Poop dreams: A farmer on why we should care about manure
From time to time a book merits its title. Published in 2010, Holy Shit: Managing Manure to Save Mankind may just be the No. 1 book on the No. 2 business. In it, Gene Logsdon manages to be both funny and educational as he advocates for overcoming our aversion to excrement for the sake of healthy soil.
According to Logsdon, we need manure and lots of it. He contends we should follow our nose for practical and elegant solutions to improving soil fertility, and turn waste into compost fit for crops and gardens.
We spoke to Logsdon recently to get the straight poop.
Q. You’ve had a long career in journalism. What inspired you to write a book on manure?
A. I was hearing from lots of readers who were getting into backyard farm animals, especially chickens. They did not seem to have any appreciation for the rude fact that animals defecate and urinate and no realization that they would have to deal with that manure. Since I really hoped that small-scale animal husbandry would become a fact of American life, and having memories of when it was, even in towns, I knew that without proper manure handling, the new movement was going to get into trouble with neighbors. And lead to all the silly rules that previous generations used to keep farm animals far from their noses.
What is really funny about this is that it didn’t matter to those paranoid about chicken manure how many big dogs loped through their backyards, shitting and pissing all the way. Dogs and cats are part of modern culture, even if they produce twice as much manure as a hen. Thinking about dogs and cats made me realize, with a little research, how god-awful amounts of pet manure were literally going to waste in this country. So I started writing. When I did, I realized how much I knew about manure. How pitiful for a man to reach his majority, as they say, with nothing else to brag about except a keen knowledge of shit.
Q. How long have you been farming?
A. I started doing farm work at age 5. In grad school, my wife and I kept a little homestead farm and then again during the 10 years I worked for Farm Journal while living in the Philadelphia area. My father and I milked 100 cows for a while, a foolish mistake in our case. That was “real farming.”
What I do now — for 38 years — is farming, but [it’s] not a commercial venture. I am not a “real” farmer because I make very little money at it, but I live much more of a farming life than most of the big grain farmers around me.
Q. Has the price of petroleum-based chemical fertilizer remained high (as gas prices have)? And if so, how has it affected farm operations in your area?
A. Fertilizer prices are going through the roof. Corn farmers are putting on $100 worth of it per acre this year. If you have 5,000 acres of corn, that’s half a million bucks. Since we are supposed to have a surplus of natural gas, which is used to make nitrogen fertilizer, that price could come down, but from everything I can see, the price of phosphorus and potash is going to keep going up. As I say in Holy Shit, this just makes manure that much more precious and holy. But of course, since corn prices have also gone up, the big farmers are still driving the price of land (as well as fertilizer) higher and higher.
Q. If 6,000 years of civilization are based on six inches of fertile topsoil, what does the current state of farmlands in the U.S. tell us? Are we headed for a collapse at the current rate of consumption?
A. I don’t see a collapse in yields in the near future. But it is almost impossible to keep good fertile topsoil with organic matter content of at least 3.5 percent (5 is much better) on large-scale farms operated with heavy machinery. Erosion is still very bad on hillier land. Compaction is a growing problem.
Every civilization I have studied has collapsed in time because of poor farming. Or good farming encouraging overpopulation, which finally lead to poor farming. History teaches me to be a pessimist. China maintained a garden farm economy for 40 centuries (remarkable). But in the end, it just encouraged more population growth and eventually there was not enough food to go around.
A. For the price you quote, a city gardener could make his own, the compost way. Just takes more time than the busy modern man thinks he has. Back in the early 1900s, when horses were the main means of travel, city gardeners often made their own soil by piling horse manure, bedding, and leaves about three-feet-deep on a gravel pad. They let it decay. And with water, they had a grand garden in a couple of years.
Q. For non-farmers in the audience, what’s the difference between manure and compost?
A. When manure decays it turns into compost just like any other organic matter. The compost decays further into humus. After two years of decay, the manure compost has lost all of its very bad elements (like parasitic worms) and if you use commonsense hygiene, it is no different from handling compost made from decaying leaves except that it is a lot richer in nutrients.
Q. You might have raised the ire of environmentalists with the chapter on the merits on biosolids, or sludge. Did you expect a pushback, and do you use any on your crops?
A. Oh yes I did. And I learned that it is easier to convince an evangelical Christian that not everything in the Bible is the truth than to convince an evangelical environmentalist that properly treated biosolids are like a million times safer than riding around in an automobile.
The National Academy of Sciences has twice given properly treated biosolids a green light. So have many scientists who know a helluva lot more about sludge than the environmentalists do. The only real problem is that humans like to dump their old pills and other drugs and cleaning fluids and industrial wastes, etc. down the toilet. Progress with that problem is ongoing and I expect it will be solved. But the danger is exaggerated. I don’t see cultural attitudes changing very fast, so I just shrug and quit arguing.
I have used dried sludge (“cake” in the trade) from our local water treatment plant on my garden. It works fine. I have gone through the process of sewage purification test tube by test tube with the people who work at the plant. The problem is just plain horribly exaggerated compared to other pollution problems we face.
Q. In the closing chapters you mentioned we should be literally and figuratively get our shit together. Can you explain?
A. We must think about getting our shit together literally not figuratively. This stuff slides through our bodies every day of our lives. It goes in as lovely, lush, tasty food. The body takes out what it needs for nutrition during a process in which the stuff is totally and integrally a part of our digestive process. But the second it slides out into the pot it becomes terrible, rotten, awful, disease-ridden stuff. If it were white and smelled like roses, we would be saving literally billions of dollars every year, using it for fertilizer instead of spending billions trying to make it disappear.
Get Grist in your inbox