Research Paper

Mahalingaiah, an English professor turned Biochar farmer

Mahalingaiah, a retired professor from Rangapur, has dedicated many years to practicing organic farming. His agricultural land consists of various horticultural crops such as nuts, coconuts, bananas, cocoa, fodder crops, and mangoes, located near the borehole water shelter. Additionally, he cultivates millet and paddy in the farm situated behind the lake. To support the organic farming system, he rears cows and buffaloes for dairy and dung manure purposes.

What sets Mahalingaiah apart is his adoption of specific methods such as Jeevamrita, Panchgavya, Biogas Baggada, Fertilizer, and Erejala to follow the organic system. His garden employs a drip irrigation system, which allows the application of liquid fertilizers. Furthermore, the use of organic fertilizers is a customary practice for him.

Prof.Mahalinigiah with Biochar prepared form coconut shell

Biochar has piqued Mahalingaiah’s interest over the past two years (since 2020). His fascination with this method was sparked by reading articles in Adike magazine, written by Mr. Gajanana Vaze, a farmer from Belthangadi, Dakshina Kannada district, about biochar. Mahalingaiah recalls that during his father’s time in the 1960s, charcoal burning in kilns was prevalent in the region. The charcoal produced was transported to cities like Bangalore for firewood, and some farmers even utilized it for their nut plantations. Remarkably, those plantations thrived despite limited water resources. However, this practice eventually diminished. Mahalingaiah reminisces, “After reading Vaze’s article, it all came back to me.”

Currently, Mahalingaiah prepares biochar using the drum method and primarily utilizes agricultural residues such as coconut shells and husks from his farm. Initially, he faced numerous failures in the process, as the charcoal either failed to burn correctly or turned into complete ash. The valuable lesson he learned was the importance of determining the optimal burning duration to produce usable charcoal. To overcome these setbacks, he sought guidance from experienced lime burners. After several consecutive attempts, they gradually mastered the art of burning biochar.

A designated area within their farm serves as the location for biochar production. The materials employed in the charcoal-making process include a 200-liter capacity iron drum, a steel flue, an iron lid to cover the drum, agricultural residues like shells and coconut husks, a half-liter water bottle with a small hole in the lid, and a stick. Mahalingaiah estimates that it takes approximately 6-8 hours to create biochar. However, constant supervision during the entire burning process is unnecessary, as explained in the subsequent steps.

The shells should be tightly packed into the drum, and a stick must be positioned at the center before filling it. This allows space for the charcoal to burn evenly to the bottom. After filling the drum, it should be ignited and covered with a lid, which is then weighed down by a heavy object like a stone. The location where the drum is stored should be sheltered from rain to prevent the fire from extinguishing unexpectedly.

As part of the process, Mahalingaiah adds 4-5 camphor tablets and some sambrani powder to the agricultural residue inside the drum. The resulting smoke from the burning charcoal permeates the entire garden, providing fumigation. By incorporating camphor and other substances, the smoke becomes fragrant and repels insects such as mosquitoes and flies. Initially, the smoke lasts for approximately 15-20 minutes.

Once the drum is ignited, Mahalingaiah ensures it is burning correctly before leaving the site. After 4-5 hours, he returns to sprinkle water from the top to the bottom of the drum using a half-liter water bottle, carefully observing the charcoal. When the charcoal burns evenly and produces a distinctive sound, the lid can be removed, and the drum is left to cool. After approximately 2 hours, the drum is completely cooled, and Mahalingaiah breaks it apart to retrieve the charcoal. Following a few hours of drying, the charcoal is stored in gunny bags.

This marks the completion of one step in the biochar production process.

To enhance the biochar’s efficacy, the Mahalingaiahs “charge” the prepared biochar by immersing it in a Jeeva Amrutha tank for a couple of hours. This step increases the value of the biochar, as Mahalingaiah discovered that it allows for the gradual release of nutrients when used in the field. Alternatively, for those without liquid fertilizers like Jeeva Amrutha, soaking the biochar in water is sufficient. Prior to soaking, the biochar must be powdered.

Presently, Mahalingaiah uses biochar on select plants in his garden. In the current year (2022), he plans to incorporate charcoal into the monsoon paddy field.

In terms of expenses, Mahalingaiah emphasizes that biochar production only requires a one-time investment. The cost of the drum alone amounts to approximately one thousand rupees, while all other necessary materials are readily available on his farm or at home.

The usage of biochar is believed to conserve water, enrich the soil with nutrients, and promote the proliferation and activity of microorganisms. Mahalingaiah anticipates that he will be able to provide further information on additional uses once he has fully explored its potential.

— Documented by Mallikarjuna Hosapalaya, Consultant, IBBN

The IBBN Secretariat is hosted by the Revitalizing Rainfed Agriculture Network and Snehakunja trust, and supported by GIZ  – The Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale.

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