7 October 2020
An upland farmer who is producing a type of charcoal which locks up carbon in soil says agriculture in Wales could do more to convert farm and forestry waste materials into this resource.
Tony Davies removes Molinia grass from land he farms on the Cambrian Mountains and processes it to produce biochar, a charcoal used to enhance the fertility and water retention capabilities of soil.
Removing this grass improves biodiversity, reduces fire risk and improves habitats for the golden plover whilst the biochar is sold on a small scale to gardeners and horticulturists.
When biochar is added to soil, it locks up carbon.
“Biochar has been proven by academics worldwide to be a useful method of increasing carbon sequestration as it resists degradation and can lock up carbon in soil for thousands of years,’’ says Tony, a fifth-generation tenant of 680-hectare Henfron Farm in the Elan Valley.
He was keen to understand more about opportunities for biochar production in Wales and its use in farming and applied for a Farming Connect Management Exchange bursary to expand his knowledge.
Among the countries he visited were Finland, Sweden and Ireland where he met experts, attended workshops and visited biochar production sites.
Tony believes that with the right policies and financial incentives, biochar use is likely to become more widespread in agriculture, primarily as a method of increasing carbon sequestration.
And that could provide opportunities for farmers in Wales, he says.
“Agriculture in Wales has a range of waste products which could be utilised for processing into biochar,’’ he points out.
“As well as making biochar for on-farm use, farmers are perfectly placed to produce biochar for use in urban areas.’’
But Tony’s research taught him that although biochar has proven benefits in increasing horticultural and crop yields, it may not be cost effective to use on grassland for increasing yields.
“The soil organic matter is normally higher on grazed land than cropping land due to the grazing and manuring effect of grazing animals,’’ he says.
But waste from grazed farms could be processed into biochar and sold to horticultural farms and possibly mixed with composted animal manure, Tony adds.
“This is already happening in parts of Europe,’’ he explains.
Biochar is also used for animal bedding and another potential opportunity is its inclusion in the diet of farm animals.
Studies across Europe have proven its beneficial effects in the growth of animals, possibly because it improves their digestion.
“Biochar fed to animals would ultimately be passed to the manure and onto the land, creating a carbon cascade effect,’’ says Tony.
As a result of his Management Exchange travel experience, he says he learned how there is more farmers can do to utilise waste biomass materials.
“Farms in Wales could be more self-sufficient in bedding and fuel by exploiting the lower quality resources growing on their land,’’ he reckons.
Farming Connect, which is delivered by Menter a Busnes and Lantra, has received funding through the Welsh Government Rural Communities - Rural Development Programme 2014-2020, which is funded by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development and the Welsh Government.