Faced with the decline of dairy, and thus manure, Pennsylvania may be looking at the proliferation of a much less olfactory-friendly fertilizer alternative, something that has riled local township meetings in recent weeks.
The use of what regulators term “food processing residuals,” or FPRs, has been the source of contentious meetings in Dickinson and Monroe townships this fall, with residents turning out to demand that authorities curb its use.
But farmers and the Pennsylvania Department of Environment Protection say all of the existing rules are being followed, and that FPRs are a lifeline for farmers who have been forced out of the dairy business.
“That’s what I look for, farmers who had cattle and sold out,” said Jesse Jones, a Dickinson Township farmer whose manure hauling business also includes spreading FPRs on other farms in the region.
Jones described the fertilizer as a “win-win,” taking the byproducts of food processing and putting them to use as a substitute fertilizer rather than dumping them in a landfill.
“Would people rather we used a chemical fertilizer?” Jones asked. “Folks want to have their cake and eat it, too.”
At a Monroe Township supervisors’ meeting earlier this month, however, residents described FPR spreading as having an unbearable impact on their lives.
“I can’t go outside or my eyes start to water,” resident Barry Sekerak said. The prevalence of the stench from nearby fields has risen to emergency levels, he said.
“What am I supposed to do? Call 911? I can’t breathe when I go outside,” Sekerak said.
Food waste fertilizer
FPRs are not solid pieces of leftover food. The substance is often described as greasy, as if cooking oil had been sprayed over the farm fields, and the origin of the material varies.
FPRs are typically created from the wastewater systems of major food processing facilities. Bits of organic material that have been washed off the processing line, such as vegetable peels, husks, animal parts and dairy whey, are skimmed off the factory’s water treatment tanks. The leftovers are blended into what the DEP often references as food byproduct “sludge.”
Jones was reluctant to publicly name his suppliers, but identified most of them as local food manufacturers likely well known to Midstate residents who have a few bags or boxes of their products in their pantry. The DEP, at a meeting in Dickinson Township, identified the supply of FPRs as mostly from processors in Lancaster County, as well as chicken plants in Virginia, something that local residents have objected to.
But chicken-based FPR is going to come into the Midstate regardless, Jones said, because the area has several pet food processing plants that render the less-desirable parts of the bird into animal feed and give the waste sludge to farmers.
FPRs have been part of Jones’ manure hauling business since 2007, he said. He mixes the grease in a manure pit on his farm and spreads it on his own fields, as well as those of other farmers who use his manure spreading business. But as new users are added, disputes arise.
The recent outcry in Monroe Township arose from the Stamy farm, which was profiled by The Sentinel this year as one of several Cumberland County farms that have had to sell their dairy herds amid a years-long dive in milk prices.
The farm began using FPRs from Jones as a cost-effective replacement for cow manure, Ian Stamy told Monroe residents at the township meeting this month.
“We were trying to keep up with all of our fertilizers for our field and we found this as a usable option,” after losing the dairy herd, Stamy said.
“I would like to say that I’m sorry for causing all this,” Stamy told the crowd at the Monroe meeting. “I’m just trying to run a business and get back on our feet.”
In both Monroe and Dickinson townships, residents questioned to what extent the DEP is regulating FPR use.
No specific permit is required to use the fertilizer, DEP manager Carrie Fleming told Dickinson Township residents at a meeting in September. But farmers are required to log what they’re putting on their fields, and what its nutrient content is.
The DEP and its local agents, such as county conservation districts, routinely reference farmers’ nutrient management plans to ensure excess nutrients aren’t impacting local waterways, one of the major elements of Chesapeake Bay-related environmental rules.
“They do have to have a nutrient balance sheet that shows what’s coming and what is needed on the farm. They do have to have that so they don’t over-apply the nutrient,” said Carl Goshorn, director of the Cumberland County Conservation District.
The local district doesn’t deal directly with FPRs beyond that, Goshorn said, but it is familiar with their use. Goshorn knew of at least four farms that have been using FPR fertilizer for some time.
“Farmers see the nutrient value, and it really helps their bottom line,” Goshorn said. “The downside is it does have a smell, and it doesn’t go away in a few hours like manure. There have been times I’ve been out in the field when its spread and it does take your breath away.”
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The DEP does delve into the issue further, specifically by publishing a 275-page manual on FPRs. Farms are expected to meet the guidelines in Chapter 8 of that manual, which specify how FPRs are to be tested for possible contaminants, including heavy metals, and how farmers should track their intake and use of materials from food processors.
But these guidelines aren’t hard regulatory rules, and the DEP does not independently track them.
“We don’t’ particularly audit what they bring in,” Fleming told Dickinson residents in September. “They are required under the FPR manual to keep record as to what they bring in, how much they spread on the field, any analyses they may keep, that’s all required to be kept in their office should we show up.”
The DEP issued a notice of violation to the Jones farm earlier this year, based on the Chapter 8 guidance. DEP officials declined to discuss the Jones case in further specifics.
Jones said the DEP is now requesting, pursuant to Chapter 8, for his business to begin keeping running averages of the nutrient content and in-and-out flow of his FPR pit, as well as his quarterly testing results for heavy metals and other possible contaminants.
“We had a record of everything, it just needed to be organized,” Jones said of the violation notice. At this point, Jones said he believes he’s going above and beyond the letter of Chapter 8.
DEP officials told The Sentinel that, as long as an operation is following the Chapter 8 guidelines and using FPRs within the course of normal farming operations, they aren’t subject to any hard permitting.
If this is determined to not be the case, the DEP may require an operation to get a permit under the state’s Residual Waste Program.
This is something that residents have asserted in recent meetings, that Jones is spreading enough FPR material to move beyond incidental farming use and should be treated more like a landfill operator, something that Jones disputes.
“A lot of people are under the impression that we’re using our land as a dumping ground, and that’s not the case,” Jones said. “We’re always putting a crop in behind this. We have to check our soil and measure it, measure the pH, the phosphorus, all of that stuff to make sure we don’t over-apply.”
An online petition to stop the use of FPR in Pennsylvania has been championed by Charles Barry, a former neighbor of the Jones farm who subsequently moved from Dickinson to Monroe.
Apart from his neighbors’ complaints about the smell, and the volume of application, Barry said he believes the regulatory structure is inadequate, even assuming that Jones, Stamy and other farmers are meeting the parameters of Chapter 8.
The current FPR manual, as Barry often notes, was written in 1994. FPR spreading has exacerbated his children’s breathing problems, Barry said, but Chapter 8 doesn’t involve any air quality testing. Barry suggested that monitoring for gases such as hydrogen sulfide, commonly associated with landfill decomposition, should be mandated.
“You could still smoke in government buildings in the 1990s,” Barry said. “Why hasn’t this been revisited?”
Barry and other residents also criticized what they saw as a lack of true oversight by the DEP. At the Dickinson meeting, officials said the department doesn’t routinely do its own testing, relying on farmers to submit chemical analyses of their FPR samples.
“At the end of the day, if no one is doing the due diligence and actually doing the testing, how do we know that it is what we’re told it is?” Barry said.
But the core issue appears to be one of how smelly is too smelly.
Chapter 8 of the FPR manual gives direction for farmers to control the odor. But none of these suggestions, such as injecting the FPR sludge underground instead of top spreading, or using an odor-killing enzyme, are sure things, and no objective way exists to determine if farmers are generating excessive aromas.
Several residents told the Monroe Township supervisors that this was not a case of suburbanites being unaccustomed to farm smells. Many said they had grown up in the area and were used to manure.
“I would take manure any time of the day over this,” resident Eric Bush said. The FPR aroma is so dense that it lingers in cars’ ventilation systems for days after driving by a fresh spreading, Bush said.
He encouraged the supervisors to judge the relative concern from the dozens who showed up at the November township meeting.
“You know if this many people came for this reason, there are so many others who feel the same way,” Bush said.
“Just recently the smell has been very pervasive and it’s driving away some business,” Cold Springs Inn owner Chris Crowley said at the Monroe Township meeting.
Potential diners realize that the stench isn’t going away once they enter the establishment, Crowley said, and politely leave.
If dairy declines are driving increased use of FPRs—or the use of more objectionable-smelling FPRs—the trend isn’t likely to abate any time soon. In the fiscal year that ended in September, 21 Pennsylvania farms filed for bankruptcy, according to calculations from the Farm Bureau, a 75 percent increase from the year before.
Farm finances are more precarious than ever before, with a record-high net farm debt of $416 billion, per the Farm Bureau. Moreover, the trade group now estimates that 40 percent of farm income is from insurance indemnities and federal assistance, particularly subsidies related to the Trump administration’s trade battle with China.