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Sonoma County farmer, vintner who dives deep into biomass

Santa Rosa vintner and organic farmer Darek Trowbridge dipped his hands into the barrel of fine soil mix to show how he planned to get his latest venture off the ground.

About two dozen people gathered last month for a two-day biomass symposium in two provinces watched as he found gold – the softer, richer, earthy kind. Pill bugs and worms were a welcome sight.

“That’s what you want to see,” he said, grinning as the chickens milled about in their enclosure nearby.

The lecture at his 7-acre farm with garden, livestock and vineyards was the first stop on the Sonoma Mendocino Economic Development District’s two-day tour on the opportunities and challenges of launching forest biomass projects.

Biomass is renewable organic material that comes from plants and animals. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, it can be burned to create heat, converted into electricity or processed into biofuel.

The feedstock, which can also become compost, accounted for 5% of the country’s energy in 2022, the U.S. Energy Information Commission reported. In the United States, the biomass industry, which has become part of the regenerative agriculture movement, is estimated to be worth $203.2 billion by 2032.

Considered a win-win-win by proponents, biomass is designed as an ideal source for capturing carbon emissions, reducing the amount of waste in landfills. It is known to stimulate plant growth with soil-improving nutrients. In areas prone to wildfires, biomass allows for the reuse of wood waste produced when thinning trees.

Producing biomass represents a passion of Trowbridge, who runs Old World Winery in the Fulton area of ​​Sonoma County. The farm where he grows corn, beans, squash and vegetables is his laboratory. His goal is to ultimately create a commercial operation on 15 hectares of rented land outside Cloverdale.

Through his two-year-old company called Soil Carbon Management Co. Trowbridge, as president, chief science officer and founder, plans to produce and distribute the soil-improving biomass to other farmers, vineyard tenders and landscapers.

Soil Carbon Management Co.: History, Products and Results (PDF)

Trowbridge has agreements with about ten companies that transport and dump wood waste from tree thinning. His private ranch in Santa Rosa, which he calls a pilot project, consists of piles of about 300 cubic yards of wood chips at any given time. The mounds disintegrate to about a quarter of their size, creating a living organism of biomass.

For the future commercial in northern Sonoma County In its business operations, Trowbridge would like to expand the mounds to approximately 55,000 cubic meters – the equivalent of 25 football fields with a depth of a foot. At a price of $35 per cubic meter, selling the raw materials would earn him about $150,000 per month.

Biomass operations require regulatory approvals that consider air and water quality issues and land use from both state and local jurisdictions.

“I thought wine was bad,” he said, referring to regulatory guidelines for his 26-year-old winery on River Road.

And like wine, a commercial biomass operation also requires capital: at least $300,000 for equipment and infrastructure, Trowbridge estimates. His experimental biomass winnings of $50,000 from a 2021 Biomass Business competition in the province, combined with a shoestring budget, are a fraction of what is needed. The cost could be as much as half a million dollars and it could take years before approval is granted.

“I have big visions and not enough time,” he said.

Trowbridge’s reasons for expanding beyond the winery center on improving the environment.

From Sonoma to Solano counties, agricultural agency executives expressed support for biomass farms as a way to help prevent soil damage, especially during droughts.

“I think farmers will take advantage of this,” said Lisa Shipley, County Manager of Solano County Farm Bureau. “The problem is that it requires expensive equipment. But this company will be fine.”

Dayna Ghiradelli, executive director of Sonoma County Farm Bureau, agreed.

“I think there is a market for this. There is already a need for it, especially as we focus more on regenerative practices,” she said. “Ultimately, there is always something to learn about soil health. What Mr. Trowbridge is trying to do is provide a potential tool, and I think that’s great.”

The fire brigade’s interest was aroused

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection also supports Trowbridge’s future operations that provide an alternative to burning piles of wood waste.

“Anything is better than open pile burning,” said John McCarthy, forester with Cal Fire’s Wood Products and Bioenergy division in Sacramento.

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