Saving the World with Manure

Holy Shit: Managing Manure to Save Mankind
Gene Logsdon, 2010


Gene Logsdon is described on Wikipedia as “An American Man of Letters,” which seems to be accurate, since he has written dozens of non-fiction books and a handful of novels since the seventies. He’s about eighty years old, so he can write about his personal memories of many of the momentous changes in rural life in the last half century (and he can also get away with saying things like “Nothing is more overrated than sex and nothing so underrated as a good healthy bowel movement”).

Holy Shit, Logsdon’s 2010 book about manure and compost is based on his conviction that soil fertility is the key to human survival. He says it very clearly in the introduction: “My bias— it will be called bias anyway— is that only on smaller, decentralized farms and gardens can food and manure be managed in a truly economical way. Only if populations of animals and humans are spread out over the land will we be able to survive” (I’m going to quote without giving page numbers, because the Kindle version of this book wasn’t paginated). This is not unlike the position taken by many of the other Chelsea Green authors, the difference is that Logsdon is an old guy who has been thinking and writing about these ideas for almost five decades. For me at least, that adds a little something to his argument.

The soil destruction = collapse argument has some popular-history credibility, since it was Jared Diamond’s thesis in
Collapse. Of course, the situation in the ancient world may have been much different: they were not able to make up for used-up or eroded fertility with chemical fertilizers. But maybe that’s not such a bonus for us. Another way of looking at it is their problems were not exacerbated by reliance on chemical fertilizers, and they still failed. Logsdon observes that many ancient civilizations failed after depending on a monoculture crop (ironically, often maize), and then points out that we don’t understand how serious our situation is: “A society so utterly urbanized as ours may not want to face up to what that means, but the end of cheap chemical fertilizer would be almost as earth-shaking as a nuclear bomb explosion.”

Like some of the other guys I’ve been reading lately, Logsdon cites old books (like
F.H. King’s Farmers of Forty Centuries, 1911) whose authors seem to have been aware of the issues we’re rediscovering today. I really ought to go through the literature and do a history of soil fertility advocacy. When did it begin? Logsdon quotes a 1908 article in the Breeder’s Gazette, which says “. . . Southern Michigan, denuded of fertility by continued wheat growing, discovered a route to prosperity through the mutton finishing lot and farmers in that state now feed sheep and lambs regardless of the cost, to get a supply of manure.” Were these authors ignored or forgotten? Was it Progressivism? Agribusiness? In any case, Logsdon thinks the age of manure is ahead of us. As chemicals become more expensive, he says “People could raise their own meat, milk, and eggs almost for free by buying feed for their animals with the proceeds from selling the manure.” The big problem with this idea is that manure is heavy. The same oil crunch that’s going to make chemicals outrageously pricey is going to make it impossible to transport compost from where it’s produced to where people might pay big bucks for it. So the only lasting solutions, as he says repeatedly, are local ones.

Other books Logsdon mentions are
Morrison’s Feeds and Feeding, 1915, and Alva Agee’s 1912 Crops and Methods for Soil Improvement, which Logsdon says “basically announced the arrival of the manure pack.” Most of the rest of Logsdon’s book is devoted to descriptions of manure handling strategies for different types of animals, including humans. It’s interesting, looking at farm manure not as a nuisance by-product that needs to be dealt with, but as a central product of animal agriculture. Barns, Logsdon remarks at one point, “should have been designed for making and preserving manure of high fertility value and for ease of handling.” Maybe in the future they will be, at least among small farmers who read books like this one.

There’s also an interesting discussion of the differences between thermophilic composting, which is familiar to most gardeners, and the slow composting of the deep manure pack in animal stalls. I’ll need to spend some more time thinking about this – already we have about three or four potentially different things going on outside: a pack of horse manure we inherited from the previous owners, a pack we’re building under the sheep, goats, and chickens, a garden-variety compost pile, and a worm farm. Clearly I have more reading to do on this topic, as well as a good deal of experimenting!

And just when you think the whole thing is based on old, folksy wisdom from the depression era, Logsdon rolls out scientific research done by Harry Hoitink and his students at Ohio State University about the disease-suppressing qualities of composted manure. “We now know,” Logsdon quotes Hoitink, “what the genes are in plants that mediate the natural systemic, induced resistance in plants by active composts. Can you believe that?”

Finally, Logsdon points out the possibly surprising fact that unlike what we were taught for so many years in Agricultural Economics classes, the economics of small production is often better than that of highly capitalized, debt-leveraged corporate farming. For example, Logsdon says, “An up-to-date, 5,000-acre corn and soybean farm needed a corn price of around $ 3.86 a bushel to break even in 2009, economists at the University of Illinois said recently. Others say $ 4 is more like it today. A farmer told me just yesterday he thinks the number is closer to $ 5. Yet anyone with 40 acres of land— and it need not be an Amish farmer either— can plant it to corn and net at least $ 2 a bushel at a $ 4 selling price, using hand, horse, or small tractor power. At 150 bushels per acre, he or she could net $ 12,000 for their labor on 40 acres, a tidy little income for spare-time work, especially in these times of serious unemployment.” And that’s corn – there are any number of more profitable alternatives for small farmers these days. Holy shit! It’s a lot to think about!