Biochar is a charcoal-like substance that can increase carbon storage in soils — and it’s gained fast-growing support on the carbon removal market. More and more, corporate purchasers want to pay for producers to trap carbon on their lands with biochar. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) helped spur that excitement in 2018, with the introduction of its Soil Carbon Amendment Conservation Practice Standard (CPS), which pays farmers for their biochar application. 

This incentive cleared the way for agriculture and forestry producers to adopt the new practice — but in reality, only $1.3 million in payments were made across six states in 2021 and 2022 (a fraction of the $185 million distributed for cover crops, another carbon storage practice, over that same time). Most recently, 2023 saw the expansion of this practice standard to 12 more states, though exact payment amounts went unreported in places with sparser participation. This newest uptick shows a growing demand for biochar adoption among US producers, and leaves plenty of room for this CDR practice to keep growing.

So, what’s holding biochar back now, even with this CPS in place? Chiefly, persistent research gaps  — especially about how biochar will “work” on individual lands — leave producers with too much uncertainty and economic risk. To overcome that, USDA can lead the development and implementation of best practices for biochar application that are producer-informed and regionally relevant — an effort that will require robust investments in research and technical assistance. With these pieces in place, we can optimize biochar application for its carbon removal potential with farmers, ranchers, and foresters leading the charge. 

Grower-focused research for biochar 

The decision to introduce biochar to your soils can be a lot like the decision to adopt a pet: We know the benefits of owning a pet, but finding the right one for you is not a one-size-fits-all operation. Owners have to think about how their future pet will fit into their schedules, physical space, existing household dynamics (i.e. other pets or small children), and overall goals for pet ownership. For producers, biochar adoption is also bound by economic and regional climate considerations. Before applying biochar to their lands, one must consider things like: What crop waste will they collect from their fields to produce the biochar? How and where will applying biochar best enhance soil carbon? How can they integrate biochar with their current land management to protect revenue and further enhance soil health? As one practitioner said, “The potential [of biochar] is phenomenal. The barrier is adoption and the uncertainty.”  

Producers also must navigate the sourcing of biochar. One advantage of biochar production is its scalability — biochar can be produced on small “back-of-a-truck” operations or large commercial facilities. In smaller, local operations, producers can maintain total control by sourcing waste from their own land and returning it back to their own soil. Beyond the personal benefit for producers, these local systems also cut down on transportation of biochar, reducing secondary greenhouse gas emissions and boosting net carbon removal. But to achieve these benefits, producers will need financial support for equipment, education on the safe and effective production of biochar, and technical assistance to ensure soil health advantages are realized.  

Momentum is growing to support research that will answer producers’ needs. Multiple policy levers have been proposed to address challenges to scaling biochar adoption, driven by stakeholder engagement and legislative interest: 

  • In 2022, Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, American Farmland Trust, and the National Center for Appropriate Technology highlighted the need for fundamental applied research for biochar soil application. 
  • In 2023, the Biochar Research Network Act (H.R. 1645, S. 732) was introduced and proposed a biochar focal area for USDA science. This would facilitate large-scale, coordinated research on the environmental impacts and site-specific recommendations for biochar application across agriculture and forestry operations and regions. 
  • This year, the US Biochar Coalition is priming the Farm Bill as a vehicle to supercharge biochar research and technical support; they are building momentum for the Biochar Research Network Act alongside other policy recommendations.
  • At the administrative level, Carbon180 and 17 partners delivered a letter to the Biden administration outlining concrete and tangible action that can be taken to advance biochar research and development (R&D). 

Empowering farmers to make a leap to biochar

Taking biochar from the lab to the farm is just a first step — producers also need support trialing, learning, and successfully incorporating biochar into their land management practices.  

Previous innovations in agricultural carbon removal have been bolstered by programs that connect research directly to practitioner needs. For example, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program was a key catalyst for early research on cover cropping, which fortified  producers’ understanding of their practical implications and led to the establishment of a farmer education network. Now, SARE has begun funding research on both in situ production of biochar and biochar application across crop types, sowing the seeds for more producer-led research and education. SARE is certainly not alone in its success in co-developing research with practitioners on the ground: The Climate Hubs and the Extension network also create dialogue between practitioners and researchers, provide technical assistance, and develop decision support tools from the best available science. 

The inclusion of biochar in the Soil Carbon Amendment CPS has opened the door to de-risk this pathway, and now, farmers, ranchers, and foresters need to see clear benefits that apply to their fields and bottom lines. For producers “seeing is believing,” and we should show them the benefits of biochar adoption before they make the leap on their own lands. To do so, we’ll need to deliver more technical assistance, trusted data on biochar use, and demonstration plots. The Conservation Innovation Grant program helps fill that role today, supporting projects that establish demonstration trials for biochar application across the US; these efforts can improve technical support and tools to inform producers’ management decisions. 

Biochar in the Future

There are many opportunities to further support for biochar R&D: the upcoming Farm Bill can embed the Biochar Research Network Act; the Natural Resources Conservation Service can provide training to field staff on biochar application and production; and the White House can use existing funding and authority to advance support for biochar across federal agencies and programs. Empowering farmers to adopt biochar as a durable practice for soil carbon management requires concerted efforts from the scientific community, policymakers, and agricultural extension services. By improving regional understanding, providing education and technical assistance, and promoting collaboration across producers, educators, and scientists, we can unlock the potential of biochar for carbon removal. It is essential that we seize this opportunity to address the challenges, support farmers, and pave the way for a more sustainable and resilient agricultural sector.

Edited by Tracy Yu. Image by Julian Schöll.