Public opinion important to future of farming

Farming is a global business these days — what happens on the far side of the world often impacts what farmers in the Southeast plant and how they market their crops.

Farming is also a local business and how the public perceives agriculture goes a long way toward influencing state and federal elected officials, who make the laws that govern agriculture. For the most part our elected officials don't really understand what farming is all about and don't have unified voice to explain it to them.

Food safety is a big public issue, yet the estimated 6-7 million tons of potentially toxic municipal waste that goes on farm land each year is not a public issue — at least not yet.

In Virginia, for example, there are about 8.5 million acres of farmland, but only 55,000 acres are treated with biosolids, a legal, but euphemistic term for municipal sludge.

Mike McEvoy, chairman of the Virginia Biosolids Council, says there is a five-year waiting period for farmers to get in on the practice of applying biosolids to farm land.

In my time with the Farm Press I have interviewed several farmers in Virginia who use biosolids on their land. The results have been good, the input-savings have been good. They understand public concern, primarily over the odor, and the farmers I know who use biosolids use it carefully and on land not adjacent to urban areas.

Then there is the case of Georgia farmers Bill Boyce and Andy McElmurray who say they lost productive farming operations and have had their personal lives turned inside out because of the use of biosolids from the municipal waste disposal plant operated by the City of Augusta, Ga.

Their story and the emotional, gut-wrenching way they tell it is as scary as any horror story you'll ever want to hear.

Andy McElmurray has become a self-made expert on the use of biosolids on farm land. He is an out-spoken critic of the biosolids industry and of local, state and federal agencies that regulate the use of biosolids, which he refers to as municipal waste.

Andy has become a sort of Erin Brockovich and Jeffery Wigand rolled into one. Erin Brockovich brought to life by Julia Roberts' award winning portrayal in the movie indirectly played a role in McElmurray's woes. Brockovich's efforts created a public outcry that forced the government to ban hexavalent chromium (chrome 6) from being used in industrial cooling systems. The replacement, molybdenum, is a primary cause of the loss of their dairy cattle, McElmurray says.

Jeffery Wigand portrayed in the movie, The Informer, by Russell Crowe, blew the whistle on the tobacco industry.

An afternoon conversation with Andy left me mad as hell about what the use of municipal waste has done to his family and that of his neighbor Bill Boyce. Like most emotional stories — there are two sides to this one, too.

There has been plenty of finger pointing going on for over 15 years between the Georgia farmers and an array of legal opponents who oppose the farm families. The cruelest irony may be that a Federal judge ruled in their favor, but forbid them from growing food chain crops on their land.

The McElmurrays and the Boyces aren't suit-happy crusaders — far from it. They are good, law-abiding country folks who have had their lives shredded by a seemingly unending stream of legal blockades, hazy regulations, and unscrupulous public officials.

Just a cursory look on the Internet will provide hundreds of cases of individuals who blame health problems on the use of biosolids. Look a different way and you'll find just as many proclaiming the benefits of biosolids on farm land.

In terms of revenue generated, the tobacco industry is a small, maybe miniscule part of U.S. agriculture and water treatment plants barely a dot on the radar screen compared to our farm industry. Public opinion, spurred on by Hollywood movies, brought both to their knees.

If the McElmurray case in Georgia, the Nancy Holt case in Burlington, N.C., the Ellington case in Gladys, Va., or one of hundreds of other equally poignant and gut-wrenching stories make it to 60 Minutes or a Hollywood movie, what impact would that publicity have on the entire agricultural industry? I don't know! I doubt those of us involved directly or indirectly want to find out.

It is wise counsel I believe for farmers to know exactly what they are getting into when they agree to have biosolids, regardless of the source, applied to their land.

Somewhere between the horror stories of the McElmurrays and Boyces of the world and the success stories of the biosolids industry there must be some common ground. For the well-being of the agricultural industry, I suggest we find it.

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