Biochar has the potential to increase crop yields and nutrient value, conserve water, combat climate change, and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, according to the U.S. Biochar Initiative (USBI). The problem is that relatively few people have heard of biochar, a form of charcoal that can help restore soil carbon, filter stormwater runoff, and reduce greenhouse gasses.

Farmers, foresters, researchers, biochar producers, entrepreneurs, and environmentalists will convene in Amherst, Mass. on October 13-16, 2013 to learn more about biochar and share the latest research and application techniques with their peers. The 2013 USBI North American Biochar Symposium, titled “Harvesting Hope: The Science and Synergies of Biochar,” will take place on the UMass Amherst campus and include farm tours and a “carbon negative” banquet of delicious foods grown with the help of biochar.  The conference is sponsored by USBI.

“The biochar industry is turning waste into ‘black gold’ for agriculture,” stated conference director, Karen Ribeiro. “Biothermal energy companies are extracting the biochar as a byproduct and selling it. Farmers are enriching their soil by adding biochar. The biochar-enriched soil is sequestering carbon, which can reverse the carbon build-up in the atmosphere,” she added.

“The biochar movement is heating up,” Ribeiro said. “Biochar producers are reaching a point of profitability. Everyone wants biochar to scale up faster, from the gardener who’s creating their own biochar in a cookstove to companies like Cool Planet Energy Systems, which has attracted investors like BP, Google Ventures, and ConocoPhillips.”  She added, “The symposium is a space where activists and investors can find common ground.”

The conference will feature keynotes by Congressman James McGovern and renowned author Frances Moore Lappe, as well as a plenary with international biochar authority Johannes Lehmann of Cornell University. Activities will range from an introductory half-day workshop for farmers and gardeners on Sunday, Oct. 13, that is open to the public to presentations from scientists and researchers from around the globe.

“Expanding the use of biochar can simultaneously help address food security, conserve water and reduce our dependence on fossil fuel,” said Ted Wysocki, chair of the Pioneer Valley Biochar Initiative, which is hosting the conference. “We need to get more people and companies involved. So in addition to the tracks on the science and benefits of biochar, policy and community engagement, and feedstocks and production, we’ve got an entire track focused on scale, sales and marketing,” Wysocki said.

Attendees won’t just be talking about biochar, they’ll be chewing on information at a “carbon negative” banquet on Monday, Oct. 14, from 5-9 p.m. at UMass, which is also open to the public. “Our ‘Biochar Banquet’ will feature delicious local produce grown in biochar-conditioned soil, as well as a variety of local meat and ‘adult beverages’ enhanced by biochar,” Wysocki explained. 

The public is also invited to a free Video Lounge featuring Ted Talks, feature films, and select YouTube videos on Oct. 14 and 15, from 10 a.m.-10 p.m., and on Oct.r 16, from 10 a.m.-4 p.m.

To view the conference schedule, visit http://scholarworks.umass.edu/biochar/2013/.  To register, go to http://symposium2013.pvbiochar.org/register