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Holy Shit: Managing Manure to Save Mankindby Gene Logsdon
Prairie Public Radio interviewed me recently about my latest book, Holy Shit. The interviewer was kind about my writing. He knew a lot about farming which is rarely the case but always a relief when discussing agriculture before an urban audience. The only problem was that he did not mention the title of the book during the entire interview! He said that he would get fired if he did. Regulations forbid the utterance of that awful word, shit, even when it is in the title of a book.
It happened again. The excellent website, The Chronicle of Higher Education, referred to my book with kind praise, even calling it "charming." But never once did the reviewer give the title of the book. Policy, he said.
Several years ago, I wrote an article for The Draft Horse Journal in which I felt obliged out of sheer honesty to use the naughty word. This proved to be a problem for Maury Telleen, the editor. He didn't have a problem actually, but his lovely wife, Jeannine, (they are two of my favorite people) ruled the roost when it came to proofreading and she did not intend for the naughty word to soil her publication. They compromised and rendered the word as "sh#!"! By now I’ve seen "sh*t", "sh–", and even "s...", none of which is quite as ingenious or resourceful as "sh#!". But it opens up a whole new frontier. How about "czhit" or "sh?t" or "sht" or "shi".
I should just have been content to call the book Holy Manure. But all this hypocrisy speaks eloquently to the main underlying point I wanted to make. We are so ashamed of our excrement and that of all the other animals on earth that we pretend the stuff doesn’t exist. It is as closely connected to us as our digestive tracts, and having been delicious food just hours earlier, it becomes in the very instant that it leaves the colon, obnoxious and poisonous. So fearful is our attitude in this regard that we have scrubbed the most common word in the American language (well maybe the second most common word) from polite language. We have even made excrement disappear in real life. Flush it and forget it.
Because flushing seems to be so handy, agriculture is making one of the biggest blunders in its history. For some thirty years now it has been trying to handle uncountable tons of livestock manure by flushing it out of animal confinement buildings with water and electric power into large ponds lugubriously called "lagoons" or into underground, fly-infested toxic pits. These "manure handling systems" have led to some of the worst cases of polluted waterways in our history.
The amount of manure we are talking about is beyond comprehension, at least mine, especially when the water to do the flushing and treating the sewage is included. Each of the 300 million plus people in the U.S. excretes about a thousand pounds of fecal material a year. Every toilet flush takes about two to three gallons. You can do the arithmetic. An expert in these matters whom I quote in the book says if the whole world flushed like we do, it would be impossible to handle all human manure this way.
It takes about ten tons of barn manure and bedding to fertilize an acre of corn adequately. The cost of commercial fertilizer is averaging a little under $100 an acre. That means that just in pet horse, dog and cat manure, (9.5 million horses, 73 million cats, 68 million dogs) there’s about two billion dollars of fertilizer much of which is being thrown away, as I pointed out in an earlier blog. There are about 100 million cattle in the U.S., each of them defecating 80 to 100 pounds a day. The latest figures show an ongoing pig population in the U.S. of about 60 million. A hog defecates at least as much as a human does. There are over a billion chickens in the U.S., each of them contributing as much manure as a cat. I don't even want to try to do the totals.
This could be charged off as just the necessary cost of doing business. (My elders used to refer to a bowel movement as "doing your business," another euphemism to avoid uttering any dreadful words.) But the sources of commercial fertilizers are rising in price and declining in easy availability. We need to find alternatives. Manure is the best one as centuries of farming traditions have attested. Even farm manure that is being returned to the land now (as slurry out of animal factories or as material artificially dried at great cost) has lost much of its plant nutrient value because of improper handling. The book that often has no name describes how we can turn this situation around. Shit really is holy.
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