Photo credit: Ross Tucknott/Creative Commons
It's not often that a book inspires you to go out and shovel steaming piles of horse poop on a cold November afternoon. But that's exactly what happened to me after reading Gene Logsdon's Holy Shit, and I mean it as a resounding compliment to the author. I should note, of course, that it doesn't take much to get me thinking, and writing, about poop, pee, compost, and all things biodegradable.
From the selective flush and letting it mellow, through musing on the benefits of (male) pee on compost, to asking whether recycling our poop is the key to sustainable farming, I am somewhat known as the toilet correspondent here at TreeHugger. But Logsdon's obsession with all things brown and smelly puts me to shame.Logsdon has long been known as an eminent agrarian thinker and practitioner. From being an advocate for horse-powered farming (and the resulting fertilizer), to writing (and re-releasing) a guide to small-scale grain raising for backyards, homesteads and small farms, he has always made a strong case for small-scale, low impact farming, and a strong reliance on traditional methods and knowledge.
Romanticism This is Not
But as Matt argued in his post about Logsdon's argument for horse-powered farms, the man has enough experience and knowledge that it is hard to paint him as your typical starry-eyed nostalgic romantic. Holy Shit: Managing Manure to Save Mankind is yet further evidence that the guy knows his, errrm, stuff—and that what he has to share is important, practical and common sense knowledge that could help us navigate the looming challenges of feeding the world after peak oil, climate change, and dwindling reserves of phosphorous-based fertilizer take their toll on our oil-dependent farming systems.
The Mainstream Rethinks its Attitude to Manure
Starting with an anecdote about a mainstream mega-farmer Logsdon knows in Ohio, the author explains how his friend was considering getting into the feedlot beef business, despite the fact that raising beef in Ohio is, apparently, usually a losing proposition in terms of profit on your meat. But Logsdon's friend was not dreaming of striking it rich with beef—it was manure that he was interested in. With fertilizer prices trending upwards, this farmer—whose primary business was growing corn on 8000 acres—was realizing that access to manure may well be key to successful farming in the future, not to mention a handy revenue stream in its own right.
Logsdon goes on to explain what a change of tune this new found interest in manure really is—describing how the modern industrial farmer has often come to see manure more as a nuisance to be disposed of than a valuable resource for nourishing the land. Whether it's meant flushing manure into holding tanks and pools, or the only marginally more useful practice of using it to create energy, the pervasive attitude has been that "The only shit that is going to drop on this farm is mine and my wife's."
Practical Advice on Managing Manure
Yet while Logsdon celebrates the emerging cultural shift, and recounts historic precedents of saner attitudes to waste, from the farms he grew up on to the Chinese practice of recycling human poop, he somehow manages to avoid the tone of "I told you so." Instead, he sets about reintroducing us to the tools, practices and benefits of manure use in the farm and garden. Whether he is explaining the practice of using deep "manure packs" to minimize cleaning out cow sheds, or walking us through the various designs of pitch fork and their uses, Logsdon manages to provide both a practical wealth of knowledge for small farmers and gardeners, and also an amusing and emotional treatise for practical common sense and sustainability.
In short, I am a fan.
The book also walks us through the relative pros and cons of different types of poop—exploring the benefits of chicken manure for the garden (by far the easiest poop to deal with for the small-scale grower), through to musing about the possibility of potty training horses, composting dog or cat feces (proceed with caution, he says), and railing against our cultural fear of human poop. He also weighs in on the arguments surrounding the controversial use of sewage sludge and biosolids on farms, appealing for folks to keep an open mind, given the urgent need to find alternative methods to deal with our waste.
Not a Scientific Manual
I should note that Logsdon is more essayist and farmer than scientist. This is not the book for detailed tables of nutrient values in different types of manure (as Logsdon argues, they range so much that that type of data is somewhat worthless), and there are times when the author's argument's smack more of strong personal opinion than well-researched science. (His argument that methane from cows is not a major issue because deer fart too seems a little simplistic.) Logsdon also does not spend too much time dwelling on the potential pollution problems related to manure, although his tips for proper composting, storage and application of manure would no doubt reduce many of these issues considerably.
But it is above all else a rich, funny, and passionate plea that we get over our feces phobia and start thinking seriously about the nutrients that we flush down the toilet, or shovel into cesspools, every day. It is also, of course, a manifesto for appropriate scale farming—because as Logsdon points out, when it comes to animal husbandry, beyond a certain level of size of farm it is almost inevitable that manure will go from being a resource to being a problem that needs to be dealt with.
Given the urgency of rethinking our food systems, Holy Shit: Managing Manure to Save Mankind is a vital—and highly enjoyable—read for anyone who believes that poop must play an important part in a revival of sustainable farming. (It's even more of a vital read for those who don't believe it, but that may be a harder sell.) If nothing else, it'll make those folks, like me, who spend a little too much time thinking about pee, poop and compost, feel just a little more normal.
More on Composting, Manure, and Animal Husbandry:
Is Recycling Our Poop Key to Sustainable Farming?
Is Male Pee Better than Female Pee? The Compost Conundrum.
In Defense of the Cow: How Eating Meat Could Help Slow Climate Change
Manure Runoff and Amish Farming Raising EPA's Ire
Vegan Organic Agriculture: Is Your Carrot Really Vegan?