Biosolids applied with GPS precision

Precision farming is becoming an increasingly important practice for many Virginia farmers. It utilizes Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Global Positioning Systems (GPS) technology to provide crop yield mapping and monitoring, delineating boundaries and the ability to achieve far more precision and economy in applying fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, which reduces their impact on the environment.

For Douglas Garrett, a sixth generation farmer in Caroline County, the capability of his biosolids contractor to employ GIS and GPS technology is essential to his implementation of precision farming.

The technology provides an accurate delineation of the physical boundary of the biosolids application, as well as the setbacks that receive no application. This provides the farmer a critical tool for nutrient and crop management on his farm. There are also benefits for the biosolids contractor, which can use this data for regulatory reporting.

“It’s been a recent, but important, addition to our management practice,” Garrett said. “We’ve been using biosolids on our farms for about 10 years and I have come to understand how important this material is to accomplishing our goals.”

Garrett owns about 250 acres in the Rappahannock Academy community, near Port Royal in Caroline County. However, he farms about 3,000 acres that he leases in Caroline, Stafford and Spotsylvania counties, growing corn, wheat and soybeans. He, his brother and Douglas’ son, Cory, run the operation—taking the reigns from the father, Dick Garrett.

Like many farmers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, Garrett practices ‘no-till’ farming, which is a way to grow crops without turning over the soil. No-till also increases the amount of water that infiltrates into the soil thereby increasing organic matter and reducing soil erosion.

“What I have learned to appreciate about biosolids is that they don’t leave the field,” explained Garrett. “They stay right where they’re broadcast. We follow behind the spreader with turbo-till equipment (a secondary tillage tool designed to leave a finished seedbed). When the weather conditions work, it provides some of the best corn and bean yields we’ve ever had.”

He added, “the other benefit we see is the organic material biosolids contribute to the soil.”

Like most farmers, Garrett manages his soil conditions carefully. Biosolids contain organic matter that improves soil quality, reduces compaction, increases water-holding capacity and provides an energy source for necessary microbial activity.

Within the coastal plain of Virginia, long-term research continues to be conducted by Virginia Tech and the Hampton Roads Sanitation District at Progress Farm in Virginia Beach. This research has been active for more than 25 years. Neither Tech nor HRSD has identified any environmental issues resulting from the application of biosolids.

“I understand that some people might not like biosolids,” said Garrett. “However, we haven’t experienced any issues with it. There is a smell – sometimes – but it doesn’t last long. As I said before, I really like its nutrient value. We plan to continue to use it when we can.”

There is a perception by some in the public that biosolids are just “dumped” on fields. The techniques employed by the Garrett family demonstrate, however, that biosolids are applied with the same or greater precision as commercial fertilizers. Combining the GIS/GPS technology provided by his biosolids contractor with the precision farm management tools at their disposal, biosolids have become a value-added nutrient and soil conditioner essential for increasing yields, profits and sustainability.