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Sustainable Missoula: Our naturally brilliant soil does more than support ag

Biochar is a porous, high-carbon soil amendment that supports carbon storage.

Food and soil are intimately related with our world’s health, economics, environment, climate, and even some of our largest social and political issues.

On a planet made of carbon, we find ourselves in a unique situation: a carbon crisis, defined by an exorbitant amount of carbon in our atmosphere, leading to a planetary imbalance. Yet the term “carbon crisis” is misleading – every living thing, including ourselves, is made of carbon.

Both the problem and solution to this carbon question rely on balance.

Carbon cycles naturally, creating a beautiful dance of life and death. Once humans figured out how to extract carbon from the fossil pool and burn it for energy, that natural carbon balance was thrown off balance. In fact, CO2 now makes up .0418% of the planet’s overall atmospheric volume, 49% higher than before industrialization (NRCS).

Conventional agriculture further aggravates the delicate balance of life. The act of tilling works up soil, releasing carbon into the atmosphere, which in turn destabilizes the climate. To reestablish balance, excess carbon in the atmosphere needs to be rehomed. Luckily for humanity, nature already has a plan and it’s brilliant.

To understand this plan, we must go back to the basics. Plants photosynthesize, pulling carbon from the air and down through their roots to feed soil, specifically microorganisms that live there. Microorganisms use that carbon to literally make soil. Supporting this natural process through regenerative actions can greatly reduce the amount of carbon in our atmosphere, while also helping heal our farmlands, ranches, and gardens.

Living soil is critical to the overall health of the planet. Regenerating soil systems creates connections underground that lay the foundation for all life on land to thrive.

Healthy soil is very much alive. A teaspoon of soil can contain more living organisms than the Earth’s human population. Storing carbon in our soils does a lot more for our planet than just reducing emissions. Increasing soil health and diversity creates greater holding capacity for water and nutrients. Adding as little as 1-5% more organic matter can help soil retain up to 100,000 gallons of water per acre each year (NRCS).

Not only does soil diversity protect the soil, it’s been proven to grow healthier and better tasting food. Soil expert, Graeme Sait, once said, “Our food is a shadow of what it once was.” Without the microorganisms in the soil, our garden and crop plants can’t access vital minerals and nutrients, meaning neither can we.

Understanding the great carbon exchange under our feet can help us understand this process better. Plants share about 30-40% of their carbon-based carbohydrates with soil organisms. The plants pump it in and the soil organisms store it.

Plants and soil both rely on this great carbon exchange. Plants feed the microbes and the microbes store water, nutrients, and oxygen for the plants all while sharing information and resources through an amazing network of communally-minded microbes and fungi.

Humans have created a “legacy load” of carbon in the atmosphere. How can we support carbon sequestration to create healthier soils? There are many ways to rebuild soil and increase carbon storage, but the use of biochar taps into native philosophy of fire as medicine. Native Americans understood that routine underbrush burning would provide nutrient-rich forage for the animals they hunted. Prescribed fires keep the land and ecosystem productive and abundant.

Biochar is a very porous, high-carbon form of biologically-activated charcoal. Its porous nature provides abundant surface area that increases air-flow, water-retention, and nutrient holding capacity when mixed into soil. Just one gram of biochar has the equivalent surface area of an entire basketball court.

This unique structure provides the perfect home for beneficial bacteria, which protects and defends plant roots. Since biochar is a pure form of carbon, it allows for continual nutrient and mineral exchange within a complex soil network. Over time, biochar in the soil provides and supports a biologically active, carbon storage system.

For example, 1 ton of carbon stored in biochar is equivalent to 3 tons of carbon dioxide permanently removed from the atmosphere.

Storing carbon in our soil is a powerful tool against climate change. It is cost effective, highly efficient, and designed to work with nature anywhere on the planet. The way we grow our food, fuel, and clothes either puts carbon into the atmosphere or back into the soil. We have the choice to work with or against the brilliance of soil.

Caitlyn Lewis is the Executive Director of Soil Cycle, a compost and soil-health focused nonprofit in Missoula, MT. Soil Cycle has recently been working with Bad Goat Forest Products to make and sell biochar soil amendments in hopes to bring light to its amazing yet forgotten qualities. This Sustainable Missoula column is brought to you – via the Missoula Current – every week by Climate Smart Missoula and Home ReSource.

Sustainability Happenings

Here we offer ideas about sustainable ways to stay involved in our community. If you like these offerings, consider signing up for Climate Smart’s eNewsletter here. And sign up for the Home ReSource eNews via their homepage here.

Missoula’s Farmers Markets. Eat local now through the early fall! The original Farmers Market at the north end of Higgins runs every Saturday 8am-12:30 – information here. The Clark Fork Market is now located at 101 Carousel Drive near Dragon Hallow, runs every Saturday 8am -1pm – information is here.

Spring Shift and Transit Scavenger Hunt – Now through June. Mountain Line, Missoula in Motion and others are partnering to shift to sustainable transportation this spring, and beyond! Learn more and join HERE.

BioChar Production Workshop – May 29, 10am-4pm. Hosted by MUD. This is an active, all-day in the woods workshop 20 minutes drive from Missoula. We will show you how to make biochar on a production scale using Wilson Ring-of-Fire Flame Capped Kilns. More info & registration here.

Zero Waste Missoula Meeting – June 2, 4-5pm. Home ReSource is reconvening the Zero Waste Missoula Community Group! Join us for the first meeting of the year on Wednesday, June 2 in the Home ReSource Community Room. The meeting will focus on the group’s history and purpose, along with setting goals and priorities moving forward. All are welcome! RSVP here.

Farm Fresh Pale Ale Beer Launch – June 10. This beer, made from local hops, is a collaboration between CFAC and Imagine Nation Brewery. Proceeds support CFAC’s beginning farmer and rancher trainings, food access programs, and farmland conservation. Available for purchase at Imagine Nation Brewery.

Farm Fresh Pop-Up Pitchfest – June 11th, 5:15-5:45pm at Imagine Nation Brewery. Support local farmers and learn about community investing at CFAC’s upcoming Pop-Up Pitchfest! Local farmers will pitch their business idea and ask for community support through investing in their KIVA loan. For as little as $25, you can invest in the farmer, get repaid, and then choose to repeat again in the future!

Fixit Clinics – June 19, July 17, & Aug. 21, 11am-3pm. Save the dates for upcoming Fixit Clinics, hosted by Home ReSource! Bring your broken items and work with skilled repair coaches to learn how to fix them. More information and sign ups will be posted here.

Bike to Barns tour – Aug. 14-Sept. 30. Explore local farms and flavors on a 15-mile bike tour through Missoula’s Orchard Homes and Target Range neighborhoods. Check back here for more info.

Spontaneous Construction – Sept 18th. Missoula’s festival of creative reinvention! Reuse. Compete. Create. Enjoy! More info and team registration here.

Missoula’s third annual Clean Energy Expo – Sept 25. Climate Smart Missoula and Montana Renewable Energy Association are back to hosting this premier event at Caras Park. Save the Date.

Materials donations to Home Resource keep the wheels of reuse spinning in our community; and remember that everything you need to know about what to do with your unwanted stuff is at www.zerobyfiftymissoula.com.

Find more local activities and events at Missoulaevents.net and on Montana Environmental Information Center’s Conservation Calendar. And you too can help organize events – here’s the 2021 Calendar of Environmental Awareness Days – month by month break down of world day campaigns.