Biosolids use increasing on Virginia woodlands

Managing Editor

FARMVILLE, Va. (April 4, 2017) — For as long as he can tell, Bobby Patterson and his brother Billy have wanted to work in the woods. He remembers as a kid riding in the log cutter with his father, Robert, and learning the ropes.
“We’ve been in the woods, basically our whole lives,” Bobby said.
Now the brothers are still in the woods, but instead of hauling the trees out they’re taking in fertilizer through the application of biosolids, the treated product of wastewater treatment plants.
The Pattersons started PineGrow LLC, a family business focused on biosolids application on forestland and farmland under contract with NutriBlend, one of the main applicators of biosolids in Virginia and Bobby said they have doubled the forested acres they cover in the last two years.
“We have aspirations to expand even further,” he said.
Biosolids application to forestland has been an option to landowners for years, but state officials say it has increased in recent years.
According to Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality, about 2,900 acres of forestland received biosolids in 2016, and acreage has been increasing over the last five years. In 2013, biosolids were applied on 1,280 acres of forestland, up from about 600 acres in 2001. 
Though acreage is climbing, it’s still on a small fraction of the state’s 15.72 million acres of total forestland, including 3.2 million acres of softwoods.
Working as a team, the brothers use a custom-built applicator combining a logging forwarder chassis with a side-discharge spreader body. Often using existing roads created from previous rounds of logging and thinning, they can can cover about 80 acres of forestland in a day with the custom rig, observing required setbacks from property lines, wells and other regulations.
“We just made a piece of forestry equipment to make it work for us to apply material in here,” Bobby said.
For much of February and March, the Pattersons were working at Ashland Plantation in Cumberland County. The lime-stabilized material is fairly low in nitrogen and phosphorus by volume, and with nutrient deficient soils, PineGrow was permitted to apply at a rate of 200 pounds of plant available nitrogen per acre. That equated to about 20 to 30 tons per acre of total material, Bobby said, twice the amount or more that is applied on most land for food or feed crops.
A seven-year evaluation from the Virginia Department of Forestry studied biosolids use as fertilizer on Loblolly pine compared to using a commercial fertilizer combination of urea and diammonium phosphate. After the final year in 2013, the trees that were applied biosolids at the same rate as the commercial fertilizer, 200 pounds of plant available nitrogen, had increased in volume 32 percent more than the untreated check and nine percent more than the trees that received commercial fertilizer. Larger trees in the study grew about 20 to 25 percent more than the stand average.
The study also said the nutrient additions from either form of fertilizer were beneficial to the tree growth for at least the seven years of the study and showed no evidence of negative effects on tree growth or vigor.
Woodfin Ligon, who owns the 700-acre Ashland Plantation of mostly pine trees, said he’d been interested for years in getting biosolids on his forestland to improve the soil and increase tree growth.
“The minute there were people saying they would do it, I was right there,” Ligon said. “I’m a fan of fertilizing. I’d like it not to take 25 years to be ready to sell again.”
He said once he signed off on getting the free-to-him material on his land, NutriBlend handled the the process of securing permits, notifying neighbors, taking public comment and developing a nutrient management plan approved by the state.
“I didn’t have to do anything. All I did was say ‘yes’,” Ligon said.
Once the Pattersons have finished the spreading at Ashland, the loading sites at the different spots on the farm will be reseeded with a mix of native grasses and wildflowers. From there, Bobby said they’ll move on to the next tract and begin again.
“I enjoy seeing the trees grow up,” Bobby said. “You can really see a difference.”