Hawkesbury poo helping farmers in central west and Hunter

Farmer Stuart Kelly oversees biosolids being added to a paddock at his farm in the central west, near Blayney. Later that day it was ploughed in, a process Mr Kelly described as "pushing s---t  uphill". Picture: Kate Geraghty
Farmer Stuart Kelly oversees biosolids being added to a paddock at his farm in the central west, near Blayney. Later that day it was ploughed in, a process Mr Kelly described as "pushing s---t uphill". Picture: Kate Geraghty

The Hawkesbury has been extending the hand of friendship to the central west and Hunter Valley – or more accurately the backside of friendship.

Our biosolids – processed poo – is being added to farms as fertiliser, and farmers are reporting fabulous results.

In fact the managing director of Vineyard distribution contractor for Hawkesbury’s ‘biosolids’, Bettergrow’s Neil Schembri, said “we want the people of the Hawkesbury to produce more!”.

Hawkesbury Council told the Gazette our district’s annual production of processed poo is 561 tonnes. This is the equivalent of 70 elephants or 280 Land Rovers. And of course it would be a lot more if everyone on acreage contributed theirs as well.

Out in the central west, Ferndale sheep farmer Stuart Kelly is grateful for our "continual output of fertiliser". He calls it rocket fuel. 

Surveying a paddock filled with lambs grazing on young green oats, Mr Kelly said it could now support four times as many sheep than before it was fertilised with biosolids a few months ago.

"Without doubt, these sheep are 20 per cent larger, better grown, mature quicker and have more wool than if they hadn't had access to this paddock," he said. “The roots of the oats were also deeper, the grain bigger and the quality better.”

Biosolids are rich in phosphorous and nitrogen. They add carbon to the soil and break down more slowly than synthetic fertilisers, conditioning the soil and making it more drought resistant.

More than 20 years ago, most sludge - what remains after sand, grit and water are removed from the waste flushed down our toilets and sinks - was shipped to sea.

The Kellys first used biosolids in 2012 on their worst paddock. They were looking for a healthier and cheaper way to fertilise than synthetic fertilisers.

His brother Andrew said some friends were "quite surprised we are spreading biosolids, human waste".

"It has been through a biological process," he said. “I am quite satisfied eating meat that is grazed on this.”

Before farmers can apply biosolids, they need an environmental assessment. Councils and neighbours are notified. The soil has to be tested, governing where, when and how it is used.

It can't be applied near a hill or water. Farmers cannot graze stock on paddocks treated with biosolids for at least 30 days and they can't use it for ground crops such as potatoes, spinach or lettuce.

For those who are still shrinking in disgust from the idea, the ‘denaturing’ guidelines in Australia are very strict – though they still don’t stop the potent whiff.

According to the EPA biosolids guidelines, the poo is processed initially by methods such as aeration and microbial digestion before being tested for enteric viruses, worm eggs, salmonella, E. coli and faecal coliforms. A lot of the liquid is also removed to make it more concentrated and easier to transport.

A NSW EPA spokesperson said in 2011 a panel of experts in microbiology and infectious diseases, convened by NSW Health, considered the risk to human health from biosolids was negligible if the treatment and use recommended by the EPA’s guiidelines were followed.

NSW Health says there has been no evidence of an outbreak of illness caused by biosolids.