Phillipine Terra Preta

This is a good field report on terra preta experimentation in the Philippines. This should be useful to many others trying the same thing.

My only comment is that I suspect rice paddy culture is a poor candidate because the paddies are nutrient sinks to begin with, or at the least should be.

I would like to see this work focus on depleted soils and implement a seed hill planting system to increase efficiency. He mentions the growing of corn, so the three sisters is possible here. I think that the three sisters will maximize performance and encourage adoption.

The three sisters is of course the combination of corn, beans and pumpkin in a seed hill carrying all the applied nutrients and manure.

My Projects in the Philippines by Jochen Binikowski

Terra Preta / Biochar Experiments

Making charcoal from rice husk

My name is Jochen Binikowski, from Hamburg, Germany. I am the consignee of Tigaon Handicraft, a small, family owned and run, handicraft business, based in Tigaon, Camarines Sur, Philippines, which is owned and managed by the family of my Filipina wife. Since 1980 I have regularly visited the Philippines.

As a sideline we have been conducting some trials in the local agricultural sector. Since February 2007 we have been experimenting with rice husk charcoal, with a view to improving local soils (Terra Preta) and the production of briquettes. The most common cooking fuels in Tigaon (42.000 inhabitants) are firewood, charcoal and liquified gas. The huge consumption of firewood and charcoal has resulted in the dramatic deforestration of the local rainforest at nearby Mt. Isarog. In the event that we are successful, these problems could become significantly reduced and hence, we are very willing to share our experience with others.

We are exclusively using agricultural waste as our raw material (biomass stream). So far we have experimented with rice husk, corn cobs, corn stems, coconut shells and waste wood from local carpenters. In order to dispose of this �waste�, these materials are typically burnt by local farmers.

Since January 2008 I am back in the Philippines. My brother in law, Elmer L. Orfanel is working with me on these experiments. He is an engineer and very creative in designing new equipment. In the meantime we are testing already our semi-commercial briquette press and charcoal production in drums, the kiln method. Both tests are very promissing so far.

Our current , most pressing priorities are the construction of a permanent site for pyrolysis. It will be designed in a way to accomodate a truckload of rice husks. The rice mills are happy to supply us free of charge because as of now they just dump it at remote places. We do have a feasible site where water, storage places, electricity etc. are abundant and which is far away from residents who might become affected from smoke. At this location we will also operate the briquette press and drying room. This will minimize the cost of transportation. At present our main problem is the lack of capital.

In commercial quantities we can use the process heat i.e. for a rice drier. This would solve another big problem that the smaller farmers suffer from, which is the post harvest losses due to a lack of drying equipment during rainy season. So far we have been using corn starch as our binding material. Provided the briquettes are completely dry they are getting very hard and are easy to store. They must be wrapped in paper to avoid absorption of air humidity. We do hope to reduce our drying time through higher pressure levels produced by the new briquette press. This is an important factor with regards to feasibility.

In order to become feasible the briquetts must compete with the existing fuel prices in Tigaon, 1 US$ = approx. 42 Peso

  • Firewood dried = 3 Peso/KG
  • Charcoal regular = 8 Peso/KG
  • Charcoal from coconut shells = 10 Peso/KG
  • 11 KG Gas bottle 660 Peso
  • Kerosin/Diesel 38 Peso/Liter
  • Electricity about 10 Peso/KWH (Industrial consumption)
  • Electricity about 14 Peso/KWH (Household consumption)

There are huge seasonal differences in the prices of firewood and charcoal. During the dry season (January to June) the market prices are much lower as opposed to the rainy season (July to December). The daily wages are very low: assistant 120 Peso, qualified worker 250 Peso, engineer 400 Peso.

The materials already tested yielded different heating values. So far the best was corn cobs, coconut shell, coconut trunks, bamboo and corn stems. The heating value was even higher than that of traditional charcoal. Rice husks had a much lower heating value due to the high silica (SiO2) content of more than 50%. But the rice husks are required as a filler material during pyrolysis anyway and moreover can be used for soil improvement (Terra Preta). We also did some experiments attempting to separate the SiO2 from the carbon, but so far without any success.

Some of the experiments were carried out just a short time before my departure back to Germany in June 2007. As such we have not yet acquired the proper heating test results for these materials integrated into the graph below.

In February 2007 we prepared 5 adjucent rice paddys at 4x5 meter size:

  1. Traditional planting 100% fertilizer
  2. 1 KG/sqm charcoal, 100% fertilizer
  3. 1 KG/sqm charcoal, 50% fertilizer
  4. 1 KG/sqm charcoal, no fertilizer
  5. 1 KG/sqm charcoal, 1 KG/sqm old compost, no fertilizer

Harvest gross weight of each paddy:

  1. 13,750 KG
  2. 14,175 KG
  3. 11,550 KG
  4. 10,475 KG
  5. 10,550 KG

According to these figures the positive effect of charcoal was just minimal and does not justify the additional expenses for production and distribution on the fields. After the harvest, the paddies were treated again in the same way with charcoal and rice was planted. But unfortunately this harvest was partly damaged by heavy rains and no proper result could be computed.

On April 7, 2008 we started a new rice experiment. Now we are using a special mixure of soil bacterias, complete fertilizer and charcoal for a seedbed starter. The Philippine Government is propagating a simmelar technique to the rice and corn farmers:

BIO-N Fertilizer

The BIO-N is also used in our control seedbeds. We expect initial results by end of April. After transplanting the seedlings the seedbeds will be used as an experimental field for potatoe planting. If this will work it could be a profitable alternative to rice planting during rainy season and it could reduced the emission of the greenhouse gas methane.

Vegetable planting experiments with charcoal enriched soil

In 2006 and 2007 we tried to plant several vegetable species in fields which where prepared using compost and charcoal. We had very confusing results: What was growing well in 2006, suffered drastically in 2007 and vice versa.

In 2008 we experienced big problems with our vegetable seeds. Most of them did not germinate. The lesson is not to store seeds for too long time... Actually we are just experimenting with different typs of lettuce in terra preta soil and it looks good so far.

We are still puzzled by the possible reasons as conditions were replicated to the best of our ability (ie. the same seeds, soil, season, climate conditions etc). At present I am preparing for a new trial. The target is to develop a method to minimize some of the common problems in vegetable farming:

  • Draught and flooding
  • Attacks by soil insects
  • Damages by fungi
  • Different soil conditions
  • Damages by Typhoones

Since we have an abundance of different raw materials , i.e. charcoal, compost, animal waste, seaweeds, lahar (volcanic stones and ashes) etc. what we can experiment with is different soil mixtures. This means the experiments can be reproduced at any location in the tropics. Empty cans, cut plastic bottles, plastic bags, rice bags and disposable plastic cups can be used as containers or pots.

Another target is to harvest out of season when prices are high. Since the pots are portable they can be temporarily transferred to safe places in case of typhoon warnings. We tried this successfully with a few tomato plants in 2006.

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