Holy Shit: The Secret Behind Creating Truly Sustainable Food

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.

For more information on Holy Shit, go here.


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