Biochar is one of the most promising tools to build soil organic matter, remove carbon from the atmosphere, and improve soil health. That promise has prompted growing support for federal legislation to increase biochar research. 

Biochar is a form of charcoal designed for use in soil. It is produced by heating biomass in the absence of oxygen – a process called pyrolysis. Potential sources of biomass feedstock include: 

  • dead wood, thinnings, and slash removed from forests to reduce wildfire risk  
  • grass and tree crops
  • the portion of crop residues not needed to prevent soil erosion 

Biochar is not new. Biochar from prairie and forest fires is a significant portion of the organic matter in the world’s agricultural soils. A growing body of research suggests that appropriately designed biochar can improve soil structure and health, enhance soil water-holding capacity, improve soil fertility, and increase yields while building soil carbon and organic matter.  

Building and maintaining soil organic matter is challenging in annual cropping systems. Most crop residue left on soil breaks down in a few years. Even practices that add carbon like cover crops can stimulate microorganisms that decompose biomass, limiting the net gain in soil organic matter.  

The unique promise of biochar is that it provides “recalcitrant” soil carbon that lasts for hundreds to thousands of years. That is why harvesting a portion of crop residue to produce biochar to be returned to soil can result in a net increase in soil carbon. Biochar far outlasts crop residue.     

Interestingly, biochar can also extend the life of carbon from crop residue, cover crops, and other biomass that remains on the land. An Iowa State University found that the long-term increase in soil carbon several years after application of biochar was twice the carbon embodied in the biochar. Biochar slowed the decomposition of other soil carbon. 

Biochar provides farmers, ranchers, and foresters the opportunity to become a powerful part of the solution to climate change. Soil is the globe’s second-largest carbon sink, holding three times as much carbon as the atmosphere. Agricultural soils alone hold about as much carbon as the atmosphere.   

Thus, a 10% increase in carbon in agricultural soils across the globe would provide a 10% reduction in atmospheric carbon dioxide – the greenhouse gas most responsible for driving climate change. In addition, research has found that biochar can reduce soil emissions of nitrous oxide, one of the most powerful greenhouse gases contributing to climate change. That also keeps nitrogen in the soil and available to crops. 

Biochar has great potential. But to achieve it, critical knowledge gaps must be filled. The research results on biochar have been inconsistent because there are many different types of biochar being applied in varying soils and circumstances. So, we need coordinated research to determine which types of biochar can be beneficial in varying soils and circumstances.   

Bipartisan legislation has been proposed to meet that need. The Biochar Research Network Act of 2023 has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives as HR 1645 by Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R-IA), Kim Schrier (D-WA), Chellie Pingree (D-ME), Dan Newhouse (R-WA), Jimmy Panetta (D-CA), Sean Casten (D-IL), and Josh Harder (D-CA). It was introduced in the U.S. Senate as S.732 by Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Jon Tester (D-MT), John Thune (R-SD), and Sherrod Brown (D-OH). 

The Act would establish a national network of up to 20 research sites to test the full range of biochar types across soils, regions, and application methods to assess its potential to enhance carbon sequestration, crop production, resource conservation, and agricultural resilience. It would support research to develop promising approaches to integrating biochar in farming and ranching systems, as well as forestry. 

Support for the Act is growing. A long list of organizations, businesses, and individuals have written to the Agriculture Committees of Congress urging that the legislation be incorporated in the upcoming farm bill. NCAT’s Biochar Policy Project has been a leading force in developing and championing the bill. Click here to read the support letter.

Biochar is a win-win solution. It helps farmers, ranchers and foresters build healthy and productive soil and creates new opportunities to earn payments for removing carbon from the atmosphere. It provides a market for combustible materials removed from forests, supporting efforts to reduce wildfires. It offers the basis for building a new industry that creates jobs and opportunities across rural America along with new markets for biomass. And it removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which lessens climate change. 

There are many reasons to support biochar, which is why it has drawn bipartisan support at a time when the two major parties seem to rarely come together. 

To learn more about the Biochar Research Network Act and how you can lend your voice to the campaign for its passage, contact Chuck Hassebrook at 

A story about the Armed to Urban Farm program’s recent training has been featured on more than 40 television news stations around the country. The free training included two virtual sessions and three days of in-person sessions in Memphis, TN.

Armed to Urban Farm, presented in partnership with the U.S. Botanic Garden, is an outgrowth of NCAT’s Armed to Farm program. Since 2013, more than 900 farmer veterans have received sustainable agriculture training through Armed to Farm.

Armed to Urban Farm is unique in its focus on operating a farming business in the city. Attendees at the Memphis training learned about business planning, marketing, land access, and legal issues farmers can face. In addition, they spent time on urban farms in Memphis, learning from experienced urban farmers and building relationships with fellow farmer veterans.

“They’re here to learn and connect with each other and see what they might be able to take back to their own operations,” said U.S. Botanic Garden education specialist Emily Hestness.

Veterans who attend Armed to Urban Farm come to learn about vegetable, fruit, and flower production, with goals of feeding their families and communities. Many, such as Army veteran Charley Jordan, also have discovered therapeutic benefits from engaging in agriculture.

“It was helpful for me and I figured this must be helpful for other veterans…So, I’m slowly moving on to working more with veterans and mental health and using plants as healing.”

Whatever the farmer veterans’ goals may be, Armed to Urban Farm offers support and educational resources even after the training event ends. Farming is a challenging profession, as NCAT Sustainable Agriculture Specialist Mike Lewis points out, but farmer veterans are used to challenges from their time in military service.

“and we think that if you’ve already started the hardest job in the world, why can’t we transition you into the second?”

NCAT and the U.S. Botanic Garden have hosted Armed to Urban Farm training events in Washington, D.C., Cleveland, OH, and Baltimore, MD. For more information, visit ARMEDTOFARM.ORG.

Watch the full piece, here.

When I lived in Beijing, people would always ask me how the pollution was. I told them two things: the Communist Party planted trees to stop sandstorms from entering the capital. Second, they also moved factories away from the city, yet didn’t shut them down. Despite all this, the Chinese capital still experiences terrible air quality for periods of the year. This past summer I moved home to Minnesota and was amazed to watch everyone taking pictures of the smoky haze drifting east from California, Washington, and Oregon and south from Canada.  While this was new for them, I was reminded of Beijing. A picturesque lake, glazed over with a harsh bite of reality: the wildfire smoke had finally reached the boundary waters of Northern Minnesota. Little did I know that I would soon move to the largest EPA superfund site in the United States, Butte, Montana where they have been dealing with these environmental issues for decades. 

A hundred years ago, at the height of a copper mining boom, Butte was the largest city between Chicago and the West. After most of the mines shut down, Butte’s population plummeted to only a fraction. Now, the community is growing again after decades of environmental restoration.  

Butte’s future will be shaped by opportunities and challenges related to climate change. Butte is seen by private industry as a good location for clean energy development with recent proposals to develop solar, green hydrogen, and energy storage systems. However, the community faces climate challenges that threaten to undo much of the environmental work of recent years. Community leaders are eager to understand the challenges and achieve the opportunities by developing a climate adaptation and green energy plan. Thus, our project was born—Resilient Butte. 

Butte-Silver Bow County, Montana Technological University, and the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) are partnering to create a Butte Sustainability and Resilience Plan. Unlike us Minnesotans, Montana has been battling drought and wildfire risk for years—risks that are only getting worse.  

One priority is to protect the Basin Creek watershed, the main source of Butte’s drinking water. Vast areas of beetle-killed lodgepole pine in the watershed are at risk of burning in a wildfire, which could fill the reservoir with sediments and plug water treatment filters. Even further, many Butte residents live in old buildings without proper insulation and weatherization, which pose health risks from rising temperatures and wildfire smoke. Those are just a couple issues we want to tackle with this new plan. But our plan isn’t just about the negatives. 

Butte has a rich history. It is well-positioned and has the potential to become a fantastic renewable energy hub. Butte industrial products, including silicon gas and copper, are essential for solar energy. In recent years, Butte has been approached by large-array solar and green hydrogen energy developers, but county officials haven’t yet developed land-use plans to accommodate these new uses.  Meanwhile, the county is eyeing infrastructure investments through the U.S. Department of Energy to develop clean energy projects on former mine lands. The Resilient Butte project will provide an economic development guide for the city-county.  

With our first steps towards Resilient Butte, we’d like to invite the residents in Butte to participate in a survey that can be found at: We would like to also invite you to connect with Resilient Butte on Facebook and Instagram and at our website Resilient Butte. Get involved and help shape Butte’s climate adaptation and green energy plan! 

In a new video series: Soil Health 101: Principles for Livestock Production, NCAT Sustainable Agriculture Specialist Nina Prater makes the case for modeling soil health strategies after nature’s blueprint that produced that situation in the first place.

We all know the basic story. Plants photosynthesize sunlight and make sugars. They use the sugars to build leaves and stems and roots and seeds – pretty much everything that makes a plant a plant.

But at the same time, they share the wealth by exuding sugars from the roots to feed a “community” of soil microbes and fungi that in turn help keep the soil healthy for the plant.

A classic win-win situation.

“This layer of productive soil on top of the bedrock that we all have to work with is this vibrant living thing that has a community of life within it,” Nina says. “You have to treat it like a living thing because it is.”

And just like any living thing, there are practices that can keep it healthy and practices that can cause it harm.

Nina and other NCAT staffers produced a three-part webinar series – Soil Health 101 – through the ATTRA sustainable agriculture program, along with support from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program (Southern SARE).

You can watch the webinars here:

The series has a particular focus on the role livestock can play in soil health, but its strategies for keeping soil healthy is good information for any producer.

Those strategies are often described as the principles of soil health. Nina breaks it down to five.

  • Minimize disturbance to the soil
  • Maximize biodiversity on the land
  • Keep the soil covered at all times
  • Keep living roots growing in the soil during as much of the year as possible
  • Incorporate animals and use regenerative grazing practices

Nature provides models for how to put those principles of soil health into place, Nina says, and the webinar is full of practical examples of just that.

“To build soil health on our farm, we have to look to nature to figure out how to do that. Nature built all of these soils in the first place,” she explains. “The planet wasn’t created with all these, you know, lush terrains and prairie and everything. All that evolved over time. And it evolved with these ecosystem that built soil.”

To learn even more about the importance of soil health, and to connect with farmers, ranchers, and land managers taking steps to regenerate their soils, visit SOILFORWATER.ORG.

“Your soil health is going to keep you in business. If you take care of your soil, the land will give back to you.” Tina Weldon and her partner Orion are among a growing network of farmers, ranchers, and land managers who are taking steps to catch and hold more water in the soil.

Join the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) on Thursday, February 17 for the world premiere of its film Soil for Water, with a panel discussion to follow.

NCAT’s Soil for Water project is working to capture and hold more water in the soil by building a growing network of farmers, ranchers, and land managers who are taking steps to regenerate the land and strengthen their businesses. This voluntary, free network is now available to farmers, ranchers, and land managers in all 50 states.


Don’t miss the world premiere of Soil for Water on February 17 at 11:00 a.m. MST/1 p.m. EST and join us for a panel discussion with the nationwide team working to support regenerators, and two Texas ranchers who are already seeing success.

Click here to register for this free, informative film screening and panel discussion.

The National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) is partnering with Holistic Management International (HMI) to bring its Armed to Farm training to the Southwest. Armed to Farm will take place March 28-April 1, 2022, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Participants will attend classroom sessions and travel to local farms for hands-on learning experiences.

Armed to Farm trainings include an engaging blend of farm tours, hands-on activities, and interactive classroom instruction. NCAT Sustainable Agriculture specialists will teach the training sessions. Staff from HMI, USDA agencies, and experienced crop and livestock producers will provide additional instruction.

This training is for military veterans in the Southwest, with preference given to those in New Mexico. The number of participants will be limited. Spouses or farm partners are welcome as well but must submit a separate application.

Click HERE to apply by February 11. NCAT will notify selected participants by February 18.


NCAT is organizing and hosting this Armed to Farm event in partnership with Holistic Management International. Funding is provided by USDA’s Office of Partnerships and Public Engagement.


Please contact Margo Hale at or 479-442-9824.

Mark your calendars for NCAT’s second Soil Health Innovations Conference: Soil for Water, set for Tuesday and Wednesday, March 15 and 16, 2022. This will be a virtual conference offering plenty of networking opportunities with presenters and fellow attendees.

Join us to hear from presenters such as David Montgomery of the University of Washington and Dig2Grow, Alejandro Carillo of UnderstandingAg, and agroforestry expert Dr. Hannah Hemmelgarn.

Watch our conference website, SOILINNOVATIONS.NCAT.ORG, for a complete agenda and registration information.

We look forward to seeing you in March for this important event.

There’s nothing like a summer of vicious heat, drought, and grasshoppers to focus minds on the vital importance of healthy soil. Soil scientist Wallace Fuller said in 1975, “A cloak of loose, soft material, held to the Earth’s hard surface by gravity, is all that lies between life and lifelessness.”

Across Montana, the summer of 2021 proved again just how crucial — and how vulnerable — that thin cloak of soil can be. Soil health is foundational to the resilience of land, and thus also to food systems, human health, and ecosystem function. In light of current weather, financial and societal disruptions, what challenges do Montana ag producers face in building soil health and resilience?

Through July 2022, the Montana Association of Conservation Districts, Montana Watershed Coordination Council and partners, including the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) are reaching out across the state to ask: What more might be done to better support farmers and ranchers in managing soils in Montana?

We want to hear from you! Help us understand ag needs and opportunities by completing a confidential online survey. Complete one or both surveys there: a five-minute version to capture key thoughts plus a detailed version to provide more context and depth to your responses.

We know you’re busy, so we’re offering several options to better fit your time and level of interest. In addition to the surveys, we’ll also be reaching out via regional listening sessions, one-on-one contacts, and presentations at various conferences, including the Montana Organic Conference in Bozeman, December 2-4.

In August of 2022 we will produce and share a report on what was learned along with recommendations shaped by your responses.. Our purpose is to help increase the pace and scale at which land stewards implement voluntary practices and systems to maintain and improve soils, and to strengthen the economic and ecological vitality of agriculture in Montana.

If this topic is a big one for you, we welcome your participation in our periodic planning meetings. These discussions are held virtually and are facilitated by Cole Mannix. To sign up or for more information, you can reach Cole at We hope you’ll join us in this important effort.

By Robyn Metzger, Armed to Farm Coordinator

The National Center for Appropriate Technology has launched a new website for its farmer veteran training program, Armed to Farm. The site, ARMEDTOFARM.ORG, features program news, promotes upcoming training opportunities, and connects alumni with sustainable agriculture resources and other farmer veterans.  

NCAT developed the first Armed to Farm training in 2013 through a Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Project with the University of Arkansas. The program has expanded over the past eight years with support from a cooperative agreement with USDA-Rural Development. The program has helped more than 800 veterans, and their spouses or farm partners, from 45 states. 

Visitors to the new Armed to Farm website will find a calendar of events that highlights not only NCAT-sponsored events, but also veteran-focused educational opportunities offered by other organizations around the country.  

The Join Our Network section provides options for staying in touch with the Armed to Farm team and fellow farmer veterans, including sign-up forms for email news and the Veterans in Agriculture Listserv. Visit the News page to find details on upcoming training events, post-training recaps, and spotlights on Armed to Farm alumni. We love to hear and share alumni stories!  

Speaking of alumni stories, be sure to check out the About page to view a short video starring three alumni and their farms. They share their experiences with the program and how it helped them as they started out. While you’re on that page, you can meet the five NCAT staff members who make up the core Armed to Farm team.  

If you have any questions about Armed to Farm or other farmer veteran resources, feel free to contact any of the team members. We are here to help!  

We have at least 20 Armed to Farm events lined up for the next three to four years, and planning is already underway for Spring 2022 events in California, New Mexico, and Texas. Visit ARMEDTOFARM.ORG today to sign up to receive email alerts when the event application periods open! 

By Steve Thompson, NCAT Executive Director

Dave Atkins, a forest landowner in Montana’s Blackfoot Valley, peers through the smoke-filled gloom of another hot and dry August, and he sees hope on the horizon. He’s part of a collaborative project with other small landowners, federal land agencies, conservation and watershed groups that thinks that an important solution can be found in a porous black shred of carbon called biochar.
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