It’s just past Labor Day. The Harvest Moon will rise in a couple days. That means harvest time is over in Eastern Washington. Grain stalks that once glowed golden against blue skies have fallen. During harvest, giant combine harvesters crawl across fields, reaping, thrashing and winnowing as they travel. The grain that pours into a waiting truck means that our food cycle continues to turn.
The landmark Boulder Park area is named for large boulders scattered by long-gone icesheets across an expansive, wind-swept plateau. Here, farmers work in challenging conditions to build and conserve the foundation of their livelihoods, the soil.
On August 25, a combine in Boulder Park performed a special harvest. Methodically, it combed the research plots in a 20 year Washington State University (WSU) study of soil health and crop yield comparing Loop biosolids, commercial fertilizer, and no fertilizer. Biosolids are a nutrient-rich product of the wastewater treatment process: our waste, rendered safe for use as a fertilizer and soil amendment.
WSU soil scientist Andy Bary logged the receiving truck weight before the grain from each plot was added. Samples from each plot were bagged for laboratory analysis. Once again, crops nourished with biosolids produced a superior grain yield. Based on previous years, lab results show a higher protein content in grain nourished with biosolids.
But scientific evaluation wasn’t needed to tell the difference among the test plots. You could feel the softer soils of the biosolids plots with your feet and you could see it in crop height and density.
Building soils and feeding plants: an age-old practice
Somewhere around 10,000 years ago, at the dawn of agriculture, farmers in Mesopotamia figured out grain crops grew better in soils enriched with animal manure. China began using raw human waste, or night soil, to enrich farmland about 4,000 years ago. Today, with billions of people on the planet, we’ve learned how to safely enrich the soils with our own processed waste.
Healthy soils were recognized as a national goal by Congress in 1935, during the Dust Bowl years, when it established the agency that became the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Congress recognized that “the wastage of soil and moisture resources on farm, grazing, and forest lands . . . is a menace to the national welfare.” In 1938, soil scientist William Albrecht wrote, “The maintenance of soil organic matter might well be considered a national responsibility.”
Agricultural operations got a boost from a fertilizer by-product of World War II efforts to maximize nitrogen production for explosives: anhydrous ammonia.
Anhydrous ammonia gives plants a nitrogen boost, but it has down sides for soil health. Farmers find treated soil to be harder than soils treated with organic material. They recall reports of anhydrous used during World War II to harden runways for planes. Whether these reports are founded in historic fact, the soils treated with anhydrous feel hard, and harder soils absorb and hold less water.
Farming with biosolids
In the Boulder Park area, dryland farming, or farming without irrigation, was introduced early in the last century. For dryland farming to work effectively, winters must have some moisture, soils must conserve that moisture, and plants must tolerate dry conditions. The sustainability of dryland farms depends on building healthy soils and keeping them in place.
Manure isn’t a viable fertilizer option in this area of the state, because livestock operations are uncommon. Farmers typically used anhydrous ammonia for needed nitrogen, or tried to farm without fertilizer. After decades of applying commercial fertilizers, which feed the plant but do little to improve soil quality for sustainable farming, farmers are beginning to focus more on building their soils. Like the foundation of a house, the quality and structure of the soil must be able to support the crop. Farming practices are steadily evolving to emphasize adding organic matter to build healthy soil, increasing biological activity in the soils to breakdown crop residues and roots into soil organic matter, and using no-till methods and cover crops to reduce runoff and wind erosion effects.
Since 1991, several Boulder Park area farmers partnered with King County to use biosolids to rebuild that foundation of their business, healthy soils. In 1992, a farmer owned and operated company, known as Boulder Park, Incorporated (BPI), and King County Wastewater Treatment Division (King County) initiated a public-private partnership to provide high quality biosolids applications for farmers in eastern Washington. This unique and highly successful program, known as the Boulder Park Project, continues to be managed by BPI and King County.
King County is not the only agency recognizing the value of biosolids land application. Over thirty other agencies from across Washington State also participate in this program for land application of their biosolids. Boulder Park Project is one of the largest farmer-owned and operated, multi-farmer biosolids recycling project in the United States, with more than 60 participating farmers and over 90,000 acres approved for application.
Dave Ruud, BPI Operations Manager, says, “Biosolids cost considerably less than anhydrous ammonia and they build better soils and grow better crops. We’re more resilient when the crop prices and weather go south on us.”
Land application of biosolids is not taken lightly. The Washington State Department of Ecology oversees the strictly regulated use of biosolids for land application. Biosolids undergo required testing to assess nutrient, pollutant, and pathogen content to make sure they meet safety standards for land applications. The Boulder Park Project conducts regular soil testing services for farmers and supports precision agriculture practices. Farmers use conservative application rates and GPS-guided tractors with GPS technology to ensure the soils get the right amount of biosolids. The goal is no more, no less than needed.
Andy Bary attributes the success of the Boulder Park research program to King County’s thorough, comprehensive approach to biosolids management, and cooperation by the participating farmers. “This is a really unique program,” says Bary. “We’ve gathered data for two decades that tells us biosolids are helping soils and yields.”
King County’s program adapts to changing farming techniques
Farmers are multi-tasking business owners who keep an eye on markets, energy, transportation, crop health and weather while making sure they have crews and equipment to meet planting and harvest milestones. They take a long range view of soil quality and performance, and change their practices to make sure the foundation of their business stays healthy- and stays in place.
Dryland farmers who use conventional tillage practices (turning the dirt) can find their soils going airborne in damaging dust storms. The NRCS is helping farmers convert to no-till farming methods which drill seed into the soil without turning it. Farmer Douglas Poole adopted no-till farming practices in 2012 to protect soil and air quality from wind erosion. He uses cover crops to keep soil in place, weeds in check, and moisture in the ground during the fallow season.
The Boulder Park Project adjusted to this new no-till farming method with different spreaders that apply a more constant spread spattern where farmers aren’t regularly plowing the soils. King County Project Manager Jake Finlinson continues to work with BPI staff and farmers to fine tune the application process.
Farming in an uncertain future
Farmers continue to watch the horizon and adapt, especially as climate change starts to affect conditions. Douglas Poole believes that biosolids will help farmers weather climate change. “We’re making the soil more resilient to drought. And we’re actually helping to offset climate change”. Using biosolids works carbon into the soil and the plants take up carbon dioxide from the air.By using biosolids these farmers are also forgoing fossil fuel intensive chemical fertilizer.
As long as people are around, we’ll need food to eat. We’ll produce waste, something that originates as a problem, and turn it into a solution that can safely build and enrich soils and keep the food cycle turning. And as long as people keep producing waste, King County will continue partnering with farmers in their unending quest to keep soils healthy and crops growing.