From Gene Logsdon
I half-jokingly suggested about a year ago that animal manure— used livestock, horse, and chicken bedding— was going to be the hottest commodity on the Chicago Board of Trade. There are indications now that such a seemingly absurd prediction might not be so absurd after all. Last year the prices of some farm fertilizers shot up to over a thousand dollars a ton. Ammonium polyphosphate is still nearly that high. Deposits of potash in Canada, a main source of our potassium fertilizers, are declining. Natural gas, from which commercial nitrogen fertilizer is manufactured, is rising in cost as other uses compete for it. Long term, there are reasons to believe that the era of abundant manufactured fertilizers is passing.
There is nothing funny about that prediction. Nor should organic farmers feel vindicated. If we run out of commercial fertilizers, there would be no way we could avoid a precipitous decline in crop yields while farmers switched to all-organic methods. It has taken us a couple hundred years to reduce the organic matter content in our soils to the low levels of today and experts say it might take at least half that long to build them back up again. Getting enough manure and other organic wastes to make up for a shortage of commercial fertilizer would be an enormous challenge requiring changes not only in agricultural attitudes but cultural attitudes as well.
It is however difficult to suppress a smile at the irony of the situation. For years shit has been seen as something so repugnant that the word itself was scrubbed from polite conversation. One of the main reasons for the ancient prejudice between urban and rural cultures was that before Fels Naptha, the odor of manure lingered on the skin and clothing of farmers. To become truly civilized came to mean escaping the barn and pretending that offal was not a part of life. Make it disappear. Flush it down the toilet.
The predominantly urban society of today has energetically (and with good reason) opposed modern gigantic animal confinement operations because of the stench of manure. The confinement operators would like to suppress or mask the smell but to make money, they must house continuing larger numbers of animals cheaply. That makes pollution problems inevitable. Larger animal factories can generate as much waste as the human sewage from a large metropolitan area but, unbelievably, they do not have to handle and treat their sewage the way municipalities do.
So the operators haven’t been able to get rid of the stuff cheaply at a fast enough pace. They offered it free to farmers. Not enough farmers were interested. They put it in huge lagoons that overflowed and polluted the landscape. They tried, and are still trying, to make fuel out of it. Not yet practical enough. They sometimes tried to leak it out unnoticed into the waterways, only to be caught and fined by the manure police.
Today, the situation has changed dramatically. With no assurance that grain prices will be high enough to cover the high prices of manufactured fertilizers, farmers are waiting in line at the animal confinement operations, willing to fork over good hard cash to get the lower-priced manure. The laugh of the day now is that maybe manure will become more profitable than the food produced, that the operations will become, in fact and not in jest, money-making manure factories which just happen to produce meat, milk, and eggs as byproducts. This seems particularly possible since some of these factories change hands about as often as partners do in a square dance.
The possibility that all of agriculture might have to rely on animal and human waste to maintain the necessary fertility to keep the world from starving is not at all something new to civilization. Only in the last century or so has it been possible to lard enough chemical nitrogen on cropland to attain record breaking yields while burning most of the organic matter out of the soil. Before this modern “progress,” human society had no other choice than to consider manure— animal and human— to be more precious than gold. At least humans did so in countries that sustained an ample food supply for very long periods of time, as China and Japan did. We all need to read again Farmers of Forty Centuries, by F.H. King, published in 1911, about oriental agriculture at that time. Manure was treated like a precious gem because it was a precious gem. Every scrap of animal waste, human waste, and plant residue was scrupulously collected, composted, and reapplied to the land. So precious was manure that Chinese farmers stored it in burglar-proof containers.
As a result, the oriental farmer for thousands of years maintained an unbelievably productive agriculture. Their little farms produced at the very least five times the amount of food per acre that American farmers were getting in 1907 when King traveled through Japan and China. Those yields still far exceed those of American agriculture even today, except where intensive, raised bed gardening is practiced here. For all practical purposes, a large part of China in 1900 was one huge intensive, raised bed garden. Indeed, the oriental farmer had no choice, because population densities were much higher than anything the United States had or has yet experienced. They either produced huge crops or starved.
Cheap, plentiful manufactured fertilizers and a seeming infinity of farmland allowed the United States over the last two centuries to become the champion wastrel of agriculture (and everything else). One can only imagine the famine and chaos that would result if we continued that kind of extravagance for forty centuries, even if we could. As sources of cheaper chemical fertilizers decline, manure will either once more become the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow or population levels will dramatically decline.