Farming fresh ideas with charcoal

Charcoal isn't just great for grilling meat, or helping artists depict dreary, desolate landscapes. It also helps things grow.

Charcoal isn’t just great for grilling meat, or helping artists depict dreary, desolate landscapes.

It also helps things grow.

“It’s almost a miracle component for the soil,” said Brad Barton, an agricultural research technician who helps run the Yukon research farm.

But don’t go burying charcoal barbecue briquettes, they contain toxic binding material and actual mined coal.

The beneficial charcoal, biochar, is made exclusively from organic material.

Each lump of biochar has millions of tiny pathways which act like a sponge for nutrients and water, providing a habitat for vital microbes and bacteria.

It’s known to be beneficial to the soil, but quantifying that benefit is just one of several experiments being conducted at the research farm.

On Wednesday, the Yukon agriculture branch hosted a barbecue at the farm to show off some of its work to the public.

The biochar demonstration was by far the most interesting part of the tour.

Even for agricultural specialists, watching carrots grow isn’t that exciting.

Biochar is created through the process of pyrolysis, or burning in the absence of oxygen.

Pyrolysis creates heat, biochar and syngas, a concentrated mixture of carbon monoxide that is highly flammable.

Anyone who has seen the movie Backdraft knows how explosive syngas can be.

As a training officer for the Whitehorse fire department, Warren Zachus has spent more than a decade creating biochar as part of a demonstration warning firefighters about the dangers of syngas.

Until a few years ago, he was just throwing the biochar away.

Now, as the new president of the Yukon Agricultural Association, he’s doing the same demonstration, but for farmers, not firefighters. And he’s touting biochar’s benefits, not its dangers.

He’s also keeping the biochar and putting it to use.

“I didn’t realize the agricultural potential until four years ago,” he said.

The Yukon agriculture branch, Yukon College and the University of Alaska Fairbanks are conducting experiments to investigate that potential.

There is also a side project looking at ways to capture the syngas and burn it to create energy.

The biochar is just one of many things that the agriculture branch is using the farm to research.

“We’re trying to understand the things that producers are interested in,” said Barton.

This year the 1.6-hectare farm is growing several rows of carrots.

Each row has a slightly different soil composition.

One has biochar, some are mixed with synthetic fertilizer and some have nothing added.

Two rows are planted with city compost, which is something producers are interested in, said Barton.

All the rows look pretty much the same.

Carrots grow well in the Yukon, but using them for experiments can be frustrating.

You can’t tell how they’re doing until you pull them out of the ground, said Barton.

“It drives you crazy,” he said.

They’re also growing several varieties of wheat and raspberries, to figure out which ones are best suited to the Yukon.

The berry experiments generate plenty of interest.

“Everyone is wondering how an orchard will do up here,’ said Barton. “In a good year, some varieties could be economically viable.”

They might not be the big juicy berries that one finds in the grocery store, “but they make good jam,” he said.

There are both organic plots and plots treated with pesticides and fertilizers. But there are no genetically modified plants on the farm.

“We don’t want to be the ones to introduce GMOs to the Yukon,” said Barton. “Also, there’s really no demand for it right now.”

The results of these experiments will be compiled into a report that Yukon farmers can use when deciding what to plant.

The hope is to get more local producers growing food in the Yukon for the Yukon.

“We can change our grocery cart in the Yukon by growing the things we can up here,” said Barton.

Contact Josh Kerr at