Kauai Trip Post #1 – 3-12-13: Terra Preta Adventures

In flight to Kauai for a two-month exploration into tropical permaculture and Project Biochar. My wife and I went for 2-weeks in January to visit Kauai, and as it turned out, all the pieces fell into place for me to return to a free place to live and an interesting biochar venture. I have two months laid out for this project, and to expand my permaculture horizons.

We began our last trip by attending a Vandana Shiva presentation on GMO’s, with an audience of 2000 enthusiastic environmentalists. That support has swelled to become the first state advocating GMO labeling legislation. The island of Kauai has a strong “Malama Kauai” (care for Kauai) organization which advocates local food production and economic localization. A Molokai activist, Walter Ritte, at the Vendama Shiva talk said there is an amazing 30% local food production on Molokai – in large part because their tourist industry has completely dried up when their only tourist hotel left the Molokai after the Islanders prevented expansion to a much larger resort. Hawaiians are generally more supportive of growing local, than many US residents, because of Hawaii’s dependence on mainland food supplies. It seemed during my last visit, that the residents of the Garden Island (Kauai) have a lot of support for gardening, local farmers, and economic localization. That was one draw for me to spend more time on Kauai. At the GMO Presentation, when I found an empty seat in the middle of a packed auditorium it happened to be next to the project manager of an agroforestry farm, Bill Stepchew. I had researched Kauai beforehand, and was planning on visiting the farm to learn about what they were doing with biochar – so it was fortuitous to start my conversation with Bill serendipitously.

In fact, in addition to feeling attracted by the progressive nature of the citizens of Kauai, I am also returning there because of a biochar collaboration that grew out of that conversation I had with Bill, at the Vandana Shiva presentation. I had become interested in biochar over the past year, when I have come to appreciate that it has a promising role in mitigating climate change and building soil fertility worldwide. Discovered as the Terra Preta (black earth) in the Amazon Rainforest, biochar appears to have been the basis for a rich and expansive “permacultural” lifestyle in the native American tribes that covered much of what is now Brazil before the Spaniards conquered the New World in 1500’s. Rather than practicing a “slash-and-burn” lifestyle to clear forests, plant annual crops, and move on when the soil was depleted, these peoples used “slash-and-char”. When woody debris is burned and smothered to prevent complete oxidation, the wood gases are burned off, leaving behind the charcoal skeleton of cell walls. When this is buried, it adsorbs nutrients (just as carbon filters grab onto impurities), and the cell wall structure creates “condominiums” for soil bacteria and microrhyzal fungi. The Terra Preta soils are six feet deep in places, and have been mined and sold as premier topsoil. Apparently, the rich black soil propagates itself, once the process of encouraging nutrient adsorption and micro-organism habitation has begun. Something akin to a coral reef that grows by attracting new coral organisms to attach to it. Once a reef has formed, new small reef islands continue to form, which in turn grow bigger and spread further. Similarly, the char acts as a soil catalyst for seeding bacteria and fungi growth that continue to spread to their own permanent carbon structures built of dead bacteria.

The worn-out, red oxidized soils (oxisols) of Kauai are prime for biochar enhancement. The humidity and warmth makes it difficult to maintain organic material in the soil, as the carbon literally “burns” out into the atmosphere. The benefits of biochar on plant growth and increasing organic content have been demonstrated worldwide, but tropical soils can particularly benefit from the enhancement of soil bacteria and mycrorhyyzal fungi catalyzed by biochar.

The Big Island of Hawaii the main Hawaii biochar activity – through the efforts of Josiah Hunt and his Hawaii Biochar company. However, Josiah has been using the ancient Hawaiian imu (pit fire) system that is traditionally used for pig roasts, to make biochar. He’s developed an elegant, smoke-free system by modifying the imu method, but it’s insufficient for the market demand on Big Island. So Josiah developed a collaboration with an agroforestry plantation on Kauai (managed by the person I sat next to at the Vendama Shiva Presentation), which has 1800 acres of old sugar cane land planted with a nitrogen-fixing, fast-growing tree called albizia. It’s interplanted with guinea grass, which benefits from the nitrogen from the albizia and is dried and sold as cattle feed as a cash crop that enables cattle to be fattened on Kauai, rather than sending them to the mainland. The albizia trees grow 60′ in ten years, which enables continuous sustainable harvesting for biochar production at a large onsite kiln. I met with Josiah and arranged to market and sell the biochar on Kauai, starting at Farmers’ Markets to educate and promote the concept to residents for home gardens and farmers for commercial production systems.

Biochar Sign

I hope to enhance my knowledge as a biochar consultant and tropical permaculturist, and to develop strategies to increase the sequestration of carbon from the atmosphere to the soil. I’m intrigued by the possibilities of a “biochar economy” as another form of carbon farming that increases food productivity while removing carbon from the atmosphere and building soil fertility. A large regional kiln could be augmented with smaller, local kilns, smaller size retorts for farm-site production, and backyard barbecue and char-producing stoves for home gardeners. Developing the stove technologies, optimizing the biological activation of the char, and developing sustainable feedstock production systems can all become part of the char economy. The term “carbon farming” includes perennial food crops, holistic grazing management, agroforestry, keyline design, and other ways of improving the soil with perennials rather than destroying the soil with annual production the way our civilization and most civilizations in the past have done.

My living situation will be at a three-acre intentional community site in the outside edge of the town of Kapaa. There is a large house with multiple apartments, and several small cottages that comprise the Ahupuaa Village community. At the Kapaa Farmers’ Market last January, we bumped into our good friend Paul, who was part of New Life program at Damanhur last summer. Paul lives at Ahupuaa Village when he comes to Kauai. I answered a Craigslist ad for a work-trade living situation, which also turned out to be at Ahupuaa Village, so I’m looking forward to living in community with Paul. There is a Bobcat and backhoe attachment that are available for my use. Some of the terrain is level land along the top of a ravine, and will be more easily developed into gardens; the jungle in the ravine will be a bigger challenge to be transformed into a terraced permaculture food forest. My design and edible landscape talents will be my exchange for living there for myself, and for my wife when she joins me later.

My wife and I met many new friends in Kauai when we were there in January, and I look forward to resuming those friendships and working with the Malama Kauai folks who are developing a beautiful new food forest and a regional seed production non-profit. I’ll be traveling around to different Farmers’ Markets, so I will be better able to get to know the communities I already visited, and will have the opportunity to explore new ones, such as Hanapepe on the opposite side of Kauai. I may even hike some of the beautiful trails and swim at the amazing beaches for which Kauai is renown. I schlepped more luggage than I usually do on my travels – including my fly rod for fresh-water bass or saltwater bone-fishing. various knives, machetes, pruning saw, grafting supplies, and LCD projector to ply my trade as a permaculturist.

So once again, I’m off on a permaculture adventure for my own learning and to explore how other people are dealing with the challenges of living sustainably on this planet. Of course the usual rainy cold weather of Bainbridge Island as I boarded the ferry this morning had nothing to do with my choice of Kauai for this venture.

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