Diversification key to Spotsylvania farm

In an era when farming is becoming increasingly specialized, there are some people who fear that the traditional diversified farm is disappearing.

But for long-time Spotsylvania County farmer Walter Gentry diversification of his operations is essential to the success of his 700-acre farm.

Nestled not too far from historic Spotsylvania Courthouse, Gentry tends to about 175 head of cattle, oversees a certified tree farm and grows corn, soybeans and wheat.  When he isn’t managing his farming activities, he restores and rehabilitates antique John Deere tractors…that is, when he isn’t hunting and harvesting deer and turkey that roam his land.

“I grew up on a farm not far from where I live today,” said Gentry.  “I began with just a few acres planted in corn and soybeans, and over time purchased and leased some additional property to harvest timber and raise cattle.  It’s important to have different sources of income to protect against a weak market for any particular crop.  Being involved in all of these activities does that.”

Gentry was one of the first farmers to receive biosolids from Recyc Systems just over a decade ago.  He has used two different types of biosolids—Class A “exceptional quality” pellets and Class B “cake.” Exceptional quality class A biosolids are defined by the U.S. EPA as containing no detectable levels of pathogens and very low levels of metals, and are less likely to attract animals or insects. Class B biosolids are extensively treated by wastewater treatment plants to kill most pathogens.  The few that are not eliminated during the treatment process are destroyed after land application by normal environmental conditions, such as exposure to sunlight and natural soil conditions.

“I wish I had some biosolids for my farm right now,” said Gentry.  “The best pasture I’ve had is when I’m able to get biosolids applied in the fall.  With biosolids, I know I can grow grass regardless of the weather, particularly in drought conditions.”

Like other farmers, he speaks glowingly of biosolids because of the yields they produce for corn, soybeans and pasture grass.

Biosolids are high in the right nutrients, he said, and release those nutrients slowly—good for the plants and for the environment.  “Biosolids have without question increased our yields of both corn and soybeans—when I am able to use it,” Gentry said.  In Virginia, there are far more farmers who want and are permitted to receive biosolids than actually receive it.  Last year only about 50,000 acres received biosolids.

The majority of biosolids applied to fields and row crops in Virginia are de-watered cake (15 to 25 percent solids), which has the consistency of damp soil. A tractor pulls a spreader that distributes the material on the field. The application rate is determined by a nutrient management plan prepared by a certified nutrient planner who determines the needs of the crops being grown on specific soils.

While application rates vary with the soil and the crop, typical rates are about 12-15 wet tons per acre, or 3-5 tons per acre on a dry weight basis. This rate is somewhat less than the amount of manure that would typically be used to fertilize a field.

The only difference in using Class A or Class B biosolids, Gentry said, is the flexibility Class A affords him. Both Class A and B biosolids are regulated by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.

There is currently only one wastewater treatment plant that pelletizes their biosolids in Virginia, so Gentry has paid for transportation of the material to his farm.

Spotsylvania County has recently received some attention from opponents of land application of both biosolids and industrial residuals—organic waste products from meat processing plants and paper mills.

“I am of the belief that people who are opposed do not necessarily understand agriculture nor do they understand, or want to understand, about biosolids.  I am not afraid to put biosolids on my farm,” Gentry said.

“It seems popular to oppose it, maybe because it smells. But that as a reason is wrong,” he said.  “I would hope that people who live in rural areas take the time to look into the benefits of this material.”