On a clear day at Boyden Farms in Cambridge, in a field abutting the Lamoille River, a truck belonging to Working Dog Septic drove out to spread manure over a fallow section of the land.
The truck stopped briefly by a red container of lime. When the tank was opened and the lime mixed into the liquid waste, a wave of excrement smell, bright and notable but not overwhelming, wafted back on the wind before subsiding as the tank was closed.
The truck then began its spreading, casting brown waves as it drove, and another burst of noticeable smell was brought over to the nearby residential area on an easterly wind. When the truck finished its brief spreading and was gone, so too was the smell.
The treated liquid waste left no lingering smell, and no noticeable residue could be found in its wake. Though it smelled and looked like any other liquid animal manure, it was in fact human waste that, after decomposing in household septic tanks and receiving a lime treatment that neutralized pathogens prior to spreading, was now providing nutrients to the soil.
This process of using septic waste as fertilizer that allowed Working Dog to save on the cost of moving and disposing of the residential septic and eased the burden on the wastewater treatment facility in Richmond, while providing free fertilizer to a local farmer, was a short-lived one.
Despite a rigorous certification process from the Department of Environmental Conservation, Cambridge residents in the River Road area of town rallied, protesting the smell and environmental effects of the practice and possible lowering of property values, prompting Mark Boyden and Boyden Farms to voluntarily end an agreement with the septic company to spread human waste as agricultural manure.
A passionate outcry
At a special meeting of the Cambridge Selectboard July 13, about 20 residents crowded into the small municipal boardroom in Jeffersonville or joined via video to air their grievances against Boyden.
Cambridge residents gathered in hopes of convincing the selectboard to join two separate appeals, one to the state certification of the septic spreading and another in environmental court, both brought by Fairfax resident Charles Kilpatrick, who lives on the other side of the Lamoille River from the field where Boyden was spreading septic waste.
Of the five selectboard members, only vice chair George Putnam attended in person and, of the five, he was the only member firmly in favor of joining the appeals prior to the public speaking portion of the meeting.
Putnam cited claims that people were unable to walk along River Road or sit outside in their yard due to an overwhelming smell caused by the manure spreading.
“Mark Boyden, who owns the field with his wife, was quoted in News & Citizen on June 3 saying he would invite people to see how it works,” Putnam said. “Well, we’ve now seen how it works. It’s lousy.”
George Putnam’s brother, Bill Putnam, also spoke briefly in favor of joining the Kilpatrick appeals. Bill Putnam, who owns nearby Putnam Family Farm, sold the land to Boyden where the manure was spread, as well as many of the individual parcels of land where homes now abut Boyden’s farmland and where many of the River Road residents lodging complaints live.
Bill Putnam claimed that the smell was driving down property values for the homes on the land he sold and was preventing him from selling one last lot immediately next to Boyden’s field.
“I do have one more lot to sell and it’s basically unsaleable,” he said. “We’ve had a number of people stop and look at it, according to the real estate agent that handles it. They see the activity, they smell the smell, they see the sign that says restricted area and they turn tail and run. They want no part of it.”
Bill Putnam did not return a request for comment.
According to many residents along River Road and Willow Lane, the smell from the septic spreading, which occurred five days a week and often several times a day, was noxiously oppressive and severely affected their quality of life.
“I never could have imagined that a neighbor would do this to us,” Karen Denniston said. “I assumed that Mark Boyden was going to permit something that would look like agriculture. This is nothing like agriculture. This is a development in my front yard. I have concerns about the quality of life, for myself and my neighbors. I have concerns for our safety. I have concerns for the value of my home.”
“There are times as a family that we would very much like to sit out on our patio and have dinner, and this smell is so disgusting and rancid that we choose not to and very many times it has impacted our lives, our children’s lives, and our neighbors lives to the degree that is inhibiting our summer at our home,” said Susan Bandy.
“Mark Boyden knows this land. He should have really given this a lot of thought. I texted him and I told him I was very disappointed. I said, ‘As long as he’s lived there and he knows the land, he knows (flooding) happens. This was not a good site to do this,’” Bruce McCuin said.
Even Boyden’s cousin, selectboard member Larry Wycoff, did not mince words when it came to his disappointment.
“I just wish Mark had not looked at this as free fertilizer. I think that’s what it comes down to, and I think it’s really sad,” he said. “If Mark had really wanted to, he could be spreading it behind his place instead of on River Road. I’m not afraid to tell him that. He’s my cousin so he can be mad at me.”
Many of the comments in the meeting, which went for an hour and a half, were built on a shared sense of victimization, with many similar complaints made about all aspects of the septic spreading process, from the truck traffic on the once quiet road to intense characterizations of the smell.
Though the Cambridge Selectboard submitted written concerns about the septic spreading to the Department of Environmental Conservation prior to the project being approved, every member but Putnam had initial reservations about joining the appeal at the start of the session, either due to the potential cost of joining the appeal or citing reservations that the state opinion could be altered.
By the end of the meeting, swayed by impassioned testimony, the selectboard voted unanimously to join both appeals.
An embattled farmer
Boyden never stopped believing that the spreading of liquid septic manure on his field was the right thing to do, as a farmer and community member.
But in the end, with uncompromising neighbors disparaging his business on social media, and, with a brand reputation to consider, he felt he had no choice but to pull the plug.
“I have a business with a brand, and I just can’t afford to have social media cancel culture stuff,” Boyden said. “I just can’t. It’s just kind of sad that we can’t have the next step of the appeal process and discussion of what to do going forward, which is the legal proper way.”
Boyden said he had tried repeatedly to meet some of the same people who roundly criticized him at the selectboard meeting individually and address their concerns one-on-one.
Though those who spoke at the selectboard meeting considered the use of human waste as manure incompatible with agrarian practices, Boyden contended that his neighbors had a flawed and overly picturesque ideal of modern agriculture.
“I don’t think people really know what agriculture really is anymore. They have a Norman Rockwell image of that little barn,” Boyden said. “Being a local farm that has 40 or 50 cows, when you go to sell, you’re competing against people for the same shelf space who are at much lower cost. Even if what we do looks big, we’re so tiny compared to our competitors and our costs are so high.”
At the time he decided to end the septic sludge spreading, Boyden and Working Dog were looking into outfitting their spreader with a liquid manure injector, a new piece of technology that would push the septic waste directly into the soil and eliminate the brief bursts of odor created in the spreading process entirely.
Neighbors Boyden met with to explain this option and other mitigation measures were not receptive, he said.
Though he never planned to feed the grain grown on the field to his own cows, he said he was already seeing uninformed criticism of his beef product on social media, a worrisome development for a farmer who relies upon reputation to move his inventory.
“I feel like the state of Vermont sold me a bill of goods on this because they’re using us as a pilot project,” Boyden said. “This is what we want to see more of in the state of Vermont and these are the rules. We’ve done a good job of following the rules. Yet, I’m the one being brought through the wringer in the form of cyber bullying, basically. In other words, ‘If we don’t get what we want, we’re going to find ways on social media to bury your business.’”
The Department of Environmental Conservation invested considerable time and resources on analyzing the proposed land where the spreading occurred prior to its approval, including resetting the process when new rules for solid waste disposal were issued last October.
“Septic service maintenance for Vermonters on septic systems (55 percent of the state) is essential and that disposal at wastewater treatment facilities has challenges: Not all wastewater treatment facilities are designed to accept septage and those that do have limited capacity,” said Eamon Twohig, a representative of the department.
“That said, the location of land application sites is also challenging and, for this specific site, I think the decision by Mr. Boyden and (Working Dog) reflects their commitment to the community and concern for the neighbors who were reporting impacts to their quality of life.”
Future of manure
Though complaints from Cambridge residents ended this particular use of septic waste as manure, it’s likely not the last time the practice will be seen in Vermont.
“There’s a lot of movement afoot right now in disciplines like mine to figure out human composting or separate plumbing to capture urine and using those as alternative nutrient sources to try to be more efficient in reuse our waste in ways that makes sense,” said Dr. David Cwiertny, a professor of environmental engineering at the University of Iowa and an expert in the field. “But I think the big emphasis there is it’s got to be done in a way that is, you know, appropriately planned out with evidence supporting the safe use of it.”
With the science behind this very much in an exploratory phase, future projects like the one at Boyden Farms will likely provide insight into why communities object to this kind of manure and where it may be more problematic to spread.
Cwiertny compared the growing exploration into reusing human waste for nutrients to the way some states reuse wastewater as drinking water, treating it in a way that has made it safe and fighting public aversion to it based on the optics.
“Wastewater reuse for drinking water has always struggled with public perception. It’s never toilet to tap. People have a hard time getting over this idea that what we flushed down the toilet or put into our sewer system should never be something we then try to find benefit from.”
Though he’s backing off, Boyden will continue to make use of the land along the Lamoille River. Neighbors may see a new barn, perhaps piles of cow manure or the reuse of liquid manure from dairy operations.
“The bottom line is, I have to use some manure,” Boyden said. “The old days of just buying commercial fertilizer, it doesn’t work. So, it’s either I work with the dairy farms and bring in their excess manure, which is a big problem, or I work with this system or I go back to my own manure. Any way you look at it, there’s going to be manure and it could be more than it was before.”