The Stench Of Victory

(Richard A. Lipski - Twp)
By Delphine Schrank
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 14, 2007

To ward off a gang of pumpkin-patch thieves, it took an invisible barricade of scent -- human, with a dash of ammonia, rolled into small black pellets. Now, dozens of gang members skirt the oft-plundered field, ogling its juicy, green sprouts without breaching the wall of smell that rises from lines of pellets on the ground.

"They eat us out of house and home," said Bruce Zurschmeide, a Bluemont farmer, kneeling along the field's pungent perimeter as he pointed out a shoot that had been chewed to a stump. But against the hundreds of deer that feast on his crop, he said he had few solutions until he discovered the marvels of a fertilizer derived from sewage sludge at the Water Pollution Control Facility in Leesburg.

Between man and deer, a war's afoot, and clashes grow more frequent as both populations surge in the Washington region. When they don't crash into the ruminants on roads, farmers and homeowners complain of devoured crops and chewed-up gardens.

For much of the past century, wildlife officials worked to restore deer populations, but today they express concern about the growing numbers, estimated at nearly a million in Virginia and about 240,000 in Maryland, with much smaller numbers the District. To control the population, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries has published an open letter to hunters and landowners asking for help and counseling them to target does. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources is also promoting hunting.

Animal experts say there are few foolproof ways, barring fence or shotgun, to keep deer in the woods. John Rohm, a wildlife biologist who works for the Virginia agency, said some people take such anti-deer measures as applying coyote urine, or their own, or concoctions of red-hot pepper and sulfur.

In Loudoun County, some turn to Tuscarora Landscaper's Choice, an organic fertilizer said to turn lawns into thick, green jungles. "Give your lawn some TLC," say the 50-pound bags of pellets, which are offered free to Leesburg residents and sold to others for as much as $7.95 per bag.

The product isn't marketed as a deer repellent, but belief in its powers has fueled demand, sewage plant officials say. Sales have tripled in the five years since the Leesburg plant began churning out the sterile "biosolid" with new sludge-drying machines, part of a plan to find long-term disposal solutions for sewage in the fast-growing county. Over eight months in 2002, the plant sold 88 tons of TLC. In the first half of 2007, it sold 268 tons.

Asked why some people ascribe anti-deer properties to the product, Ed Rockholt, deputy manager of the Leesburg plant, said, "I think it's the ammonia smell." He added: "Dogs like it. They roll around in it because they like rolling in anything nasty."

Rohm said he was skeptical.

"It seems counterintuitive that you would make your vegetation nice and lush and hope that perceived human smell would keep [deer] away," Rohm said. He calls fertilized lawns a "buffet" for deer. Rohm predicted deer would grow accustomed to the scent within weeks. Many, he noted, barely flinch when they smell a human being.

Unlike Class B biosolids, a less-refined sludge long used as a farm fertilizer, TLC is ranked Class A Exceptional Quality, which means it meets stringent requirements for low toxicity. Plants in Fairfax County and Baltimore have sludge-drying technology similar to the one in Leesburg. The D.C. Water and Sewer Authority is considering an upgrade of its technology so it can refine sludge to Class A, which has more recycling uses.

Some would-be customers recoil when they learn that TLC once resided in a toilet; others turn their nose at its lingering smell, described as "faintly musty," like "burnt coffee" or "farmy," according to a technician who sprays 30-foot-wide black dust showers of the stuff from a truck in fields across the county. Users said the smell dissipates after a few weeks -- or sooner, if it makes contact with water.

Rod Huebbers, a health-care executive in Leesburg, calls TLC "amazing" for choking out weeds and stimulating "nice, thick grass" on his two-year-old, five-acre lawn. Non-TLC-inclined neighbors are regularly visited by 10 to 15 deer, he said, but the herd won't venture into his garden, which teems with lettuce, tomatoes and squash.

Andy and Teresa Harms aren't convinced. The couple, who live in a new mansion near Philomont, said that this is the first year they've used the product and that it appears to be working well as lawn food. The deer who visit their vegetable patch in the evenings, however, don't seem bothered.

But the product has one curious side effect, Teresa said. So organic are the pellets, she said, that cantaloupes and tomatoes she never planted appear to be sprouting where the pellets are scattered. That's also likely to tempt hungry, cloven-footed creatures.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company