Building a deeply carbon negative cidery at Domaine Heritage

Tom Rand
7 min readApr 11, 2024

[#16 in my LinkedIn Newsletter — It’s Getting Hot in Here: Reflections of a Climate Hawk Dealing with the Inevitable https://lnkd.in/ej5W94fG ]

As a family-owned artisanal cidery, we’re as proud of being carbon-negative as we are of the cider itself.

When we bought our apple farm in southern Quebec a few years ago, my thoughts were of resilience: a place my new family could hunker down in the coming climate storms. And the old apple trees, open fields and deep forests would — for a while — let my boy connect happily with nature as I once did. But as I wandered the property — on which we now make artisanal cider as Domaine Heritage — I was drawn into how natural systems might mitigate those storms by removing atmospheric carbon. Inspired, we’re building a deeply carbon negative cidery by absorbing five times more carbon than we emit.

Over the next century, humanity needs to remove a colossal amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. For those of an industrial mindset, Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) means gargantuan Direct Air Capture (DAC) factories. I wish them success, buts I’ve doubts: cost, energy use and sheer time hobble DAC. Nature knows how to capture carbon. It’s been doing it for billions of years for no cost at planetary scale. The earth breathes: in through biomass growth, out through decay. Biogenic CDR leverages nature’s ability to capture, and adds our ability to store. There are two ways to do this on a farm: grow extra biomass (that won’t rot) and prevent existing biomass from rotting.

The first step in building a carbon-negative cidery is to identify emissions and reduce them. We switched from natural gas to electric heat in the barns, and drive electric cars. Since Quebec’s electricity is zero-carbon, our direct (Scope 1) emissions are limited to diesel for the tractors and farm pickup[1] and gas in our cider maker’s[2] car. Indirect emissions (Scope 2) include those of our suppliers. We’ll be generous and add all family flights[3], business or pleasure (Scope 3). All in, we’re responsible for about 20[4] tonnes of carbon dioxide annually (TCO2).

For hard-to-eliminate emissions, a company normally turns to voluntary carbon offset markets[5] — pay someone, somewhere else, to do something that removes an equivalent amount of carbon. That’s not us. We’re not paying (nor being paid) for anything. We use our labour and land to suck that carbon from the air around us. Value isn’t defined by carbon markets but in my heart — and perhaps how customers see our brand.

We expect six biogenic CDR projects at Domaine Heritage to sequester about 100 T CO2 — or five times our emissions: a ‘wood vault’, biochar, rewilding, tree plantations, sustainable wood extraction and meadow maintenance. Eventually, we hope to get really aggressive and cultivate fast-growing dedicated carbon crops for industrial use — like hemp. Details on these projects are below. We’ll maximize removal averaged over the next two decades: it’s critical to reduce atmospheric carbon by then, but we also want to show biogenic solutions that can scale over the next half century.

Experiencing first-hand natural systems’ capacity to reduce climate risk has tipped me from despair to hope. As a family-owned artisanal cidery, we’re as proud of being carbon-negative as we are of the cider itself. Obviously, not everyone has access to land in this way. But many do. As we tweak the relationship between air, plants and dirt at Domaine Heritage, we join thousands of other like-minded entrepreneurs and farmers across the globe in local, mindful efforts to grow biogenic CDR to planetary scale.

The details.

A wood vault is a just pile of wood prevented from rotting (or being burned). Logs, kept dry, last for a decade or more (like an untreated wood deck). Kept free of oxygen and fungus, however, they’ll last forever. Sunk to the bottom of a cold lake, salted or slathered with creosote, buried in giant water-proof pits — that wood is carbon frozen in time. It’s that easy. Instead of burning fallen trees and large branches — standard farm practice — we’ll store them dry and off the ground on pallets, later to be buried in a large water-proofed pit. How much wood? Easily 20 tonnes a year just from fallen maples along road and field edges and big limbs from our 800+ apple trees, for ~30[6] TCO2. Wood vaults scale, although logistics get daunting: a hectare-size pit at 100 kT stores a township’s wood. The US could sequester double Canada’s emissions — and so could we.

A wood vault is a disarmingly simple way to store carbon. Just keep the wood dry and free of rot.

Biochar — the original charcoal — forms when woody mass burns at high temperature and low oxygen. The hydrogen burns off leaving carbon. Done right, that black powdery stuff won’t decay. Added to soil, it improves agricultural productivity. We’ll char wood too small for a vault, but big enough to matter, and put the biochar into the orchards. Our artisanal kiln (Ring of Fire) is labour intensive, and so the farm is limited to a couple of tonnes a year. But biochar scales. Climate Robotics’ in-field system converts agricultural waste onsite. The USDA-designed Charboss mobile unit serves farming/logging neighbourhoods. Want bigger? Airex’s commercial plant in Becancour converts sawmill and logging residue. Even bigger? Canada’s huge piles of slash and hundreds of square miles of dead pine await conversion. Biochar will become one of the most robust, permanent sources of biogenic CDR.

The USDA-designed Charboss is portable, efficient and spits out consistent biochar — long-term, stored carbon that’s great for soil productivity.

When we asked foresters to selectively log a section of forest to maximize carbon uptake over twenty years, we were met with blank stares. Quebec has some of the largest managed forests in the world. Those who do the logging are trained to serve industrial giants like Kruger, whose fiber and tissue factories need enormous amounts of pulp. That stuff degrades fast — we might as well just burn it! After some negotiation, our foresters focussed on construction and hardwood extraction, which remain (for decades) in solid form. Every ten years, we’ll grow and remove 200 tonnes of construction wood, equivalent to 30 TCO2 per year.

Three ways to scale selective logging as biogenic CDR. First, to remain sequestered over the very long term, the waste industry must modernize to separate and value/sequester cellulosic material at end-of-life. Second, forestry professionals need to be educated, and policy updated, to incent maximum carbon uptake as standard logging practice. Third, Canadian forests have long been carbon sinks, sequestering more than a tenth of national emissions. But those forests recently became carbon sources as pine beetle and fires ravage the landscape. How we manage and replenish those forests is the biggest climate risk/opportunity we have.

Two open fields were converted to tree plantations. Two plots of pine for a total of 1300 trees, planted about a decade ago, will grow to maturity over the next twenty. At that point they’ll weigh at least a tonne apiece, for an average annual sequester of 65 TCO2. We’ll ‘rewild’ a third field: as its four hectares convert to traditional Quebec forest, it’ll sequester an average[7] of 20 TCO2 annually.

In what was once an empty field, these pines will grow to over a tonne apiece.

Other fields of ~ 20 ha are cut in autumn. The grasses’ roots sequester at a rate of about 0.5 TCO2/ha for a total of 10 TCO2. In later years, this number might skyrocket to 200 T as we seek to produce high-growth hemp fibre as input to either construction materials or biochar. That requires substantial local processing capacity, in partnership with other growers, and so remains a venture-in-waiting.

To be conservative, cut all the above numbers in half for an estimated total carbon sink of 100 TCO2 annually, or roughly 5x our emissions.

[1] I considered an electric F-150, but the exorbitant cost doesn’t work for the few kilometers of hauling we need.

[2] You can meet master cider-maker Cedric Frappier at tastings in SAQ’s around the province.

[3] These are shamefully high: only one family return flight to Europe per year (6 T), but between myself and Sandrine it’s a couple of dozen shortish-haul flights (~4 T). Most for business in careers dedicated to carbon reduction — but we’ll include them anyway.

[4] Scope 1: 2500 liters of fuel = 6.7 T. Scope 2 is harder: there’s great software to calculate — see ArcTern portfolio company Emitwise — but we’re way too small. To estimate, assume supplies include a global average of 3.8% fossil fuel inputs, for 2.1 T. Add the flights for a total of 18.8 T (call it 20 T).

[5] I’m distrustful of voluntary biogenic carbon markets. With few exceptions, it’s difficult to measure exactly what’s captured, show it’s permanently removed, and demonstrate it was the payment itself that triggered change. In industry jargon, the quality of an offset is defined by quantification, permanence and additionality.

[6] Rule of thumb: wood is ~50% water; the dominant remaining C combines with O in CO2. Hence, multiply the weight of wood by 1.5 to get CO2 equivalent.

[7] QC forests hold aboveground carbon of 37.6 T of C/ha (~100T CO2/ha) (Source: https://mffp.gouv.qc.ca/our-publications/aboveground-carbon-quebec/?lang=en).

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Tom Rand

Co-Founder of ArcTern Ventures. Author: multiple, incl: The Case for Climate Capitalism: Economic Solutions for a Planet in Crisis