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February 2009: Agricultural Notes

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Elderberries : Making Charcoal
Charcoal Production to Combat Climate Change : Ecology and Development of California Oatgrass


The article “Elderberries are a Promising New Crop” by Diane La Mar appears in the December 2008 issue of Growing for Market and discusses the new interest in elderberry cultivation in North America. “Elderberries are a potent antioxidant with immunostimulant, antiviral, and antimicrobial properties. Elderberry's health benefits derive from its many bioflavinoids, particularly its anthocyanins, the pigments responsible for their deep purple, almost black color. The National Institute of Aging developed the Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) scale measuring antioxidant strength of foods in ORAC units per 100 grams. The ORAC scale ranks in descending order dried ground spices, sorghum, chocolate, fresh herbs, and pecans above any fruits. Of fruits aronia berries (chokeberry) leads at 16,062 closely followed by elderberries at 14,697, more than doubled the renowned blueberries at 6,552. Elderberry is a deciduous shrub, six to eight feet high, with opposite compound leaves, aggressively spreading and suckering by underground roots (rhizomes), forming thickets. ... Elderberries are native all across the world.” The author suggests visiting the North American Elderberry Alliance,, for information and links to other elderberry resources.


Making Charcoal

An interesting article, “Backyard Burn-up” by John Aiken was  in the November/December 2007 issue of ORGANIC NZ. The article explains step-by-step how to make charcoal for use as a blacksmithing fuel and soil conditioner adding precious carbon and boosting fertility. Aiken uses the ancient technique of coppicing as a sustainable source for his charcoal wood.


Charcoal Production to Combat Climate Change

In a separate but related article in this same issue of ORGANIC NZ, “How Organic Farming Can Save the World”, New Zealand economist and climate change strategist Dr. Peter Reed  believes that the carbon-sinking abilities of charcoal, or biochar, can go a long way towards combating climate change. “Peter believes that charcoal-making on a commercial scale not only might be desirable for reducing carbon in the atmosphere, but could also produce valuable by-products. Such a model would use waste-timber products, like the scrap wood left at a mill or in the forest, or old straw, and the like and stew it until the waste is left in a powder, which can be used in the soil. You catch the volatiles, like tar, coming off the burn and siphon them through pipes to be used as raw materials for the manufacture of synthetic fuels. It's a triple whammy–there's less carbon in the atmosphere, the soil benefits, and we get usable by-products to use as petroleum substitutes.” He warns however that more research needs to be done to ensure safety and viability of this technology.


Ecology and Development of California Oatgrass

The information for this article comes from “The Ecology and Development of California Oatgrass: the Champagne of Grasses” by David Amme and Sean Micallef in the Summer 2008 issue of Grasslands.

“California oatgrass (Danthonia californica) is a long-lived, cool-season, low- to medium-sized tufted bunchgrass that grows on sea bluffs, meadows, and valleys from sea level to 7,000 feet in western portions of Canada and the United States.” There are two forms, one which has smooth, often waxy or bluish-whitish leaves and the other having hairy blades and sheaths.


The author feels that because of its wide distribution and characteristics it should be better utilized for restoration purposes. “Danthonia’s characteristically low initial germination rate as a result of seed dormancy has been the most significant issue.” However, all types of livestock enjoy this plant. It stays green yearlong and won’t go dormant if there’s enough soil moisture. Its vigor and persistence “rely on its massive, deep, fibrous root system and its ability to form long-lived buds within and around the root crown, where it develops leafy shoots. Under the natural pressure of elk grazing and intermittent fires, California oatgrass was responsible for building some of the deepest, blackest, and richest soils in California’s coastal prairies and mountain meadows.”

There are a handful of sources of Danthonia, primarily located in Oregon and California: the Plant Material Center in Corvallis, Oregon; Pacific Northwest Natives near Albany, Oregon; and Hedgerow Farms in Winters, California. There can be anywhere from 90,000-165,000 seeds per pound of seed. “ We conclude that Danthonia seed has good viability and generally will make an excellent stand within 2 years. With any pre-treatment or storage method, when planted, the ungerminated seed is not lost but  stays viable in the soil seed bank until the conditions are right. Seed should be planted in the fall and will generally not germinate until late winter from California to Oregon. ... This gives the farmer or restorationist plenty of time to kill or mow weeds before the Danthonia begins to germinate.”






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