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Homeowners raise stink over farmers’ poop. February 6, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Our local paper, the Allentown, PA Morning Call, had a front-page article on Sunday that you wouldn’t find in just any paper. “Sewage sludge on farm alarms neighbors,” the headline reads (head to www.themorningcall.com to read the story). So what’s the poop, I mean, scoop?

The gist of the story is that municipalities, utilities, and private companies have been trying to find an ecological and beneficial solution to the mountain of human waste we overpopulated humans produce. The best solution they’ve come up with is to treat the sludge so it’s pathogen-free, then provide it free of charge as fertilizer for farmers to put on their fields.

Unfortunately, with real-estate speculators buying up farm fields and planting McMansions, townhouses, duplexes (twin homes) and condos as thick as corn all over them, suburbanites seeking a little country bliss have found themselves cheek by jowl with working farms. And they’re not happy about it. In this case, they’re especially unhappy about the sludge, which of course smells like manure, not exactly the scent of drifting wildflowers they were expecting. (I wonder what they think becomes of all the waste they themselves are producing stacked on top of each other like that.)

Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood, passionate organic gardeners that we are, practically grew up with the gospel of composted cow, horse, chicken and rabbit manure as fantastic garden fertilizer. We certainly wouldn’t want to put human waste, even treated sludge, on our vegetables. But we don’t see the problem with putting it on lawns and landscape plantings, golf courses, and the like. Or on farm fields where crops are being raised for animal rather than human consumption.

Treated sludge (rather euphemistically called “biosolids”) has been used on farm fields in the U.S. for 25 years, and has been endorsed as a safe, environmentally healthy solution by experts from university agronomists to the DEP. No cases of disease transferral or contamination have ever been linked to its use.

Of course, people have used human waste on their fields for thousands of years, especially in countries where people outnumber livestock. In Mao-era China, a popular song included the unforgettable lyric “Oh how I love to haul [human] manure up the mountain for the good of the commune.” And our friend Ben was startled to read a detailed description in the novel Shogun about how, in samurai-era Japan, every bit of human excrement was carefully gathered and used to fertilize the rice paddies. The stench was apparently fierce during the growing season, but was culturally tolerated as an indicator of future prosperity.

But let’s return to present-day American farms. I doubt there’s anyone who doesn’t think farmers work hard, really, gruelingly, physically hard, and don’t get much for their labor but the satisfaction of tending the land and their animals. (If that weren’t the case, farming wouldn’t have declined as an occupation by more than 70% since 1935, to the point where there are 2.2 million farms. Given that there are almost 313 million people in the U.S., you do the math.) The dairy farmers around us get up before dawn for the first milking, and Silence and I have seen them out after dark many nights during harvest season, their tractors’ headlights piercing the darkness of the fields like giant lightning bugs.

You’d think people would be giving thanks that there are still people willing to live this kind of life, not trying to make things even harder for them by denying them free fertilizer, fertilizer that’s even delivered free and put on their fields, saving them at least $100 an acre. But no. Maybe the homeowners who are raising such a stink figure that, if the farmers go belly-up, all their friends can move into McMansions on land right next to theirs.

Sludge may have added a new element to this issue, but the issue itself has been around as long as people have been building homes in farm country. It comes down to this: The farms were here first. Nobody’s forcing people to buy homes near farms. If they do, they should at least have the courtesy to let the farmers continue working their land. And they should be ready for a good deal of noise (farm machinery and farm animals aren’t quiet) and stink, at least when the fields are fertilized, whatever the source of the manure.

Our friend Ben would have no sympathy at all for the homeowners who are trying to ban the use of sludge were it not for one thing, which may or may not be a quirk of this part of Pennsylvania. In Tennessee, where I grew up, our family home is, like my own, pretty much in the middle of nowhere. But for whatever reason, it still gets city water. My parents were horrified when Silence and I got this place and they found out it had only well water. I guess they thought we’d time-traveled to the 1800s.

Time-travel aside, anyone in a rural area in this part of PA gets their water from wells. And the homeowners are concerned about contaminants from sludge leaching into their water supply. One woman found that her well was contaminated by E. coli; she naturally connected the contamination to the sludge on a neighboring farm. Another said his water turned brown and reeked of sewage when sludge was applied to his neighbor’s farm fields. These are perfectly natural concerns; who wouldn’t share them?

Fortunately, tests showed no link between the E. coli contamination and the sludge. Since the sludge is treated, bacterial contamination should be impossible. The brown, stinky tapwater is quite another matter. But apparently the company that supplies the sludge to area farmers will respond quickly to any complaint and create drainage ditches and the like on farmland to divert sludge runoff so it can’t wash into wells and waterways. (It’s illegal to apply it too close to wells in any case.) 

What’s the best solution? Keep farmland in agricultural use, and keep non-farmers clustered in cities, towns and villages, as they are in England? Educate the general public about farms and farming—perhaps a required course in high school—so they don’t rush out to buy a country home and assume it will be like living by a golf course? Give farmers better PR, so we all appreciate them more, before they all give up and we’re left to starve?

Our friend Ben doesn’t know. But I do know that farmers are the most endangered species in America, and we’d better do something to protect them before it’s too late.



1. pixilated2 - February 6, 2012

You have brought up a sore spot that concerns me as well. Similar wrong thinking has gotten the wildlife in California into trouble. Urbanites wanting the country life, build their homes up into the hillsides and then cry foul when their cat or little Fefee get’s poached by the locals. There have been troubles with mountain lions and people being attacked by them as well. WHAT did they think would happen when they chose to move into an area ‘infested’ with lions, coyotes, and bears … Oh my! And who was there first.

Your concern with the diminishing farm owner should be a top concern of us all, yet it is not. What will we eat when the farms are all gone? Don’t want to know. ~ Lynda

That’s an excellent point, Lynda, and one that concerns me as well. I, too, read those headlines: “mountain lion attacks lone jogger in wilderness area,” “grizzly bear eats idiot camping out in its winter territory.” What are people thinking?! We invade their territory, then are outraged when they return the favor—their way. Not to mention building homes in fire zones. Sigh. As for what we’ll eat when all the farms are gone, there’s always that plump, fatty, succulent, abundant species ready to hand, but gee, I guess cannibalism’s gone out of style…

pixilated2 - February 6, 2012

“Soylent Green is people!”
(Charlton Heston as Det.Thorn: Soylent Green 1973)

Gulp. I never saw “Soylent Green,” but didn’t they give everybody bliss-inducing drugs so they didn’t have to think about it?

2. pam - May 18, 2012

There r legitimate farmers who deserve farmers right afforded to them them there r the wanna bees who disguise themselves as farmers to terrorize their neighbors…this is happening in Rhode island.

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