When I was a child being driven from New York City to my uncle’s dairy farm in Charlotte, Vermont, I was sure I knew the minute we crossed the state line because I could smell the scent of manure in the air. For me, Vermont meant a perfumed cow barn and manured fields; I could think of no lovelier fragrance. I still feel that way. Gene Logsdon, farmer, anthropologist, cultural critic and author of Holy Shit: Managing Manure to Save Mankind (Chelsea Green Publishing, $17.50), would understand my pleasure in the smell of manure.
While my childhood knowledge of manure was essentially aesthetic, as a gardener I have come to appreciate the benefits of manure as a fertilizer. Over the thirty years we have lived in Heath we have always had a flock of chickens, for eggs and meat, and for a few years we raised pigs for meat. Their manure was a good by-product for our garden soil. I can’t say that Logsdon would approve our management of manure. He doesn’t think it should be mixed into a compost pile.
On the other hand he would appreciate our deep litter chicken house. I do not clean out our chicken house every year, letting the chicken manure mixed with wood shavings bedding essentially compost in place. This deep litter does help keep the chickens warm in winter, and scientific studies have shown that chickens housed on deep litter are healthier. Although most modern Americans wrinkle their nose at even the idea of manure and all the germs in it, the reality is that the deep litter has even more good bacteria .
I sometimes felt mildly guilty that I wasn’t cleaning out my hen house thoroughly, but Logsdon assures me that leaving some manure on the floor is full of the microbial life that will encourage the composting process of fresh manure and bedding.
Logsdon taught me a new phrase and farming techniques that helped me understand the new type of cow barn I have seen built locally. I remember my uncle’s traditional closed cow barn with its stanchions and the manure gutter that I helped clean out, dumping the manure outside into a huge manure pile where it would ultimately be gathered and spread on the fields.
Nowadays, if a farmer is smart, and the cows lucky they will have a loafing shed. I have seen new barns locally that are not closed in. The winter temperatures are not kept at bay. Neither are there stanchions. The cows go to a milking parlor twice a day, otherwise they can loaf in their shed, unless they are out in the pasture.
The loafing shed makes it possible to leave the cows’ manure in place, with bedding added regularly to make a manure pack. The bedding adds its own nutrition. When it is time to clean out the loafing shed, once or twice a year using a front loader, it can be done when the manure could be put on the fields, with no loss of nutrients to rain runoff before then.
The value in Holy Shit comes not only from explaining new and better ways of handling manure, animal and human, but from explaining some of the environmentally unsound ways of handling manure on large farms. I remember back in 1991 when I read Jane Smiley’s popular book A Thousand Acres. It was in that book that I first learned about slurry lagoons that were created to handle the manure from enormous hog farms.
I did not know that it also took hundreds of gallons of water to wash the manure from the hog and cow barns to get it out of the barn and into the lagoon where it was loosing its value as fertilizer and becoming an environmental and health problem. I found this shocking as it is another way that one of our most valuable resources is being wasted.
Holy Shit is fascinating in its depiction of the history of manure and how it has been handled, of the economic value as fertilizer that farmers are appreciating more and more, of the value to our farmland, and in his reporting of scientific studies that are changing the ways we think about manure. Crop farmers may come to realize the benefit of raising some livestock – because of the value of their manure.
Logsdon is not only talking about animal manures. He is talking about human manure as well. Composting toilets are now legal in Massachusetts. Systems for handling gray water available. I have two friends who have composting toilets in their house and I have used them without ever noticing any odor or unpleasantness.
Human manure on a large scale has been turned into sludge which can be applied to cropland. This is somewhat controversial, but Logsdon says the main problem is not so much the danger of the manure, but rather the dangerous things like prescription drugs that people are prone to flushing down the toilet. Those chemicals end up in the sludge. This was a reminder to me to throw all outdated prescriptions in the garbage which will be incinerated down in Springfield, and not into my septic system.
When we are not being disgusted about manure, we are often making jokes about it. Logsdon doesn’t make jokes but his book is humorous and filled with the foolishness of human foibles all while teaching us “how to get over the fear of feces.”