Is it normal to store 4K of biosolid fertilizer on a farm? One Brooke-Alvinston farm operation does and is at the Normal Farm Practices board fighting rules which ban the practice

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A pile of biosolids in Dawn-Euphemia. If the fertilizer, made from human waste, is not covered and is wet, it can spontaneously combust. If the product is wet, it also emits a heavy odour in the air.

Heather Wright/The Independent

David Buurma says storing between 2,000 and 4,000 tonnes of biosolid fertilizer on his Churchill Line farm is a normal part of farming.

But Brooke-Alvinston and some of Buurma’s farming neighbours don’t agree.

For years, Buurma has been using a concrete bunker on his farm in the north end of the township to store biosolids – a legal fertilizer made from human waste – sold to him by Lasalle Agri which is operated by members of the Buurma family.

And for years, after complaints from his neighbours, Brooke-Alvinston has been trying to deal with the issue under its zoning rules and its Tidy Yards bylaw. The municipality says that storage of that amount of biosolids – or any fertilizer – violates its bylaws which say farmers can only store what they need on each field for short periods of time.

Buurma wanted the matter settled, so in February 2020, he launched a case with the Normal Farm Practices Protection Board. The hearings began this week.

According to Buurma’s witness statement, he believed the municipality’s clerk, Janet Denkers, focused on the fact more biosolids were being stored than needed on his land and surmised it was for commercial purposes. He disagrees.

“Not wanting to be wrongly prosecuted for either of those alleged contraventions, I decided to bring this application before the NFPPB, as I believe that what I am doing on the subject lands is a normal farm practice. Namely, I am centrally storing fertilizer for the exclusive use of the Buurma Acres Farm Unit.”

In the statement, Buurma says he owns 55 farm parcels with about 5,000 acres under the names 1838107 Ontario LTD and LaSalle Farms, which he calls the Buurma Acres Farm Unit.

Buurma estimates he had about 2,000 tonnes of the biosolids stored at the Churchill Line farm at the time of the hearing. It would be used over the course of nine months over his grain acreage “on an as needed basis.”

Buurma, in his witness statement, says storing the biosolids in one place provides “economies of scale” and wouldn’t have to invest in other fertilizer storage facilities when expanding.

It would also allow him to “safely monitor” it by centrally storing it.

The concrete bunker, he told the hearing can hold up to 4,000 tonnes of biosolids.

Buurma also said the material is “carefully covered in poly plastic and stored on a concrete pad. There is no leakage or run off.

“By covering the fertilizer and keeping it dry, Buurma Acres ensures that no significant odours emit to abutting lands.”

But that is not what neighbours told the four member normal farm practices board.
Mary Ellen King, who lives down Churchill Line and farms about 2,500 acres, spoke at the hearing.

“It’s putrid. It’s sickly, it’s rotten. It’s not a farm smell. It’s something I’ve never smelled before. And I try to avoid it,” she says.

John Stokes, a retired farmer who has lived and worked on Churchill Line for decades, agreed recalling he once made a sandwich in his kitchen which had been inundated with the odour and when he went to eat it, three hours later, the smell was there. “It has almost like a decomposing smell,” he says.

Both agreed they could tell the difference between the biosolids and the nearby cow manure storage.

One of the municipality’s experts, Mike Muffels, an engineer leader from GHD, who worked with the Ministry of Agriculture and Food in the past who consults privately, says the reason the odour of the biosolids is so strong is it is not being kept dry at the concrete bunker.

He told the hearing farmers are required to follow the directions on use for all fertilizers, and biosolids are specifically supposed to be kept dry. Muffels says, if they don’t, there can be a risk of catching fire – something the neighbours said they had witnessed. Stokes presented pictures showing the pile on fire.

Muffels also took photos of the bunker, which showed cracks in the concrete walls and a tarp which the expert said did not appear to cover all of the product.

Meantime, Lambton County’s Manager of Planning, Ken Melenson told the hearing while it is normal farm practice to store manure, and the provincial policy statement on planning says there can be manure storage on farms, it “specifically does not include fertilizer storage and distribution facilities or operations.”

Melenson says Brooke-Alvinston’s zoning bylaw is similar, allowing manure storage.
“Neither definition, however, identifies fertilizer storage and distribution as a permitted use.”

Neighbours also complained about the number of trucks coming and going from the site throughout the course of the year.

Melenson estimated that 100 trucks might deliver or take away the biosolids over the course of the year.

And the planner says the odours coming from the fertilizer storage was impacting at least 16 homes in the one to two kilometre radius of the Buurma’s biosolid storage area.

Buurma’s lawyers called three other witnesses to back up their client’s assertions the storage of up to 4,000 tonnes of biosolids was a normal farm practice including Peter Johnston, an agronomist who also worked for the Ministry of Agriculture in the past.

He says more farmers are centralizing fertilizer storage saying “it would be unusual for a large agricultural operation to store fertilizer separately across multiple farm properties.”

The hearing continues virtually March 22.