The Soil Restoration Method BARRA is Exploring

As Earth Day approaches, BARRA of Mendocino in Mendocino County, California is exploring new organic ways to restore their soil’s nutrients amid dry conditions.

This year, the Barra family is actively exploring the use of biochar, a wood product created by burning wood chips in equipment that uses very little oxygen.

According to BARRA proprietor Martha Barra, initial studies have indicated that biochar has the potential to do three things: increase the vine’s ability to take in nutrients, hold water, and increase the carbon sequestration in the soil.

The Barras, who farm Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Muscat Canelli, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Sirah on their 350 acres of estate vineyards, are trying out the method in a test plot environment.

“Although more studies need to be done on this process, we feel it is worth our time and energy to investigate the use of biochar as a soil amendment practice,” Barra said. “This could be a critical farming practice since we face the most severe drought conditions on the North Coast of California perhaps in 1,200 years.”

A number of materials can be used to make biochar, including wood, grass, crop residue and manure. Barra said she expects old vines that have been pulled out of the ground for replanting could provide the fuel needed for biochar at her family’s vineyards.

A Popular Method

The Sonoma Biochar Initiative, an advocacy group that operates through the Sonoma Ecology Center, has shared some tips for first-time biochar makers:

  • Small piles are better than big ones. A large pile makes it difficult to light, is harder to stack loosely, and makes it less likely the conservation burn process will work as desired.
  • Pieces in the pile should be about the same size. The exception is kindling. Collect kindling size pieces from the material going into the stack. Place them on top once the pile is built. Pieces of material of varying sizes will burn at different rates. Smaller pieces will turn to ash before the larger pieces have burned to char. Cut up large pieces to match the size of average pieces.
  • Stack piles somewhat loosely. The conservation burn process requires air flow.  In particular, air flow to the kindling on top of the pile. 
  • Piles need to season. This is the same principle as seasoning firewood – to reduce moisture. The material should be less than 20% moisture content. A firewood moisture meter can be an inexpensive way of determining if the pile is ready for a successful burn.
  • Light the pile from the top, not the bottom. If it is not windy, light the entire circumference of the top of the pile. If it is windy, light the pile from the downwind side of the pile. If the pile is difficult to light try adding more kindling to the top before resorting to additional accelerant.
  • Put out the fire before everything turns to ash. The fire is ready to be extinguished when you can still tell what type of material was burned (part of a trunk, part of a cordon, a big spur position) and the pile is covered with fine white ash.  To reduce the amount of Carbon released into the atmosphere it is crucial to put out the fire before the material turns completely to ash. The more black material left at the end of the burn, the less Carbon that has been lost.
  • Put out the fire with water from the upwind side. Slowly remove the charred material. This is the biochar. Hose down the area ahead of the workers. Worker safety is critical. Be sure water is supplied to the area around and ahead of the workers’ feet. This process is repeated across the pile until the fire is completely out. 
  • Rake out the charred material. Spray down an area where charred material can be raked out and any unburned material can be removed. 
  • Crush the charred material. Once the material has cooled, run over the charred material with a piece of heavy equipment to pulverize it. The greater the surface area, the better. Crush the biochar to a size that is easy to work in a compost pile and spread.
  • Blend with compost. The ideal time to add biochar to compost for spreading is early in the composting processing.

An Earthy Focus

Organic farming and practices are nothing new to the Barra family. Their ranch has eight rainwater-fed ponds and has been certified organic by the California Certified Organic Farmers for the past 33 years.

“The first thing my late husband, Charlie Barra, did to farm organically was to tell his best friend, a vineyard chemical salesman, to ‘not come in my vineyard anymore,’” Barra recalled. “The salesman would come into Charlie’s vineyards, see some deficiency, and then relate a horror story of a neighbor down the road who had lost 50% of their crop because they didn’t spray with a certain fungicide. 

“Charlie’s reasoning was, ‘My grandfather and father didn’t use pesticides or herbicides or commercial fertilizers, so why should I?’”

BARRA of Mendocino will be celebrating Earth Day all throughout the month of April at their tasting room with various activities including cork recycling, sunflower seed and reusable bag give aways, vegan education, and more.

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