The land application of biosolids is currently permitted in more than 70 counties in Virginia. Much of this recycling occurs on very rural and private farms. The recycling and beneficial use of biosolids on Richard Clemmer’s farm in Rockbridge County, however, occurs within sight of one of the busiest roads on the East Coast of the United States – the U.S. Interstate-81 corridor between Lexington and Staunton.
His farm, named Beck-n-Rich, of about 450 acres, moves over rolling hills just East of Interstate 81 near Fairfield. Becky and Richard Clemmer have about 200 acres of their farm in row crops, and the remainder in pasture. He typically has between 200 and 250 Black Angus cattle on his farm. He’s been farming full-time for about 20 years.
For Clemmer, the use of biosolids came relatively recently.
“In 2007 there was some biosolids being applied on a farm not far from me, and I was generally curious. At the time I talked to the farmer and to the contractor doing the application,” he said. “There were some members of my family and some friends and neighbors who were skeptical,” he said, “and I understand that.”
“I knew that I didn’t want to do anything to hurt my land, and so I did a fair amount of research. I found that the internet has a lot of information, some good and some not. I focused on science, and also spoke with my Extension agent.” Eventually, I made the decision to use biosolids on some pasture – that was 10 years ago and I’m glad I made the decision I did,” he said. “I’ve had no issues since we started, and have used biosolids on several of my fields used for both grass (pasture) and corn,” he said.
For the Clemmers, like it is for almost all Virginia farmers, the land that he farms is important to his family. More accurately, the environmental sustainability of his farm is important. “I want to leave this land in better shape, and more productive, than when I first started farming it,” he said. It’s why he does more than just run a productive farm, but uses the land to improve the environment while also providing educational opportunities.
As an example, the Clemmers are supporting Bobwhite quail recovery efforts through a cooperative effort with the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
He also is a prominent participant in the Virginia Forage and Grassland Council, a non-profit organization comprised of forage and livestock producers throughout the state. The VFGC promotes and expands the use of forages to support the livestock industry. His farm is used for field days and educational opportunities for the VFGC, which partners with Virginia Tech, the Virginia Cooperative Extension Service, USDA-NRCS, and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, among others.
The use of biosolids, he said, provides support to his sustainability objective by improving the health of the soil while also increasing the productivity of both his grasses and crops.
Biosolids contain nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) but very small amounts (relative to crop needs) of potassium (K). Importantly, biosolids also contain numerous micronutrients that are essential for crop growth. Additionally, biosolids contain from 50 to 70% organic matter, and their continued application over several years will gradually increase soil organic matter. The benefits of increased organic matter in agricultural soils are well documented and include:
- improved nutrient retention and slow release of nutrients
- improved soil tilth and friability
- increased water infiltration, retention, and availability
- improved soil structure and aggregate stability
- increased cation exchange capacity
- increased microbial activity and diversity
According to Clemmer, the results are noticeable. “Our pastures are really, really healthy,” he said.
“I know that we have one or two neighbors who are still skeptical, and I’ve encouraged them to continue to do their homework,” Clemmer said. “We’ve been recycling biosolids for more than 10 years – and I firmly believe it’s the right choice for my farm and my long-term goals.”