The following
blog comes from Laura Checa who’s been at Warm Heart since July:

I come from Zaragoza,
a very dry part of Spain, so my first shock after arriving here was the incredible
exuberance of the vegetation in Phrao Valley: trees as tall as buildings, huge
green bushes with leaves the size of a tray.
And the fruit….oh, the fruit!  I’ll never forget my first view of the markets
with their vast array of colorful and delicious pieces of heaven on earth.  

When I was looking for
a volunteer posting, what attracted me most about Warm Heart was the kinds of
work I could get involved in.  WH cares
about the environment which is also very important to me, so it was a natural
fit to get assigned to the biochar/environmental farm project where a lot is
happening. The fact that WH is in wonderful
northern Thailand is just frosting on the cake and I’m so glad I chose to come
here.  Of course my first week was pretty
confusing between the jet lag and being bombarded with information, but
everybody here has been helpful and made me feel like part of the team.

Since setting up
operations in Phrao in 2008, Michael has been very concerned about how poor
farming techniques are affecting soil and water quality and the health of
residents.  Local farmers use costly
chemical pesticides and fertilizers which pollute the soil and water; harvests
are poorer each year which the farmers try to compensate for by using even more
chemical additives.  The other terrible
practice is the annual spring burn-off of the rice straw waste which generates
terrible greenhouse gas emissions and results in respiratory disease, especially
in children, women and the elderly.  

Warm Heart’s solution
was to build the FU2, a portable device that can be transported to the rice
paddies on the back of a pick-up truck.  Burning
the rice straw (and corn cobs) in the FU2 creates zero greenhouse gas particles
and greatly reduced CO and CO2 emissions.
At the same time it produces biochar, a natural soil additive.  It´s the only carbon-negative process
available whereby carbon is sucked from the air and returned to the soil,
instead of ending up as smoke.  (For more
detailed information about biochar and the FU2, see previous blog post Project Earth, Wind & Fire).

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Biochar

Warm Heart has been
collaborating with various people at Chiang Mai University on this
project.  We’re also working with an Australian
company interested in studying the benefits of diatomite, the fossilized
remains of diatoms, which are single-celled aquatic algae.  Diatomite provides silica, an important soil
nutrient, and it is lacking in the soil in our area.  Our Australian partner is interested in
commercializing diatomite if we can prove its effectiveness; they provided what
we’ve been using so far.  

Sem is the owner of
the experimental farm where we have been working since June 2015.  It is located in Long Khot, about 9kms south
of WH’s main campus. His land is well irrigated
and measures about 5 rai or approximately 0.8 hectares.  In the past, he has planted one rice crop and
one vegetable crop annually.  Our
agreement with Sem is that he will keep 80% of the crops we grow there.  He also gets paid on a daily basis for all the
special care and hard work required by the experimental farm.  

The goal of this first phase of the biochar project is to assess the benefits
of biochar and diatomite both separately and in combination for soil health,
rice plant health and yields compared to standard synthetic NPK
(nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium) fertilizers.
Since we are still using some NPK in our mixes, we are also looking at
the interactive effects between the biochar, the diatomite and the NPK
fertilizer.  Does the biochar alone or
combined with diatomite provide real benefits from both an environmental and
cost-efficiency standpoint and to what point can they replace or reduce the
usage of standard NPK fertilizer?

Michael and previous
volunteers have been producing and stockpiling biochar throughout the
year.  Before my arrival in July, former
volunteer Eline and engineer Gordon had created 11 different mixes of
fertilizer with different quantities of organic manure, compost, biochar,
diatomite and commercially purchased NPK.
By the time I got there, 99 bags weighing 25kgs each had been
prepared.  Too bad I missed all the fun
of mixing poop…

Our first day of work
in the fields was August 11, at the beginning of rainy season.  It was a typical day – sunny in the morning
and cloudy in the afternoon, something that Eline, WH operations manager PJ and
I deeply appreciated since it’s still pretty hot here.  In the morning we loaded the truck with the
fertilizer bags and then put them next to the paddies where they would be
added.  That day we only spread the five
mixes without NPK or NPK with diatomite but lugging 45 of those 25kg bags was
already a big job!  Each mix had to be
spread in different paddies.  Each paddy
needs to be completely isolated so that no water flows from one paddy to the
next thereby contaminating the different fertilizer mixes.  

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Eline and I lugging fertilizer bags

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Farmers preparing bundles of rice plants

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Sem trimming rice plant bundles

All morning, the rice
farmers worked with amazing efficiency to prepare the bundles of rice seedlings
that they had already pulled up before we got there. In the afternoon, before they started to
re-plant the rice plants, we started spreading the fertilizer mixes with the
help of a little bowl.  It was a bit
tricky with the wind since we had to make sure the fertilizer didn’t go into
the next paddy.  By the time we finished,
the farmers were halfway through planting.
I couldn´t help but feel like a weakling as I watched how much stamina
they had. It was also impressive how
neatly they worked, with each small bunch of 4-5 seedlings planted equidistant
to the next in straight lines.  To learn more
about rice planting, read Life Lessons in a Rice Paddy.  

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Eline spreading fertilizer mix

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Neat rows of partially replanted rice paddy

Now we study the
evolution of the rice crop in the different paddies.  The entire study will take at least four years
so there will be plenty to observe and report on.  We’ll also be experimenting with other
vegetable crops but nothing definite has been decided on yet.  Michael is pretty hands on in the project but
I’ll be taking weekly pictures to record the growth of the rice and the state
of the plots.  We’ll also be conferring
with Sem to decide whether we will need to add more NPK.  It takes about four months between planting
and harvesting so unfortunately I won’t be here in December for harvesting.  But I’m pretty sure there will be some new
volunteers taking over to keep readers updated!

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My farmer’s tan!