MIDLOTHIAN – Farmers were in the majority during Wednesday evening’s biosolids stakeholders meeting at the Midlothian Conference Center. And, one by one, they stepped to the microphone to give staff members with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality their comments about the benefits of land application of biosolids.

The farming practice, which has been in use in Ellis County since the early 1990s, has come under fire from some residents who have cited odor-related issues.

State Rep. Jim Pitts and County Commissioner Pct. 3 Paul Perry were both on hand to address TCEQ staff members, saying their respective offices had received dozens of complaints through the years.

TCEQ records indicate two dozen complaints filed in the last four years directly with the state agency: eight in fiscal year 2013, 10 in 2012, five in 2011 and one in 2010. None of those complaints have resulted in a finding of violation, the TCEQ staff said.

The stakeholder meeting was the result of a rule-change petition filed with the TCEQ by rural Midlothian resident Cole Turner. If approved, farmers would no longer be able to apply the material within three miles of a city limits.

Available information indicates that Ellis County has 47,000 acres comprising 69 sites and 34 landowners that have submitted a letter of notice to the TCEQ that they want biosolids applications. Of that noticed acreage, from 3,600 to 4,200 acres have the material applied on an annual basis.

Two sides on the issue

Turner was the first to speak during the meeting’s comment portion and said he’s “sick and tired” of the material being applied to acreage near his home. For up to three months at a time, the smell is so intense that it prevents his family from enjoying the out of doors, he said, describing the odor as “real close to death.” The number of trucks on the road beginning at 5 a.m. is another issue, he said.

“Is there a definition on farming?” Turner asked, questioning the topical application of biosolids and suggesting it be plowed into the ground and not allowed to remain on the surface.

Dickey Ray spoke next and said he was the rancher applying the biosolids in Turner’s area.

“Mr. Turner knew I applied this product before he bought his property,” Ray said, saying he’d been using biosolids since 1998. “We try to do it in January and February, when people aren’t outside as much. We’ve increased the setbacks … . I don’t know what else we can do.”

Ray raises grass and cattle and noted the cost savings between biosolids and commercial fertilizers at $20/acre vs. $203.50/acre, respectively.

Another resident in the primary area of complaints, Craig Monk, said the three-mile prohibition wasn’t intended to hurt anyone. Among his concerns, Monk cited a lack of information about the practice and said the product’s safety can’t be assured.

Bristol rancher Lonnie Magness told the TCEQ staff that biosolids have saved him “a ton of money” while increasing his hay yields.

“There is a smell, but it’s not that long,” he said before responding to health concerns raised by those against the practice.

“I’ve never seen one of my cows pick up a piece of it and chew on it,” Magness said. “My cattle don’t glow in the dark.”

As did others, Magness spoke about the farmer’s role in the community.

“Everybody in this room gets something from the farmer,” he said. “If the farmers aren’t here, everyone’s going to starve to death and run around butt-naked.”

Fifth-generation farmer Todd Kimbrell Jr. said the organic nutrients in biosolids were much better than the inorganics found in commercial fertilizers. Numerous soil tests have been conducted on his acreage, he said, noting, “The tests have proven time and time again what this is doing for the soil.”

The economics

Those using the product emphasized the economics involved.

Rancher Larry Jones said it would cost him $43,920 to use commercial fertilizer on his 240 acres as opposed to using the much-less expensive biosolids, which he said was “punched” into the soil on his land.

“Biosolids allows us to raise hay and make a profit,” he said. “That $43,920 is more than what (he and his wife) make on Social Security.”

Kenneth Braddock, who oversees a ranching operation that spans Ellis, Kaufman and Navarro counties, said the savings were in the millions and noted recent soil testing on grasslands indicated a nutrient value worth $473 an acre as a result of the biosolids. To have achieved that value with commercial fertilizers would have cost about $800 an acre, he said, saying the savings have allowed the operation to put its resources toward such management practices as clearing mesquite.

As did others, Braddock questioned the three-mile radius, saying cities in Ellis County had annexed down roadways and out into the county. Would the three-miles extend from those roadways as well? he asked, with another speaker calculating there would be a significant loss of eligible land if the prohibition extended from the roadways.

Charles Mitchell said he’d been trying for four years to get into the biosolids program, which has a waiting list.

“My neighbor, who’s in the program, is making three times the hay I’m making,” he said of how well biosolids land applications work.

Third-generation farmer Ray Lynn Campbell described his results: “I’ve had significant, astronomical increases in yields. There’s no dispute on the economics. They’re sound.”

Majority support

In all, almost 20 farmers and ranchers from Ellis and surrounding counties expressed their support of the practice to the TCEQ staff during the meeting, which lasted almost three hours. Non-farmers also spoke in favor of biosolids use.

Martha Davis said she lived near farmers using the material.

“The smell goes away. It doesn’t bother me,” said Davis, who feeds her horses biosolids-fertilized hay. “I have very healthy horses.”

Jason Bourgeois said he moved to Midlothian to get away from the city and enjoy the country. While he doesn’t appreciate the smell of biosolids, he said it didn’t affect him or his lifestyle.

“I appreciate all of the farmers in Midlothian,” he said.

Leslie McFarland said he and the other farmers hadn’t picked up their farms to move closer to urban areas.

“The city came out to us,” he said, noting that he and his wife have personally lost three condemnation cases involving part of their farm to roads and utilities as a result of urban sprawl. “Where’d that land come from? Where did it come off?”

It’s a matter of learning to co-exist, he said, but “You kind of need to give us (farmers) a little slack.”

Written comments being accepted

It was in June that Turner addressed TCEQ commissioners in Austin after having filed his petition for a rule change. After hearing from people on both sides of the issue during that meeting, the commissioners directed staff members to hold stakeholder meetings in different areas of the state and collect comments, suggestions and other information.

Additional stakeholder meetings will be held Aug. 22 in Brookshire and Aug. 28 in Austin. One was held earlier this month in Springtown.

Written comments will be accepted on the issue until Aug. 30 and can be mailed to Brian Sierant, TCEQ Water Quality Division, P.O. Box 13087, MC-148, Austin, TX 78711-3087. Comments also may be submitted via email to Brian.Sierant@tceq.texas.gov. For questions or additional information, contact Sierant by email or by phone at 512-239-1375.

The TCEQ executive director is slated to present findings and recommendations on the issue to the agency’s commissioners during their Nov. 20 meeting in Austin.

Musing Green is a graduate project of Jo Ann Livingston, who is completing her master's degree at the Frank W. Mayborn Graduate Institute of Journalism at the University of North Texas. The focus is on environmental and nature-related topics. Visit the website at www.musinggreen.com, the blog at musinggreen.blogspot.com or the Musing Green Facebook page. A current topic of interest is the use of biosolids in Ellis County.