SILETZ — Scores of colorful ribbons from the county fair attest to what the eyes can hardly believe at the Kosydar Ranch, where beets grow long as a gardener’s forearm and the corn is so pretty it begs to be eaten raw.
Located in a quiet valley along the Siletz River, Jerry Kosydar’s bucolic 90-acre farm is an example of the seemingly-miraculous benefits of “biosolids,” human wastes that have been processed by local cities and spread across hundreds of acres of farm lands in the Siletz basin.
“We feed thousands of people off this ranch,” asserted Kosydar, who claimed that sewage-plant effluent, reduced to a pungent muck or dried into odorless cakes, has turned the marginal soils of the lower Coast Range into fields of plenty.
“The only problem is the odor, but that dissipates rapidly,” he said.
The application of human fertilizer has markedly increased the yield of pasture on the hardscrabble fields where his great-uncle once struggled to raise uncertain crops of oats and wheat, and expensive commercial fertilizers no longer cut into the bottom line. In fact, cities pay farmers a penny a gallon for ground to spread their sludge.
“It’s more than doubled our production,” said Kosydar of the regenerative effects of biosolids, allowing him to pasture 60 head of cattle while cutting up to 100 tons of hay prized by other raisers, including a local goat farm. “You should see the clovers and legumes on a field that hasn’t been plowed in 70 years.”
The Kosydar Ranch and others like it are in the eye of a storm over biosolids, however. Environmental activists have cited those farms as a reason for dangerous algae blooms on the Siletz, a salmon-bearing waterway and main source of drinking water for several cities. Some residents of the area have sounded the alarm on biosolids, saying runoff from the effluents is damaging river health.
At a “Bisolids Summit” held Aug. 21 in Lincoln City, opponents of biosolids were given a seat at the table and a chance to explain their resistance.
“We can’t take our grandchildren to the river, because we don’t know if it’s safe,” remarked Kayleen Davis, a member of the group Save Our Siletz.
Davis claimed that sewage treatment plants receive “cancer-causing” materials that are passed on to people and wildlife through the application of biosolids.
Allan Davis, another S.O.S. member, contended “everything is dying off” in the Siletz River, while fellow speaker Betty Kamikawa criticized the DEQ’s testing and enforcement policies.
“We don’t see it happening,” said Kamikawa of DEQ oversight as she called for a five-year moratorium on field application while the river is tested. “We want local control of the watershed, county control. One DEQ person can’t cover it all.”
But state officials at the summit who likened treated sludge to “multiple vitamins for farmers,” were reluctant to blame recent algae blooms on biosolids, arguing that state controls for testing and application are more stringent than federal standards.
Current regulations, which are reviewed every two years to incorporate new research conclusions, bar treatment facilities from accepting “disrupters” such as pharmaceuticals, fire retardants and microplastics. The rules also prescribe setbacks to prevent contamination by treated effluent of wells and waterways.
Patrick Kennedy, a DEQ inspector and biosolids expert, explained how human fertilizer is swiftly broken down by bacteria and absorbed into plants. Unlike artificial fertilizers, none of the material is leached into the water table, he said.
Jerry Kosydar said he welcomes the debate over biosolids, predicting that careful study will blame the river’s challenges on hundreds of failed septic systems along its length — along with lower flows, rising temperatures or other variables.
“There’s not a state in the union that doesn’t use it on farm fields, but now we’ve got a group that wants to shut down the whole program without any evidence,” he said. “I try not to be on the attack. We love this river, too.”
Meanwhile, Kosydar digs for trophy potatoes from a garden spread with “second-hand biosolids” — manure from cattle fed on fields fertilized by the citizens of Depoe Bay.
“This farm has been in my family for generations, and it will be passed on when I go,” he reflected. “But I resent being blamed for the problem. I want to see the proof.”