Michael Hall is one of Fukuoka’s long time international residents, moving to the city some 35 years ago. Over the last few years he has funnelled his passion for agriculture into the the exploration and promotion of biochar – carbonized organic material that helps to sequester carbon and improve soil health. Working with Kyudai, NGOs and local farmers, Michael hopes that biochar will become farming’s next big thing. Read on to find out more about Michael, his journey to Fukuoka, biochar and his efforts to promote it in Japan.
In Japan: 35 years
Identity: Associate Professor, Department of Environmental Design, Kyushu University
You’ve been in Fukuoka for 35 years. How did you come to be in Japan
When I was in university, I went on a tour to Asia, and Japan was on the itinerary. I came here and thought, this is a strange country (in a good way) and decided I wanted to come back to discover why everything here was so opposite from the way I knew it. I started out in Kyoto but it was so expensive at the time – my salary was ¥80,000 and my rent ¥60,000 – not very sustainable. My former neighbor was working down in Fukuoka, near Dazaifu, and I called her to ask how it was. She said ‘it’s great, not cold’. I said ‘what? not cold?’ and headed straight on down.
Where did you set up shop when you arrived here?
Oh, just a hotel. There wasn’t enough demand for English lessons when I arrived, so I was actually being shuttled between Fukuoka and Osaka. For the first year I was basically living out of a suitcase.
You now work at Kyushu University, how did that come about?
I’d actually been working at several colleges in Fukuoka and at one point I had this really energetic teacher who just pushed me to get into graduate school. I ended up in the graduate program at Kyudai because of him. While I was there, they needed a person to teach English and unusually they had a tenure position. Of course, a lot of people applied, and I didn’t think I’d get it, but because I had a business in Fukuoka – I was actually publishing an English magazine before Fukuoka Now – I fit what the department was looking for: someone with a business background.
Michael selling biochar sweet potatoes at Dean & DeLuca
What did you study for your doctorate?
I was studying environmental risk management and my focus was on a management system for small-medium companies to prevent soil pollution. At that time, the soil pollution law had just been enacted in Japan, and I was trying to help those enterprises understand what they needed to do to reduce soil pollution and save money in the future.
Is that how you first got into the world of agriculture?
Oh wow, no, I’ve been doing it since I was fifteen. My friends used to think I was a weirdo, but I enjoyed rolling in the dirt and digging and growing things. I found a lot of pleasure in growing my own food.
But this biochar thing was a lucky accident. I was looking for things that help remediate contaminated soil and biochar does just that. I started looking at papers and slowly realized its potential for farming
Hold on for a moment, you mentioned biochar. What is it? where did the idea originate? and how is it made?
Biochar is carbonized organic material, it can be anything really, but I use bamboo. By creating these solid deposits of carbonized material and placing it in the ground you are effectively sequestering CO2. The structure of the biochar means there’s a lot of surface area for soil bacteria to grow, meaning that it acts as a sponge for bacteria and nutrients, holding them in the soil and preventing them from leaching away.
The technique is actually a historical one and has been used in the Amazon for centuries, but has started to be adopted in a few locations across Japan as well in countries such as the UK and Australia.
Biochar is made in many different ways, but the main thing is that it’s produced in a zero oxygen environment. This stops your organic matter just turning into ash. You can produce it at different temperatures, and this affects the quality of the biochar.
Does bamboo biochar differ from other biochar? Or is it just a different substrate?
It varies a bit, but there’s no huge difference. What I like about bamboo is it’s a very sustainable source of material. You cut it down, it grows back. You cut it down, it grows back.
Creating bamboo biochar in a biochar kiln
What are biochar’s benefits?
Well aside from carbon sequestration and fixing nutrients in the soil, it helps crops grow bigger and more quickly, and gives them a sweeter taste, all without using expensive chemical fertilizers. Because it fixes nutrients to the soil, it should allow farmers to use less fertilizer over time, maintaining soil fertility with fewer inputs.
By using bamboo biochar in particular, you help clear bamboo, which is a very aggressive species that prevents natural forest from growing. Bamboo is also the food of choice for wild boar, which cause a lot of damage to crops and agriculture.
If it’s so useful, then why is it not more popular?
There’s the initial cost of adding biochar to the soil, which takes some persuading. But once it’s there it doesn’t decompose, so you don’t have to replenish it every year. There also needs to be a bit of an attitude change, so that farmers move towards natural, less chemically intensive, methods of farming.
After 40 minutes burning in no oxygen, the organic material turns into biochar
What do you think needs to be done in order to make bamboo char more popular?
I’ve been working with a couple of local farmers who are prominent in the community to establish that it actually works and has the benefits we say it does. By getting respected farmers to prove that it works, the word, and practice, will spread. It’d be great if Fukuoka followed Kyoto’s lead, where biochar has a lot of support from the local government who have helped farmers with initial costs.
Who else are you working with to promote the its use?
I’m working with a NGO up in Kitakyushu who’ve been very helpful providing biochar to both me and to the Kyudai Agriculture Department to set up a test field where we can demonstrate its use.
There’s another group I work with in Itoshima called MUKA, a support group for physically challenged people. One of their main activities is hillside maintenance, cutting down bamboo etcetera. When I first met them, they were actually having to pay to dispose of the bamboo, but now I can take it off their hands for free. I’ve also set them up with a couple of biochar kilns so that in time they’ll be able to create their own biochar from all the bamboo they’re cutting. They grow vegetables too, so they can use it themselves or sell it on to other farmers.
Where in the world is biochar being used successfully and are there any particular challenges for Japan?
It’s very popular in Australia and the UK has its own biochar research center. In Germany it’s used as well, but not so much for agricultural purposes, more to burn to create gas which is then used for energy and heat. In regards to Japan, the main challenge is to create a model for its use that is sustainable, cost-effective and applicable to small-scale farms across the country.
Would it be sustainable if scaled up for use in all commercial farming?
In theory, yes. Because biochar can be created from any waste organic material you can create it in a sustainable way. A lot of people ask me if you have to chop down forests, but it can be created from existing agricultural byproducts. As I said, bamboo is great, it needs to be removed anyway and grows back very quickly.
The biochar (black) is spread on farm plots before being mixed in with the soil
What’s it like working with Japanese farmers?
I enjoy introducing the idea, but because farming is such a deeply personal thing, I’m not fussed if people don’t take to the idea. Normally, everyone is just happy to have a discourse about farming methods and I learn a huge amount from meetings with other farmers.
How can people living in Fukuoka or people visiting get involved or support biochar?
They can get in contact with me, and we can take it from there! There are plenty of ways to get started, whether its production, farming or gardening. Across Fukuoka, there’s a lot of land that’s not being used as farmers are aging, so you can get very cheap or even free usage of land in a lot of cases. Every now and then I hold workshops and especially if there’s interest I can put on more, but please, not in the summer, it’s way too hot!
As for buying the veggies, I’ve been able to sell my produce at a Dean & DeLuca events but at the moment they aren’t too widely available, at least in Fukuoka. Hopefully that’ll change soon!
Biochar veggies (left) vs non-biochar veggies (center/right)
Finally, tell me a bit about your farm!
I started farming in a plot of land in Itoshima about seven years ago. I found out about the biochar shortly after that, and started experimenting with it on my land. With the biochar, I grew sweet potatoes, kabu and then I also grow strawberries, onions and garlic. The sweet potatoes with biochar were delicious, so much sweeter than the ones that were grown without.
You can find out more about biochar by contacting Michael directly or visit the International Biochar Initiative or the UK Biochar Research Centre
It’s our pleasure to introduce the many interesting non-Japanese living in and around Fukuoka. If you know of someone whose activities might be of interest to other readers, please let us know.
Interview by Oscar Boyd. Interview on Feb. 8, 2017.