What better way to spend a sunny Saturday in September than on a farm tour? The Sullivan Center for Sustainable Agriculture (SCSA) was our destination for the morning; a unique center that blends sustainable gardening (Angel Wing Farm), education, and biochar production on 18 acres in Sullivan, New Hampshire.
SCSA was founded in 2011 by Rich, Steve, and Carol Sullivan. Their first garden was installed in 2012, and after moving beyond self-sufficiency, they began to sell their produce in 2013. You’ll find the typical tomatoes, carrots, lettuce, etc. that are sold at many farm stands in the area, but they also produce lemons, oranges, limes, and avocados! If that isn’t a shocker for a New Hampshire farm, I don’t know what is.
Just because they’re products haven’t been certified as organic, it doesn’t mean their fruits and vegetables aren’t grown using organic methods. Steve said that their approach to growing food is about building up the soil to its maximum efficiency. “Healthy produce comes from healthy plants, which comes from healthy soil.” They make their own “complete organic fertilizer” using seedmeals, phosphate rock, dolomitic lime, gypsum, and kelpmeal and compost using manure from Miracles in Motion horse farm, coffee grounds, and other local ingredients. They also add biochar to the soil, something that the USDA has yet to allow in organic certifications.
So, what the heck is in biochar anyway? Biochar is the remaining charcoal produced from plant matter and is used as a soil amendment, that can last in the soil for thousands of years. Biochar has the ability to sequester carbon in the soil, can serve has a “microbe condo,” and, because of its porous nature, has the ability to retain water and water-soluble nutrients.
SCSA create biochar through a process called pyrolysis, which is the decomposition created by exposing matter to high temperatures and absence of oxygen. SCSA uses 3/4 of a cord of wood to create 1 cubic yard of biochar. The process takes about 10-12 hours to burn and another 12 to cool down. The resulting charcoal, which is incredibly light and porous, is macerated and mixed in with compost and applied once to the soil. Yup, just once.
Sustainable innovations are taking place throughout the center. Excess energy from the biochar retort is used to help heat the tree green house and attached building, putting out 1 million btus. One of the green houses is heated hydraulically and once the temperature inside reaches 70°F, warm air is pumped into the ground to heat the soils during the winter. Another green house is on wheels, so when the warm weather crops are done the entire building can move to another plot, allowing for season extension, soil replenishment, and a chemical-free way to combat pest and disease pressure.
If you want to learn more about SCSA check out their website. If you can’t get out to Sullivan to stop at their farm store, they also have a solo farmers’ market at Cheshire Medical Center in Keene from 10 am to 2 pm on Wednesdays!