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Unloading biosolids at the Grasslands facility in Chateaugay, NY. Photo: Casella Organics
Unloading biosolids at the Grasslands facility in Chateaugay, NY. Photo: Casella Organics

North Country company finds farm value in human waste

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Waste management companies are finding it's increasingly expensive to send garbage to a landfill. So they're trying to find more ways to recycle what we throw out. That includes what we throw out of our own bodies.

A new facility in northern Franklin County, run by the Potsdam-based company Casella Resource Solutions, is turning sewage into fertilizer. And it's for sale.

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Natasha Haverty
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Municipal biosolids. Photo: Casella Organics
Municipal biosolids. Photo: Casella Organics
Earlier this year, a sales representative from Casella Resource Solutions paid a visit to Dave Vincent’s dairy farm. Vincent has 600 acres in Burke, where he grows feed for his cows and sells forage crops.

He’s been on the farm since he was born, and the farm has been in his family for over a hundred years, so when the guy from Casella told Vincent about a new way he could fertilize his soil, Vincent was skeptical: "Everybody had the idea that they’re just trying to get rid of all their poison and their things from the city and this is going to be the worst thing." 

The Casella representative told Vincent about the new facility the company had opened in nearby Chateaugay, which they call Grasslands. Grasslands was starting to produce a fertilizer made out of human waste.

What's the difference, defecation from humans, or defecation from animals?
So Vincent agreed to try it out. He says trying a new product is always a risk, but he put a little bit down on a couple of fields on a far out part of his land, and sent those samples to a lab at the University of Maine. He wanted to be sure, but when the first samples he sent to a lab came back great, he was sold. He’s put 400 tons of it down this year. He says it's like handling "dry dirt": "it kind of breaks up like sawdust when it’s being spread, it spreads real nice."

Vincent says he'd rather call it biosolids than human waste. Biosolids is the term the Environmental Protection Agency endorsed when it first started researching this issue 30 years ago: the term encompasses all the sludge that remains after human sewage wastewater gets treated and released into rivers or lakes.

Vincent is one of a half dozen farmers in the area using the Grasslands product, but he suspects more will be using it soon. He says it's just another nutrients for his farm, and that his dairy cows alone don't produce enough nutrients for his whole farm. And he says he’s paying less than half of what he would be for commercial fertilizer.

And as Vincent puts it, "what’s the difference, defecation from humans, or defecation from animals?"

Using human excrement to fertilize soil is nothing new. The Aztecs used it in their floating gardens, or chinampas, in ancient Mesoamerica. In seventeenth-century England, it was called night soil, because the men who collected it could only cart it through town after dark.

Jen McDonnell directs the sales and marketing for the organics division of Casella. The term organics, in the waste industry, refers to the natural leftovers from pulp and paper mills, food processors, power plants, and waste water treatment facilities. She says one difference between human manure and animal manure today is that this human manure is extremely regulated: it’s gone through the wastewater treatment process and been processed at Casella’s facility, whereas she says manure is typically just collected and spread right on fields. 

But the concept of turning human excrement into fertilizer and spreading it on land is not without controversy. In 2010, activists in San Francisco dumped buckets of biosolids compost onto the steps of city hall to protest a city-sponsored biosolids distribution program. They were concerned about pathogens like E. Coli, or hormones or heavy metals getting into our food. People even argue about the language: biosolids proponents, or sludge victims?

The EPA and the New York Department of Environmental Conservation both regulate biosolids. Sally Roland has worked at the DEC for 26 years, and is an expert in the biosolids field. She says for facilities like Grasslands (which is one of three in the North Country), New York's standards are just as stringent if not more stringent than other states she's aware of. "So we feel comfortable that people doing it in accords with the reg[ulations] are fine," Rolands says.

Casella says the Grasslands product has been tested and all the results have come back below the detection levels for pathogens and heavy metals.

Dave Vincent, the farmer in Burke, says the only drawback for him has been the smell. And even though Vincent hasn’t gotten any complaints save for the occasional joke from a friend, Sally Roland of the DEC agrees it can be an issue for neighbors, even those who are used to living near dairy farms.

"A lot of times we find it’s not so much the strength of the smell, so much as the type of the smell," Rolands says. "I mean I grew up on a farm. People who grew up out in the country are used to manure smell, even though other people may find it offensive, they’re familiar with it. But if something comes in and it’s not more intense but they’re just not familiar with it, that sometimes becomes an issue."

D. Billy Jones is the town supervisor of Chateaugay, where the Grasslands biosolids facility is. He says there haven’t been any issues, "and I welcome that because they’ve produced a few jobs down there and they’re spending money down there and as far as I know it’s a good clean safe facility."

Right now, Casella is getting its supply of processed human waste from a municipality in Southern Ontario. But Casella representatives say that the Grassland facility will soon be broadening its sources down into New York, which means soon enough, you too could be helping fertilize the North Country’s farmlands.

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