Seeking Sustainability at Duke Campus Farm

Student Anne Martin researches use of biochar for better veggies, cleaner farming

Anne Martin

Anne Martin in her research plot at the Duke Campus Farm. Photos by Les Todd/Duke University Photography

What if you could supply everything your garden needs to produce a robust crop of veggies without buying a single bag of fertilizer? That’s a question Duke senior Anne Martin has tackled in a year-long independent study project.

“The Duke Campus Farm is a very sustainable organic farm, yet we currently have to bring in all of our soil amendments, such as fertilizers or mineral inputs, in bags from off the farm. It’s frustrating to have to rely on products when we don’t really know how they’re procured, produced or transported,” Martin said. “It’d be great to be able to produce our own organic soil amendments, on-site and cost-effectively.”

Martin is testing the potential of biochar – pulverized charcoal produced by burning downed trees, branches, chicken litter and other organic material – as an alternative to more conventional amendments. She is studying whether biochar can increase soil quality, water and nutrient retention and ultimately, crop production. Studies have suggested that biochar could be a low-cost, sustainable option for farmers, in particular those with limited resources, and may even be a good tool to sequester carbon, a strategy to help mitigate global warming.

Martin, who spent last summer working on two small organic vegetable farms in Iowa, has converted a plot at the Duke Farm to planting beds divided into sections receiving different treatments: biochar only, store-bought amendments only, biochar plus store-bought, and a control section with no amendments. She has planted lettuce and green onions, two cold-weather plants that grow quickly.

anne martin

To determine the crop productivity for each treatment, she’ll measure germination and plant biomass development (by drying and weighing plant samples from each plot) and analyze the nitrogen content, pH levels and other characteristics of each section’s soil. As she awaits the harvest, she is maintaining the garden, collecting soil samples, reviewing relevant research literature and beginning to draft her thesis.

To procure the biochar for her experiment, Martin worked with one of the leading experts in biochar production and use, a graduate student at nearby North Carolina State University. If the outcomes from her study are positive, the Duke Farm could build its own small kiln relatively inexpensively and have a great source of debris to burn from adjoining Duke Forest, Martin says.

Martin’s completion of the research project will enable her to graduate with distinction. She is working under the supervision of Nicholas School Assistant Professor of the Practice Chantal Reid, with whom she took a graduate-level class in agriculture and sustainability as a junior.

"Anne’s individual research project allows her to dig deeper into a topic she is passionate about, with application in the real world,” Reid said. “It has been rewarding to watch her grow as a budding scientist and to see her take advantage of the many resources Duke offers our undergraduates for research support.”

Growing up in Iowa, Martin was all about the environment. She went camping with her family, read the Sierra Club magazine and helped her dad tend the family garden. For her sixth grade yearbook, asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, she replied: Environmentalist.

Still, Martin began her Duke career as a pre-med student, a course she embarked on after a medical mission trip to Haiti with her mother, an ob-gyn, left her in awe of the impact a physician could have on people’s lives.

During her sophomore year at Duke, having completed almost all of her pre-med requirements, Martin began to feel drawn back to studying the environment. She took an introductory course in the Nicholas School and soon switched her major to Environmental Sciences and Policy.

“It just clicked,” Martin said. “I started getting very involved with the Nicholas School, the Duke Campus Farm and a lot of the sustainability initiatives on campus. [She even blogs for the Nicholas School’s Duke Environment blogging team.] It was a twisty road, but I ended up where I should be.”

Martin’s past experiences still influence her perspective. “In Haiti, and in Iowa too, I saw a lot of unsustainable farming practices and other environmental issues that negatively impact human health. As a result, I’ve become interested in how environmental health affects human health, and that intersection has brought me into farming and food.”

After graduation, Martin said she hopes to secure a fellowship to pursue a similar project in a rural community in Mexico or another developing area. She has also applied for the Peace Corps and Green Corps.

“I’m looking forward to delving more into research in sustainable agriculture,” she said. “Long-term, I’d like to get into food policy, but for now I’d love to travel and see different things people are doing and trying, and get a better sense of some of the issues out there, not only in the U.S. but around the world.”