so desire.

I am really curious as to how your comfrey/char mixture will work.

Eric
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