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Tigard company takes aim at biochar

Walking Point Farms launches new industry to help veterans get jobs

Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Walking Point Farms CEOHoward Boyte, center, William Wallace, CFO, left, and Chris Tenney, vice president of business development, right, say that biochar could change the way farmers grow food.When Sherwood resident Howard Boyte started his company five years ago, he was looking for a way to get veterans back to work.

The 67-year-old Vietnam veteran founded Walking Point Farms, a Tigard-based fertilizer company, in 2009. He hired two local veterans, who became co-owners of the operation, which has become one of the leading suppliers of fertilizer to the National Cemetery Association.

“We decided to go broke together,” Boyte said.

But Boyte’s company is looking to do more than sell fertilizer. If all goes according to plan, he’s looking to change the face of farming.

And he’s doing it through a product you’ve likely never heard of: Biochar.

Biochar — a cooked wood product made from left-over debris at logging sites — makes for a hearty fertilizer, Boyte said, and is a great way to replenish carbon levels in the ground.

“It’s really the only real way a person can go out into their yard and sequester carbon,” said Chris Tenney, the company’s vice president of business development.

This spring, the company is teaming up with Marion Ag Service, an Oregon fertilizer distributor, to launch its first commercially available product called Pro-Pell-It.

Biochar is ground into a fine dust, but Boyte said delivering what is essentially ash to a farmer isn’t viable. Instead, his company works to transform the powdery, jet-black coating into BB-sized pellets that farmers can use as fertilizer.

“All farmers understand a big bag of fertilizer,” he said, hoisting a 50-pound bag of pellets onto a table.

Walking Point is an apt name for the company.

Walking point — a military term, meaning to take the first position of a formation through hostile territory — is risky. By being first, soldiers walking point are often the first to take on hostile fire.

The company is assuming plenty of risk. Boyte said his company is leading the charge to prove biochar is financially viable for consumers.

“We are trying to take it from the grassroots level to train carloads and get that market going,” Boyte said.

It’s an uphill battle. Getting farmers to change age-old practices is a tough sell. William Wallace, the company’s CFO, said he doesn’t expect the agriculture industry to jump on board overnight at the idea of biochar.

Likely, he said, the first adopters will be everyday citizens puttering in their backyard gardens and people interested in lowering their carbon footprint.

“You can go and buy offsets through wind energy, or you can bury this in your backyard,” Tenney said.

Breaking it down

Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Biochar is made from wood. The charcoal-like substance can be used as fertilizer. Walking Point Farms plans to launch its first product next year.Oregon’s logging industry has a problem, Boyte said.

When loggers finish cutting trees at logging sites, they are left with mounds of large branches, sticks and other debris they can’t use. Called “slash,” the wood is often left to rot on hills across the state.

“It’s is a big problem,” Tenney said. “It’s wasteful, and it’s a valuable resource. We can take natural resources like this and add value by cooking it into biochar.”

Walking Point and other biochar companies take the leftover wood and transform it into something useable.

“McDonalds cooks French fries, we’re cooking wood chips,” said Boyte.

The result is a carbon-rich, highly porous char that can be used in myriad ways.

Like charcoal, the wood is transformed into a black, coal-like structure. But unlike charcoal, it’s not designed to burn. It’s meant to help plants grow.

“(Charcoal) is used for heating, our’s is used for growing food,” Boyte said. “We can grow food very efficiently with a very, very good carbon footprint.”

Biochar helps retain nutrients and micro-organisms in the soil, keeps carbon from being released into the atmosphere, and some of Walking Point’s tests have shown exciting results in growing crops from chemically fallow fields.

“It’s basically a sponge in the soil for water and nutrients,” said Wallace.

Walking Point received a $91,000 grant to team up with Oregon State University researchers to look into the best way to coat seeds and soil amendments with biochar.

Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - William Wallace, CFO of Walking Point Industries, throws a container of biochar into the sky.

Veterans first

Boyte sees a lot of potential for his product, from helping restore forests after fires, to coating seeds with biochar to help farmers grow better crops.

But the biggest potential he sees is the work it can do for veterans.

“That is a core to all of us is to give opportunities for veterans,” Boyte said.

All three of Walking Point’s owners are injured veterans who fought overseas.

Boyte, a Marine, was wounded during the Vietnam War. Tenney and Wallace served in Iraq in the Marines and the Army, respectively.

“There are a lot of veterans coming back who find it hard to go to work in cubicle,” said Wallace. “With this, there are a lot of different areas where veterans can excel that don’t involve sitting in traffic for an hour on the way to the office. It hits home for us.”

Boyte said that if biochar can take hold in Oregon, it could bring economic development to rural communities, where veterans have a higher unemployment rate.

The Small Business Administration would help veterans finance and train returning veterans to operate processing facilities to transform wood into biochar, Boyte said.

“Not everybody can be a brew meister or a software engineer, those are the fields that are in high demand,” Boyte said. “But this solves a huge problem in a number of ways: It addresses issues with veterans, global climate change, ag-tech. We’re trying to demonstrate to everybody that this can be done.”

The company plans to bring production facilities to Oregon within the next year.

“Somebody is going to have to buy those machines,” Boyte said. “It’s just like buying a tractor or a pickup. These guys can run a tank, they can run one of these machines, but there has got to be a market for it before they do that. We’ve got to get the market developed so we can start processing this thing.”

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