Biodynamic Progress – The Biochar Process
March 22, 2016
Biodynamic vineyards are never static, but rather living, breathing and feeling habitats. Comprised of vines, plants, insects and animals, they are indeed constantly changing throughout a given day, week, season or year. Spanning many years grapevines grow and evolve from young nursery transplants with emerging roots, to large, multi-branched vines with root systems radiating far beyond the plants and deep into the ground. As the vineyard matures and evolves, it changes course – be it from disease, loss of vigor, lessening production, or changing demand in the marketplace. As part of the commercial vineyard process, the vines are removed, usually in whole blocks, to be replanted again. The result is a huge source of organic material, which must be removed from the vineyard.
For typical vineyards, the vines, roots and even the metal stakes are removed, piled up with tractors and left out to dry for several months before they can be burned. In Sonoma County, California where our vineyards are located, any commercial agriculture burn is carefully regulated by the local air quality control district. They require a permit and provide weather guidelines to ensure the smoke produced can effectively dissipate. Once a permit has been obtained and all of guidelines have been met, then the burn can occur.
At Eco Terreno Wines, our commitment to holistically managing our vineyards has spurred us to use our dead vines and roots as a resource to be maximized. Utilizing a farming practice called a “biochar” burn, the vines, roots and even woody material are all burned using this method that reduces emissions, enhances carbon capture, and creates a usable end product with beneficial utility to the land. This in turn stimulates good soil management in order to retain and supply carbon to the soil as a food source for microorganisms. Additionally, it acts as an amendment to aerate and enhance water and nutrient retention, and to reduce the contribution to rising global greenhouse gas emissions. Thus, we feel this method is the ideal way to take dispose of removed vines and roots.
On the day of “The Burn” we arrived at our Cisne vineyard bright and early to attend to almost 10 acres of vines had been slated for removal. For the past 3 days we had placed an early morning call to the air district, with a response of “no burn today”. Finally, on a drizzly morning in late February, the weather was determined ideal by our local air district and we received the green light so we assembled at the burn site. Large excavators and dozers were on hand as well as a water tank, and a handful of folks from our vineyard management company joined us to commence the burn. The assembled piles had been “fluffed up” the previous day, which is essential for this technique as it allows for good airflow. The burn piles were tested with a moisture meter and determined to be sufficiently dry. They were then lit at the top and on the downwind side, as it’s required for this method so any smoke produced would be drawn by the wind into the flames and consumed.
Overall we had to burn 10 large piles, ten feet high by twenty wide. As the first few went up in flames, we decided to light them all and manage their reduction with the equipment. A large Volvo excavator was the ideal tool for removing metal stakes and unburned wood to condense the pile. When the piles were burned to the point of being embers, we spread them out with the heavy equipment, and then sprayed them with water. This is a crucial step, as it stops the complete consumption of the material at the charcoal phase. Though the incredible heat often kept us at bay, and even resulted in a number of us having our boots melt as we walked over hot coals, we worked safely to ensure the accumulated large piles of biochar had a thorough burn of material. As a result, we had achieved a successful burn and with no smoke! Or, to be perfectly accurate, very little, which was confirmed by a monitor from the air quality district when he came by to check on us. He even took photos and samples of the biochar to take back to the office, exclaiming that this was amazing and needed to be shared with the agricultural community!
In the end, we were left with around 20 yards of biochar, which was collected to be mixed into our compost piles. There the crystalline material, with incredible pore space and interior surface area, will be inoculated with the beneficial bacteria and microorganisms from the piles, creating a stable, long term component of our vineyard soils.