Interview with Gene Logsdon


From MAKENNA GOODMAN
Alternet

Holy Shit: The Secret Behind Creating Truly Sustainable Food

MG: When I moved to a farm in rural Vermont, I knew life would be a far cry from the New York literary world from whence I came. I knew even though plaid shirts, work boots, and waxed canvas coats cover the fashion magazines these days-life on a real farm has nothing to do with image or status. I do have to say, however, when I meet my old city friends on the streets of Brooklyn to hock eggs or pumpkins, I have been known to brag. Not about how amazing farm life is, or how well I can pitch hay, but rather, how familiar I am with shit these days. And how in awe I am of poop. I tell my friends about where my chickens leave their dollops, and how that’s actually money in the bank.

Shit rules my life-or at least it should, if I were a good farmer. Don’t be grossed out. If you’re into food, you’ve got to embrace manure. The bowel movement after all (human and animal), is the foundation upon which the sustainable food movement stands. Where do you think rich, delicious soil comes from? The healthiest soil is made not from synthetic fertilizers, but from the backsides of livestock. Indeed, manure is the golden nugget upon which sustainable food’s economy was founded. There is no movement without the movement. And who better to discuss either movement than Gene Logsdon, longtime farmer and author of the book Holy Shit: Managing Manure to Save Mankind. I talked with Logsdon about the real scoop on poop, society’s misconceptions of manure, and the future of farming.

Makenna Goodman: You’ve been farming for about 30 years. How important is manure to agriculture in your estimation?

Gene Logsdon: It would probably be more accurate to say that I have been pitching barn manure for something like 65 years and spreading a lot of bullshit the other 13 years, too. On a scale of one to ten, with ten at the top, I’d give manure an eleven. Manure just doesn’t fit on a scale of values. It encompasses the whole environment as inextricably as water and air. Trying to measure its worth suggests that we can take it or leave it. Manure is with us always whether we give it a value or not. The fact that it is a beneficial material is our salvation. If we and other animals started to excrete radioactive dust, then we’d have a problem. Manure is holy.

MG: What are the most prevalent misconceptions that society holds about manure?

GL: I have to answer that first by addressing a broader question: what are the most prevalent misconceptions that society holds about the whole natural process of life? One main misconception is that science and technology can deliver us complete safety, that is, a zero risk environment. This notion is driven by the insurance companies who dream of a world where people pay dearly for accident insurance but never have accidents. The misconception comes when humans decide that science and technology can make that happen without the personal, individual, ongoing involvement of every one of us. Examples abound of the impossibility of this kind of push button safety system. Science and technology have been hard at work delivering a ladder that will be safe even for total idiots to use. The rules and regulations governing ladders cover over a thousand pages. But every day people kill or maim themselves with ladders.

Danger lurks at all times. That is an inescapable fact of life. No matter how fail-safe we want someone else to keep our environment, our safety requires the use of our own intelligence and responsibility first and last. The more we try to make others responsible for our well-being, as for example, by supporting a monolithic pill-pushing industry, the sicker we seem to get.

Focusing on manure specifically, the misconception is not so much that bodily waste can cause disease, which can be true if people are totally stupid about it, but that society at present doesn’t understand how comparatively easy it is to avoid that danger. The chances of getting sick from contact with barn manure or properly handled human manure are negligible in the first place, but the point is that the hygienic harm associated with manure is easily avoided by individual involvement, intelligence, common sense, and proper management. People don’t want to accept that responsibility. They want to flush it and forget it. Just letting manure age for a year practically guarantees that it has no pathogens in it if it ever did. But of course there might always be that one chance in a billion when it still does. You take far more risk than that just eating in a restaurant, where, health inspectors have told me, they sometimes find more E. coli bacteria on the tabletops than on the toilet seats.

MG: What makes manure such an incredible fertilizer?

GL: First I want to be clear that by manure I mean not only the feces and urine itself, but the bedding or absorbent material mixed with it. The bedding, most commonly straw with animal manure or sawdust in human dry toilets, is nearly as important as the excrement since it reduces odor, soaks up the urine and adds bulk to the feces so that the material is easier to handle and preserves the plant nutrients better until the material is applied to farmland or garden.

Manure so defined can supply all the nutrients including trace elements that plants need to grow healthfully in most soils and situations, plus adding organic matter to become humus in the soil. It accomplishes soil enrichment safely. No commercial chemical fertilizer adds organic matter to the soil like manure does. For the farm that has its own livestock and chickens, manure is free for the loading and hauling. As purchased fertilizers become more and more pricey, this benefit alone makes manure incredibly valuable. It can keep a farm truly sustainable and a farmer less susceptible to outside forces seeking to take his money and his land away from him.

MG: Has our culture always been fearful of using manure as a soil enhancement or is this something more recent?

GL: Europeans settling America brought with them a respect for the value of manure and the management practices necessary to enhance that value. (In Switzerland, even in more recent times, farmers carefully aged their barn manure, along with their own manure, in big compost piles out in front of their barns where everyone could see it. The bigger and more neatly square or rectangular were the stacks, the richer and more successful the farmer was thought to be, sort of the way, in our culture, we leave the Porsche parked conspicuously in the driveway.) But in America, early farmers were under the delusion that the soil here was infinitely rich and did not need any kind of fertilizer. When that became obviously and painfully wrong, efforts were made to return to the careful stewardship of manure practiced in Europe and Asia. But at almost the same time, purchased chemical fertilizers became commonly available. Given the choice, and lacking the modern machines that make manure handling much easier, few farmers, beset with all kinds of tedious labor, opted for labor-intensive manure management. A leading farm magazine just a few decades ago ran an article declaring that manure was not worth the hauling. Some years later, the magazine contritely printed a retraction.

Only in an urban society removed completely from rural life did an irrational fear of barn manure develop. This kind of fear was and is part of our society’s paranoia about dirt and germs. In the countryside, the fear was about avoiding the labor of handling manure, and then, when the number of livestock on a farm started increasing dramatically without any advancement in good manure management, a fear of odor and flies.

MG: What role has technology and advances in industrialism played in the demise of our soil health?

GL: We can use technology well or use it badly. It is human nature making bad decisions about technology that is the problem. The question to ask is what role has greed and false economic assumptions played in influencing technology to work against soil health. Nor is industrialism of itself a negative force. Urban agriculture, now on the rise, is an industrial trend if it is anything. In a proper economy, industrialism can trend toward decentralized, more truly profitable farms and factories and away from bigger, cumbersome, consolidated farms and factories. The increase in the number and diversity of local farmers’ markets and farm fairs and the small manufacturers supplying the tools and equipment are very much an industrial process.

Technology can be used to promote good soil practices. Manure is now a more attractive alternative to chemical fertilizers than it used to be because we have tools like skid loaders to handle the stuff. A hoe in the hands of a man overtaken by greed will result in bad technology. A bulldozer in the hands of a man sensitive to improving the environment will result in good technology.

In my opinion, the real engine driving the decline in soil health is an economic system based on too much borrowed money and manipulated money interest. When I sell a bushel of potatoes for, say, four dollars, the money I receive is what I call real money. It actually represents something of real value. But if I put that four dollars in the bank, and the bank tries to increase it along with other real money, with hedge funding and derivatives and all that financial rattlesnake oil that tries to make pieces of paper reproduce themselves, the economy cannot help but collapse eventually. This kind of unreal money eventually affects good farming practices negatively. Farmers, deep in debt or barely able to stay in the black, feel forced to keep up “cash flow” by doing what seemingly brings in the most money here and now, even when they know that long term, the land is going to suffer and the number of landless people increase. An ear of corn grows at its own sweet pace, not by manipulated interest rates. Trying to make farming dance to an economy blind to the common good is what brings about the demise of soil health.

MG: What is the most important dilemma that modern farmers face when it comes to small-scale farming?

GL: Small scale farming as an American business can be saved as soon as government stops subsidizing quantity instead of quality and our schools start teaching the danger of excessive money borrowing. This assumes that economists can define what is excessive and government can agree on a definition of quality–both of which I exceedingly doubt can happen. It would be better just to stop subsidies altogether and for small businesspeople to listen to their own minds, not public opinion. Stay away from borrowed money to begin with. To resist borrowing as much as possible, to shun government “help” unless it really is help for the common good, sounds impossible but there are many quiet, shy, stubborn, fiercely determined people out there who are doing just that.

The real dilemma is that few people want to make the sacrifices that come when one renounces fat salaries and keeping up with the Joneses. They feel forced by society to acquire, as quickly as possible, everything for themselves and their children that society deems proper for the well-regulated life. They have not been taught, as many of us oldsters were taught, that one can forego much of what is considered necessary in modern lifestyles and be quite happy-especially if we love our little farms and the life it engenders. Why can’t more people see that? That is the dilemma.

MG: Are you an organic farmer and what does that term mean to you?

GL: Now that the government and some organic farm leaders have co-opted the power to define organic in ways that allow very large farms and food delivery systems to call themselves “organic,” the term has become much less meaningful to me. Part of my definition of “organic” is that the farm should be comparatively small and sell primarily to local markets. If the operation is large and national or international, I don’t think it is necessarily bad, in fact it might be just as good as what the small operation offers. But it just isn’t organic to me.

My early reasons for championing organic farming were economic, not environmental. For me it was a way to farm without high overhead. I am uneasy now with the way “organic” has become sort of like an institutional religion where, if one does not follow sometimes-arbitrary rules absolutely and purely, one is headed for environmental hell. Why not just tell one’s customers exactly how you produce your food including when, if ever, you use non-organic materials. Then let the customer decide. This can work effectively on a small scale where a farmer is selling his or her own personal food to his own regular customers. As soon as the larger company is selling food from many sources, that kind of verification is not trustworthy to me no matter how many rules and regulations are supposed to be in effect.

MG: Do you see young people effecting change in current farming practices that is revolutionary or exciting?

GL: Oh yes. My favorite example is pasture farming, sometimes called grass farming or graze farming. The idea and ideal here is to produce meat, dairy products, eggs-all animal products-by allowing the animals to graze freely. The animals do most of the work themselves, harvesting the pasture by eating it and spreading their manure for fertilizers. Graze farming eliminates the high cost and destructive results of annual cultivation of grains.

Pasture farming is gaining adherents and momentum all over because it makes economic sense as well as environmental sense. A notable scientific development aiding and abetting the trend is the work of Wes Jackson and his staff at his Land Institute in Kansas. These revolutionaries are developing perennial grains-grains that will come up year after year without annual cultivation, like grass. Wes recently gave me a sample of flour from his improved perennial wheatgrass plantings. We made pancakes with it and they were very tasty. When pasture farmers have perennial grain grasses to plant with their clovers, there will be no reason at all to grow annual grains for animal feed.

Another exciting development is urban farming. If you have driven through Detroit in the last decade or so, you know how many parts of it look about like Dresden after World War II. Now city leaders are talking about transforming several hundred acres of abandoned buildings and rundown ghetto land into a farm. There are problems with this idea-perhaps it will never happen-but it is historically significant that urban people are even suggesting it. They are suggesting it because all over, gardening and market gardening and even animal agriculture are coming increasingly into all cities. Some suburbs are even getting rid of regulations that forbid chickens in backyards. Hooray. When the day finally comes when urban farmers figure out how to use human manure for fertilizer, then you will see the new age rising.
~~

20 Comments

My family is working at growing food (vegetables, fish and rabbits so far) on a tiny corner residential lot in the city of Miami, FL. I developed a need, and subsequently great admiration, for manure when I first attempted raised vegetable beds–just seemed absurd to spend so much money to buy soil and manure. So the rabbits joined us. Chickens are waiting on a change to city ordinance or a better privacy fence. We haven’t incorporated human manure yet (or dogs), but my experience with composting toilets in the fragile southwestern environs sure makes me interested in considering the possibility. My husband still needs some winning over (born and raised in NYC & Miami) to all manures, but we’re working on it! Thanks for continuing to write here and in print. Your words have brought tears (both sad and happy!) to my eyes many times.

Tori

    Bless you for the kind words, Tori. Yes, manure is something we need to look upon more positively. If it were white and smelled like roses, there would be no problem. Gene

Yes, Gerson, you are right on about this. We’re working on electronic books of all kinds, my book publishers and Dave Smith with this website. Like Jan, above, I try to keep my nose to the writing grindstones and hope to get others to do all this “interweb thingie” stuff. Russ, you are not the only one who has to contend with a wife’s arching brow. Gene

Gene,

Just got around to ordering you book after seeing some excerpts online.

Have you considered selling it in e-book format? This can be done for Kindle format at Amazon. Or for other formats at http://www.lulu.com . The cost of production is zero. You can retain about 70% of the selling price for yourself.

Or you could make it available here and just send the files through email after receiving payment.

Holy Shit is a good book to do it with as it doesn’t seem to have any pictures. (Thanks for that.)

Hi Gene,

I’ve been away from your site for a while, and am glad to come back and hear you sounding very much like the late Charles Walters. Your thoughtful views on technology and economics in this interview are very much appreciated and needed.

I’ve been thinking a lot that one of the reasons the “back to the earth” trend of the 70s didn’t last, and the potentially fatal flaw of similar thinking today, is the unrealistic notion of “self-sufficiency”. The Jeffersonian “rugged individual” sounds like a great idea until his hoe wears down and his “big government” paved road breaks apart. The whole point of centralizing economic planning is to create the possibility of local wealth production.

As you suggest, small farms serving the local community are the ideal end result, but as Walters might have pointed out, that system starts not with the individual, but with a sane national economy that puts producers first, makes sure they get a fair price for their products, allows them to reinvest in technology and infrasctructure (like American-made bulldozers, small tractors and grain silos), and sends Cargill, Monsanto, and the Chicago Board of Trade straight to hell where they belong.

Anyone want to create a couple million jobs? How about completely rehauling the national water and sewer systems to clean up public drinking water and give farms a cheap, safe and ready supply of shit so they don’t have to grow your kids’ food with ammonium nitrate and RoundUp?

Great stuff Gene, looking forward to your next installment…

I keep going back to the sentence “The question to ask is what role has greed and false (economic) assumptions played in influencing (technology) to work against (soil health)?”. Those blanks could be filled in with myriad combinations that address the ills of societies. Unfortunately good, and possibly self-incriminating, reflective questions are to seldom posed as the basis of government or even individual actions. Given a do-over, I would have made myself answer it much oftener. Or even better, I would have requested my wife to keep asking me till she quit arching her eyebrows as I tried to weasel my way through justifying what I wanted to do.

P.S. If anybody thinks I am a weaselist and is offended by my negative connotation of weasels, then I apologize that you are offended.

sort of

Gene, anyone who goes against the grain of the status quo is a threat; when that person is also able to write articulately and makes the-emperor-has-no-clothes observations, all sorts of pressure is brought to bear. Homeostasis in the human body keeps us in balance, but too often, homeostasis in civilization results in a savage suppression of just those prophets civilization needs to survive. Those of us who read and love you know how important it is for us all to keep on plugging away on these issues. Any time you feel like you need supporting voices, just let us know!

Some people take Prosac-I just read a couple of paragraphs from a Gene Logsdon book and my mood shifts to a place I like to be…Thanks Gene!

Gene, there are plenty of us who appreciate you and your work. Even the universities have political and financial agendas. There is a “grassroots” movement (pardon the pun) that is only just beginning. We need to educate people about these matters, then we might be able to help society see why the cities are so full of unsatisfied people. There’s an old teaching: “who is wealthy? one who is satisfied with his lot”. The simple pleasures of rural life outlast any car, computer, or smartphone.

We’re the ones that are blessed that you’ve hung in there all these years and continue to write with wit and wisdom! But I know what all these kind words mean to you, Gene, and (though I’m just another unknown out here in the inter-web-thingie) I want to thank all your readers, too! It does my heart good to know that it does your heart good! Can’t wait to read your next book!

To all respondents above: Do you know how important your kind words are to me? I have been kicked and cussed for 40 years by industrial agribusiness, the conventional farm press, and university professors— one of the latter called me up one day and called me a son of a bitch— and I am human enough to cling to your kind and thoughtful words and feel sort of healed. Bless all of you. Gene

Common sense is why you are my hero. All flesh is Grass is the greatest wisdom I have read to date. Thank you for being willing to try things that were succesful for thousands of years , but salesmen and lobbyists have convinced us could never work.

Urban farmers can use composted humanure. Will they is another question. Joeseph Jenkins has been doing it for 30 years, with results backed by science. His book is online, free, here — http://weblife.org/humanure/

He’s also posted several short videos on the subject. They can be found by googling humanure jenkins youtube.

I liked this very much – thoughtful, humorous and passionate without sounding like propaganda. I especially liked the way you broadened the context of the questions and addressed the systems from which they arose. It is a concise synthesis and analysis. My Chicago daughter and her husband who have become very interested in urban gardening were home this weekend. I recommended that they read this post and it resonated meaningfully with them.

good words all.. but my favorite were “unreal money.” thanks, thats just perfect.🙂

Gene,

Very, very nice. The way your interview at least begins to tie in broader economic and social matters that so many have utterly no grasp of is incredibly refreshing. I can only think that somewhere up there Scott and Helen Nearing are smiling broadly.

Gene,
A sad commentary is that most conventional grain farmers couldn’t recognize the difference that an application of manure makes to the soil. The color changes, the smell changes, the texture changes. Those types of observations have been lost for a generation of “modern” farmers. My father always maintained that you could not call your operation a farm if it did not have livestock to enrich the soil. Additionally, green manure was a useful tool that is almost never considered with “modern” farming. I particularly remember plowing down buckwheat, red clover and sweet clover crops.

Amen to Jan’s comment on “organic.” But what I really like about your responses in the interview was regarding money and how it makes it clear that most of society’s ills come from becoming slaves to a warped idea of what “wealth” is supposed to be, and how fast one can obtain it.

Even some of the best proponents of free-market capitalism, which I heartily agree with, can get so myopic about division of labor and specialization that they lose sight of its limitations. I even noted one blogger who made the claim that self-sustained farming was a recipe for perpetual poverty. Problem is, his definition of what constitutes poverty and wealth don’t come close to mine.

Thank you for your wisdom and for leading that interview the way you did.

Thank you for your comments regarding the “o” word, Gene.

I have been trying to convince a local foodie website to allow us (and others) to post listings for our “organic” products, but they insist that we be “certified” in order to do so, and will only let us tout our products as “natural” otherwise.

The certification fees are worth a three months’ egg income to us, and certification outlaws certain beneficial practices such as humanure. (They’re probably concerned that allowing humanure would open the door to sewer system sludge, but our humanure is 100% organic!)

I’ve sent that question and your answer to the website manager. Keep up the good work! I’m currently reading “Holy Shit!” and thoroughly enjoying it!

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