Essex County farmer finds biosolids benefits soil on converted farm land

Essex County has some of the most fertile soils in Virginia. It is located in the historic Middle Peninsula, bordered by the York River to its south and the Rappahannock River to its north. It is solidly rural, and much of the economic activity is centered on farming and forestry.

Ray Thomas’ family is a multi-generational farming family.  Essex is their home, and he and his family farm a little more than 1,000 acres – primarily in small grains, corn, wheat and soybean.  He also manages some of the land as a managed forest for timber.

More than 35 years ago Thomas and some of his peers in Essex learned about biosolids.  After doing their own research, and after using it initially, they recognized immediately biosolids’ potential to improve the soil conditions on his land, particular those fields that had been reclaimed from forests.

“I started to use biosolids as soon as I could,” Thomas said.  “I looked at the first few applications as a farmer would, and saw that biosolids provided immediate value to the soil.”  For a farmer, soil is a critical necessity of successful agriculture.

“What I also learned, during those periods when there was substantial drought, is that the area where biosolids was used the crops managed to hold up better in difficult conditions than the crops that did not receive an application,” he said.

Thomas is among hundreds of farmers throughout Virginia that have used biosolids for decades.  Many of those farmers have shared their practical experience with biosolids, speaking publicly about its safety and productivity.  They are also stewards of Virginia’s farmland.  Thomas, like many Virginia farmers who choose to use biosolids, has considerable experience with biosolids and through this practical experience believe in its safety as a resource.

“Through all these years of using biosolids I’ve come to understand how it can positively impact soils that have been reclaimed (from forestland),” he said.  “For some reason, biosolids have the ability through its plentiful nutrients to move a field into high productivity sooner.”

In fact, plants need a complex mixture of nutrients, soil, air and water.  Biosolids contain a full range of essential plant nutrients, including nitrogen and phosphorus that are released gradually during the growing season, as the plants need them.  Plants also need small amounts of micronutrients (magnesium, calcium and sulfur) and trace elements, such as copper, zinc, iron, manganese, molybdenum and boron.  Biosolids also supply these needed elements.

Chemically, biosolids improve the soil’s cation exchange capacity (CEC), which is a measure of how well a soil retains plant nutrients.  The organic matter in biosolids acts like a magnet and attracts plant nutrients.  It helps hold plant nutrients in the root zone and keep them from leaching away.

Thomas and his son, Will, are currently clearing about 300 acres of forested land and converting that land into farmland – they’ve been working on the conversion on and off for about two years, he said. “We know that the use of biosolids on these fields will allow us to get to full agriculture production more quickly,” he said.

As a long-time resident of Essex, Thomas does understand that the use of biosolids has its challenges. However, he looks at its use as something no different than the use of poultry manure or chemical fertilizers.  “Listen, I always talk to our neighbors when we are planning to spread biosolids. If they express any concern, I typically request our contractor to stay away from that property.  While there are times that I would prefer not to accommodate their request, it’s the right thing to do,” Thomas said.

“As long as I can get permits to apply and use biosolids on my farmland,” he said, “biosolids will be an important part of my farm operations.”