That Smell

July 18, 2011 § 11 Comments

Over the past few weeks, I have received two emails from people asking if I’ve carefully considered my dietary path. Both suggested that perhaps I have not done adequate research into the health, environmental, and ethical impacts of consuming animal products. Both of these emails were perfectly respectful and free of rancor. For this, I am grateful.

I’m loathe to wade into a discussion or defense of my dietary choices, which are rooted in the consumption of critters and the milk they produce. Indeed, I will not. But I would like to discuss a specific subject that I feel is often missing from the debate surrounding the consumption of meat and dairy. It is a subject I’ve become rather fascinated by, and it is one that plays a key role in the day-to-day operation of our farm.

Put bluntly, that subject is shit. Or, if you’d rather, “fertility.”

When we bought our land in ’97, the pasture was thin and patchy and slowly surrendering to the forest. There were no crops being grown; no fruit trees or snaggle-toothed blueberry bushes. At the time, I was no farmer; hell, I didn’t even know enough to fake it. But our neighbor knew plenty. “You need to get some animals on that land,” he told us. “That land needs help.” I nodded my head dumbly, as if I understood exactly what he was talking about.

For the sake of brevity, I’m going to skip about a dozen years and a few dozen tons of manure and note that the last time said neighbor was at our place, he swept his eyes across our pasture and gave a low whistle. “Looks pretty lush,” he said, and damned if he didn’t sound a bit jealous. The gardens were also looking (if I don’t mind saying so) pretty much splendid (clearly I don’t), and our little orchard was coming into its own. Everywhere looked verdant and abundant, in no small part because it was verdant and abundant.

There comes a time in the evolution of a food producer when he or she realizes that growing food is more involved than simply sticking seeds or saplings in the ground, yanking a few weeds, and reveling in the harvest. Because the fact is, even the best soil must be fed, and it must be fed continually. Otherwise, it quickly becomes depleted; yields suffer, as do the nutritional qualities of the food rising from it.

Now, to be sure, there are numerous ways to feed the soil. Some use cover crops (often called “green manure”) which are planted and then worked directly into the soil. We do this on our place, and it helps. But frankly, it’s simply not enough, which is why the vast majority of the fruits and vegetables we eat are grown with the aid of synthetic fertilizers that use massive amounts of natural gas to fix the nitrogen necessary for soil fertility.

There’s something else that’s rich in nitrogen, something that doesn’t require the burning of finite fuels (most often gas, but occasionally coal): Poop. Most often, this manure is produced by farm animals that also provide milk and/or meat. To the readers of this blog, the idea that farm animals have tangible value beyond flesh and dairy probably doesn’t come as a surprise. Still, I am struck by how infrequently the subject of fertility arises in discussions of vegetarianism and particularly, veganism. In a world without farm animals, just where is the fertility to grow the cereal crops these diets are based on supposed to come from? Most of these crops are what is known as “heavy feeders,” which means they demand large quantities of nitrogen and other nutrients. Without manure, the only way these crops will be grown is through massive, large scale applications of fossil fuel-derived fertilizers.

I do not mean to disparage anyone who has chosen an animal-free diet. And I certainly don’t mean to absolve the dominant meat and dairy industries for their crimes against the environment and the animals they exploit, including the two-legged variety who suffer either as employees, or as an unwitting public sickened by the products and bacteria these industries produce. But of course there’s a different way of raising meat and dairy animals, a way that through planned grazing and respect for the critters can actually heal the land. Not inconsequentially, it can provide the fertility necessary to grow the grains, vegetables, and fruit that sustain us all, whether we choose to eat meat or not.

The idea that animals should be an integral part of a healthy farm organism, not just for their meat and milk, but for their manure, seems so obvious to me that sometimes I think I’m totally missing something when I hear intelligent people speak of the sustainability of animal-free diets. So let me ask you: Am I missing something? If we were all to go vegan overnight, vastly increasing the demand for heavy feeders like legumes and grains, where would the fertility come from?

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§ 11 Responses to That Smell

  • JB says:

    Well, I guess this is an example of where the expression “good shit” versus “bad shit” comes from.

    I have been working on an ongoing essay whose titles varies from “what is meat” to “dead meat” and the rise of butchering heritage animals in Chicago, eating meat, what is dead,what is alive,etc..

    But from a personal basis as much as vegetables are my main staple I find I need to include meat every now and then for energy…..

    So many things I forget about living in a city….

    Thanks for your thoughtful posts I really enjoy reading them.

  • Vonnie says:

    Most excellent observation and question. As a vegetarian turned meat eater, I think this is an excellent missive. I never really thought about that before now, thanks (yet again!) for the thought provoked. ~Vonnie

  • CJ says:

    Just finished your book Making Supper Safer. Great book, should be mandatory reading for everyone. I’ve been farming the same small 10 acre farm in southern Vt (as kid and now as an adult) for 35 years. I can’t see any way of successful long term farming without manure/compost. Black gold as my dad likes to call it.

  • Elizabeth says:

    What an excellent point! I’d never thought of it quite like that before, and (as usual) appreciate your thought-provoking words. I wonder how countries with large numbers of vegetarian citizens handle this problem?

  • Anton says:

    I am not a vegetarian, and agree that manure is a necessity in any food growing operation, though, let’s not overlook all the manure produced by the 6 billion+ citizens of the world. Human manure was and in some places still is used as a fertilizer where livestock manure is in short supply. ‘Humanure’ and ‘Holy Shit’ are great reads on this subject.

  • Anton says:

    . . . it just crossed my mind upon further reflection that the manure we use is from herbivores/vegetarians, not carnivores (though chickens and pigs are omnivores) so wouldn’t manure generated from a world of vegetarian humans go to some length to fertilize the world’s agricultural fields?

  • Eileen says:

    Great post. Even beyond the manure, I think another key part of keeping farmland healthy is animal diversity and how each species helps the others — pigs do large-scale tilling, chickens do small-scale tilling and eat the worms out of pig poop, the leftovers from the crops/garden (grown in last year’s pig pasture) feed the chickens and the pigs, etc etc.

    I’ve always thought that vegetarianism and veganism are arbitrary lines: *this* lifeform is OK to eat, *this* one is not. My own arbitrary line is at the level of ‘farm ecosystem’, which needs both animals and plants to thrive.

  • In my opinion you’re not “missing something”, your post is spot on. I’m grateful for every bit of meat, vegetable, and fruit my family eats, and even more grateful that we are able to raise it our self. The respect we have for our animals that nourish us and our land is very deep.

  • Reminds me of my grandmother back in Bangladesh. My grandfather took her to Calcutta on a trip and showed her the cabbage farms. he told her (i think it was a joke) that the farmers were using human poop as fertilizer. Poor woman – to this day she doesn’t eat cabbage ; ).

    In vegetarian countries (India, Nepal) the animals that produce the poop still exists. The manure is used as fuel to cook food (dried up manure), it is also used in building mud houses (mixed with clay) and as fertilizers in the gardens. Mass scale manure usage is not there given they have been brainwashed to use synthetic fertilizers (easier, more yield -> terrible for the soil in life cycle management). I think if there was better education on manure management – this mindset would change.

    Great job on bringing the land back to life. The future generation will thank you : ) !

  • Ben Hewitt says:

    Thanks for the comments. Anton, I’ve read both those books, but not experimented with humanure. It’s hard to imagine the practice finding wide scale acceptance in the US, but hey, ya never know. I’d also be concerned about the contaminants in humanure, given the quantity of pharmaceuticals and other chemical we ingest. Of course, the same is true for most of the livestock raised in this country.

  • E. Baron says:

    I believe, as with so many other aspects of our lives, it’s a matter of balance. As a country, we’ve gone way, way overboard with our meat consumption, creating and supporting an industry that’s horribly damaging to the environment, abusive to animals and produces unhealthy, usually not so tasty meat.

    I call myself a 99% vegetarian, not because I am opposed to killing animals, but because I became ultra-picky about the sourcing of my meat. I made a budget and health choice to eat less meat. I’ve fallen into a routine of eating meat once a month or less. I’m confident that the manure of the meat I do eat is going to good use.

    I’d love to know what, from an ecosystem and fertility perspective, would constitute perfect balance, and how that would work given the need to feed so many urban eaters.

    You’ve motivated me to ask more questions of my vegetarian and vegan friends. My guess is that they haven’t thought much about the issue of soil health. You got me thinking on this one…thanks!

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