Future biosolids blenders

By Sally Brown, University of Washington

Darlene Zabowski, the standard bearer for soils classes at the University of Washington retired in the spring of 2016. The process to replace her is underway.  In the meantime for both Fall 2016 and Spring 2017 quarters, Sally Brown, with the able assistance of Ryan Batjaika, stepped up and taught introductory soils or ESRM 210.  The class covers the basics of soil science including the 5 soil forming factors (climate, topography, parent material, biology and time), the main soil series and the structure and function of the surface or ‘A’ horizon of the soil.  The class learned of the critical importance of soil for a range of ecosystem services and how we have degraded our soils through conventional agriculture.  The students can recite on demand the role of organic matter in restoring these soils and can list the benefits associated with increasing SOM or soil organic matter.  These include reduced bulk density, higher rates of water holding and infiltration, carbon sequestration, nutrient recycling and availability and, perhaps most important, bigger plants (aka higher net primary productivity).  The students have also learned to take pride when they flush.  The use of and benefits associated with biosolids were integrated into the class content at all pertinent points- or about every other day.  

Members of NW Biosolids and our network graciously stepped up each quarter to drive this point home.  In the fall Kristen McIvor talked about urban agriculture and how the Tagro potting soil made first time farmers into professionals.  In both fall and spring, Dave Ruud and Jake Finlinson talked about the challenges of growing wheat in Douglas County and how biosolids has improved the soil and upped the yields.  Kate Kurtz talked about the importance of soil for water in urban areas with a focus on green stormwater infrastructure.  Her talks featured a discussion of the ongoing research on this topic sponsored in part by NW Biosolids.  Each of these speakers provided a positive tool for students; a way that they improve the environment instead of the standard gloom and doom message.  

Dan sharing blend secrets
Dan Eberhardt, City of Tacoma-TAGRO, shares some tips on how to make world famous biosolids blends

The students had so much fun (and learned a lot too) when Dan Eberhardt came to class.  Dan came with buckets of the ingredients used to make Tagro Classic and Tagro potting soil.  He came with bowls and spades.  By spring quarter, we figured out that zip lock bags and tarps for the tables were also necessary.  Dan described the evolution of the Tagro program from liquid to farms to soils for gardeners.  He talked about the next frontier, the cannabis growers.  And then he challenged the students to get to work.  Students worked in groups or on the own to take the ingredients on hand and make soil.  Dan, Sally and Ryan evaluated the different mixes and offered suggestions or praise.  One student suggested that taking this workshop to farmers markets and giving people the opportunity to make their own blends would be a great idea.  Another dispensed with the process of mixing his own and just loaded up bags with the Tagro potting soil.  Dan graciously invited any and all to Tacoma to shovel their own. At the end of the class it was clear that we had some budding soil professionals on hand.  The students filled the zip locks with their soil blends and took them home to their houseplants or gardens.

Student blend   Dirty paws

Integrating biosolids directly into the curriculum of introductory soils is a great way to illustrate the benefits of these materials.  It provides a solution to just about all of the problems our degraded soils are experiencing.  Perhaps most importantly, it gives the students the opportunity to realize that they can work to make things better and that if they live in the Northwest, they likely already are.