A State Biosolids Council Finds Farmers Are The Most Effective Sources Of Information For The Public

The Virginia Biosolids Council finds that farmers are the most effective sources for conveying information about land application to often skeptical citizens.
A State Biosolids Council Finds Farmers Are The Most Effective Sources Of Information For The Public
Virginia Biosolids Council members, state officials and farmer members of the Small Grains Board observe the first phase of Virginia Tech’s research on small grains and biosolids.

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Everyone has played the game, “Telephone,” where players pass a message from person to person and see how it’s distorted by the end.

The Virginia Biosolids Council wants to avoid such distortions and make sure its message — that the land application of biosolids is safe and beneficial — gets through loud and clear.

The council is aiming its latest efforts at farmers. Biosolids are applied to about 55,000 acres in Virginia, less than 0.7 percent of the state’s 8.25 million acres of farmland. The council wants to get more farmers on board. It also wants to bring those already using or considering biosolids up to speed on the science behind it and the benefits it brings to farmers and municipalities.

“We’ve conducted all sorts of educational outreach since we began this organization in 2005,” says Charles Hooks, the council’s secretary. “We started with a website and sent out regular newsletters. We’ve worked with the local university extension to hold public education classes. What seems to hold the most weight with people, though, is when they hear about it from the farmers themselves.”

Quelling controversy

Hooks sees no shortage of items on the Web arguing that land application can have negative effects. He believes that stems from the “ick” factor — uninformed people linking biosolids with “human waste.”

“It’s certainly the nature of the Internet to collect information that reinforces a pre-existing prejudice,” says Hooks. “It turns into a ‘Whoever screams the loudest wins’ mentality. We know there are those we’ll never be able to convince. It’s just important to us that our information is out there, too.”

Hooks points to an “overwhelming body of scientific research that supports the conclusion that recycling biosolids on farm fields and forests and composting for residential and commercial applications is safe.”

In 2007 the Virginia Department of Health published a study, “Health Effects of Biosolids Applied to Land: Available Scientific Evidence,” as a detailed review of scientific literature about biosolids and human health. It concluded that, “There does not seem to be strong evidence of serious health risks when biosolids are managed and monitored appropriately.”

It also asserts that allegations about biosolids usually lack medical evidence of human health effects and “do not meet the biological plausibility test.”

Hooks observes, “Our role in that study was to serve the panel and gather scientific information to be used in making the final determination. Of course, the detractors were given the same opportunity. Our council presented the panel with a great volume of research while the opposing side really had none.”

Calming effect

In part based on that research, the Virginia General Assembly enacted numerous laws to regulate the production and beneficial use of biosolids, based on the U.S. EPA Part 503 Biosolids Rule. The EPA has approved Virginia’s biosolids management program, and the state Department of Environmental Quality regulates land application.

“The research has certainly served to calm the opposition,” says Hooks. “It has also enabled our group to be more proactive.” In 2010 the council partnered with the Water Environmental Research Foundation to study the knowledge of biosolids among people living near application sites.

Twenty-four families were interviewed. Most had little or no concern but also little knowledge of the material being spread on neighboring fields. For Hooks and the council, that meant it was time to urge farmers to spread the message to their neighbors.

“We determined that the three factors most people are concerned about are odor, health effects and the environmental impact,” says Hooks. “Those concerns are easily rectified with research and education.”

Farmers speak out

The council mobilized farmers to speak on behalf of biosolids at a series of public meetings before approval of the Virginia biosolids regulations. Council members also adopted a Code of Good Practice that provides all farmers with a template for going beyond the regulations to make sure land application practices minimize social impacts.

The council has also organized trips for farmers to Virginia Tech University to learn about the school’s research on the effect of biosolids on small-grain farming. “When you get down to it, farmers are a respected and beloved group,” says Hooks. “However, as a practical matter, there aren’t a lot of farmers left, so the amount of political clout they have by themselves is weakening. But if we can get farmers to educate their families, friends and neighbors, those numbers improve.”

Changing attitudes

In the 10 years since the council’s inception, Hooks has seen a shift in attitudes toward biosolids. The opposition is still there, but getting more farmers on board with education has paid dividends. The goal now is simply to educate more people.

To continue spreading the word, the council regularly updates its website with new research results. Its newsletter reaches 1,500 subscribers including farmers, neighbors, media and state officials. Regular features tell about Virginia farmers who use biosolids. The council also sets up a booth at the Virginia Association of Counties’ annual convention and an exhibit at the state fair.

“We’ve found that most people either support the beneficial use of biosolids or are open to more information,” says Hooks. “The neighbors and those on the fence need to become familiar with the science and facts before the opposition gets to them. If we can’t get that information to them first, we have a lot of catching up to do. That’s why having those farmers in our corner is so important.”   



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