There is a body of research from leading universities to suggest that charcoal, or “biochar,” amended into soil could change the way we grow food. Used by indigenous people throughout history in food production, researchers are discovering that charcoal bonds with nutrients, retains water, and sequesters carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. By keeping nutrients and water in the top soil layers, charcoal can reduce fertilization and irrigation for farmers. And by increasing nutrient density in the soil, we can increase the nutrient density in our food. In theory.

The problem is not all the research shows success. All charcoal is different. Each type of wood, each production method is going to make a unique charcoal that interacts differently in each type of soil. With literally infinite variables, it’s a data problem.

Forage is working with a network of researchers at six universities and the open-data-system Socrata to create an open-source research platform to aggregate charcoal research from around the world. By merging research in a map-based system on production, soil analysis, charcoal’s reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, and increasing nutrient density in food we can begin to get a clearer idea of what kinds of charcoal are effective in which types of soil.

Forage is also working with the University of Washington School of Environmental Sciences on research with 12 farms in San Juan County and a network of gardeners to understand how charcoal affects our local soils. As part of this research, the University of Washington will be examining the nutrient density of the food grown on these farms, allowing us to understand how they compare to organic food sold in super markets. Forage is partnering with the photographer Joe Freeman to do a documentary on these San Juan farms, allowing customers and restaurants purchasing their produce to know the story and the science behind this food.

Charcoal is our first project, but our vision is to create an open-source platform on a spectrum of topics in sustainable agriculture. If you want to read the stories behind this story you can read about the origins of the charcoal project, or the origins of Forage itself