On the way to the school to haul water I see smoke coming from Steve and Linnea’s farm. I walk up as they are putting wet sod around the kiln base to cut off oxygen from the fire. Steve made the kiln from some scrap sheet metal he had lying around, one of many designs he’s experimented with over the years.
“It’s too smoky still,” he says. “You can tell how well it’s doing by the color and amount of smoke coming from the chimney.”
He puts on his welding gloves and pull the top off a bit, starts poking around in the fire with a stick, his face turned away from the heat. “There it goes,” Linnea says, “I’m seeing blue.”
At the end of the burn we start raking out the coals and dousing them with water. “Every burn seems to be a bit different,” Steve says, “and I can’t tell you why.”
A few moments later he stops. "Shit, there's been something I've been meaning to show you." He walks inside and comes out with two modern day agricultural magazines from Japan. The topic: charcoal. "Can't read a damn thing, but the pictures are still interesting." Click on the image to scroll through.
A year ago I head to a birthday party after a day of burning on the homestead. It’s a normal Waldron party, everyone wearing headlamps and standing around a fire. At the drinks table I see Rebecca. Rebecca runs Blue Moon Farm with Carla Jo, four acres directly on the Puget Sound facing Orcas Island. I worked for them for two harvest seasons back before grad school. They mentored with Steve and Linnea before starting Blue Moon.
“I just got back from a presentation on biochar,” Rebecca says. “I'm kind of abuzz right now. It seems perfect for our farms that are surrounded by overgrown forests. Do you think there's a grant we could write?"
Steve has my chainsaw laid out on the ground, trying to figure out why the face-plate won’t screw on. We’re east of their farm at the edge of their property and have been cutting for a week now, taking down small trees that are crowding the larger ones. There’s fallen wood everywhere. Linnea’s been coming behind us, making piles of fallen wood we’ll convert to charcoal next fall.
The Bensels, like many forest land owners, got a grant from the federal government to thin their forests. Dense forests are a fire danger, something the government understands costs a lot of money when they happen. Unlike old growth forests, where trees are spread out by 12-15 feet, second and third growth forests come back with hundreds, sometimes thousands, of small trees per acre. Clear cuts are an unnatural disturbance to forest systems, and subsequently the regrowth is unnatural too.
“We’re basically doing what a forest fire would do,” says Steve. “It’s a lot more work, but I’d rather do this than be in the middle of those flames.”