Could An Ancient Strategy Improve Desert Soils? A New Mexico Study Confirms

Chihuahuan Desert Charities is taking a new look at biochar, an ancient strategy for soil amendment providing for greener agriculture.  Biochar can improve the hydraulic and chemical properties, as well it can significantly improve sorghum growth and yield under sandy desert soils, at a lower cost.

The fundamentals of supplementing earth with fine-grained charcoal created by pyrolysis (heating carbon-rich organic matter in low oxygen conditions) have boosted the fertility of soil for thousands of years. The pre-Columbian Amazonian Indians used biochar to make the poor soils of the rainforest – which otherwise quickly become exhausted – productive for harvest after harvest. It is still there today, many hundreds of years later, forming islands of black fertile earth in the otherwise unpromising ground.  The natives of the Amazon basin were using this technology when the first Spanish explorers stopped in. Humans used to be much smarter. At least we were back when the first Spaniards explored the Amazon Basin which was like the Garden of Eden.


Soil additions of biochar offer the possibility of improving soil quality and water holding capacity of desert soils that are used for agricultural production. A study was conducted with two texturally different soils (clay loam and sandy loam) collected near Las Cruces, NM, to assess the effects of biochar made from different feedstock (pecan shells, pecan wood trimmings, cotton gin trash and city yard waste) on soil quality and the available water capacity of the soil. Results showed the significant effect of the different biochar feedstock, with cotton gin trash biochar having the greatest impact on soil quality. Cotton gin trash significantly increased the soil organic matter and plant nutrient (P, K, Ca and Mn), but also led to elevated EC and concerns about soil salinity. Sandy loam soil benefited more from the addition of biochar in terms of water holding capacity compared to a clay loam soil. This study shows that biochar can impact arid soils significantly even in short-term.

Demonstration on how Biochar holds moisture


The benefits of biochar do not end with nutrition development and retention. The pH balance is neutralized, the need for fertilizer is reduced, minerals are delivered to plant roots more easily, and “carbon sequestering” reduces the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. A study at Cornell University estimates that the conversion of residues from commercial forestry and crop production to biochar could offset as much as a third of U.S. carbon emissions from fossil fuels.

Chihuahuan Desert Charities finds it essential not only to teach students about the benefits of biochar but also how to produce it.

A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself. Forests are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people.”
– Franklin D. Roosevelt

The DYGUP & SUSTAIN Program is a non-profit dedicated to regenerative organic agricultural practices to teach the benefits of land stewardship in the Paso del Norte Region. DYGUP, an acronym for Developing Youth from the Ground Up, is available to youth ages 14-17. The SUSTAIN program targets adults over 18 and combines "Roots Of Success" Environmental Literacy Curriculum with intensive farmer training. The DYGUP/ Sustain Program has many partnerships in the community including Taylor Hood Farms, Backyard  Farms LC, First Christian Church, and Las Cruces High-School. Chihuahuan Desert Charities is proud to be the fiscal sponsor for DYGUP & Sustain and support their important work in the Las Cruces community.

Support the DYGUP & Sustain Program at Legacy Farm in Las Cruces by visiting