You Can’t Get Manure from Sacred Cows

Holy Shit: Managing Manure to Save Mankind
Gene Logsdon
Chelsea Green Press

When Katie Couric televised her own colonoscopy to encourage early detection of colon cancer, it worked. Suddenly, people in late middle age found themselves having to answer to their children and friends as to the state of their bowels. The incidence of colonoscopies increased as death rates for the cancer decreased. Perhaps we need some celebrities to take up the case for the product of colons: manure. In the circles I run in, Gene Logsdon passes for a celebrity, but maybe we could get some extra lift if we recruited Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga. They might appeal to a different sort of audience than a curmudgeonly old farmer from Ohio.

With Logsdon, you don’t get a lot of sentimental prose about the uplifting feeling of holding sweet-smelling fully composted manure in your palm. No, he gets right down to business. He tells you where to get your animals to dump, how you handle a pitchfork, and for that matter the right kind of pitchfork to use. He doesn’t skip past the stage where the manure stinks to high heaven, he just helps you get through it.

By talking about pitchforks, I’ve already lost the policy wonks. They will tell us that the only way we can manage manure to save humanity is to build giant anaerobic digesters that will harvest the methane from the septic lagoons of factory farms. Logsdon argues convincingly and at times mockingly otherwise, pointing out that such farms are not only an abomination from many moral and environmental perspectives, but that in the long run they are not economically viable.

One of his favorite hobbies is attacking conventional wisdom as espoused by the talking heads. If agri-business considers something essential, he’s bound to show how it’s really an unsustainable fad. However, refuting the arguments of agribusiness is just a side track, the main line of the book is reserved for explaining how he believes manure management does work. He is confident that eventually everyone else will figure out what doesn’t work.

When I first laid eyes on Holy Shit, I knew before I cracked the covers that Logsdon would get around to discussing management of pet feces and human feces. He is a thorough author who likes to see an idea all the way through, and if he thinks there is any chance he can shock a few folks in the process, so much the better. I was not disappointed.

He begins with discussion of the process of proper application of manure as fertilizer. He then devotes a chapter each to best manure management practices related to fowl, horses, sheep, cows, pigs, and specialty animals (bats, rabbits, and such). From there he sails into kitty litter and dog dung. If you think this is a negligible amount of manure, you don’t have indoor cats or a city dog, but given that millions of us do, that is a lot of crap that currently just gets landfilled.

Unfortunately, when he gets to the part about cats and dogs, his reliability starts to break down just a little. I’m going to pay attention to someone who has a good 70 years of experience in the manure of livestock, but since his own cats and dogs are outside almost all the time, he doesn’t have much first-hand knowledge of practical uses for their collected manure. From that point forward (the final third of the book or so) he steps away from the practical hands-on knowledge that I so appreciate and indulges his more philosophical side.

It’s not that I don’t want to hear what Logsdon thinks about bio-solids or the USDA, it’s just that it gets a little hard to differentiate between when he is talking about something he’s researched well and when he’s simply being cranky. Take, for example, his attack on vegans. He claims that a small group called Friends of Animals wants to eliminate ruminants because their farts are leading to global warming. This is quite a stretch. Their website does cite a non-controversial UN report that found 18% of greenhouse gas emissions come from the dairy and meat industries, and they do layer onto that their own belief that small farms are not an acceptable alternative to factory farms that generate so much of the problem, but I don’t believe they are calling for the entire elimination of all ruminants, nor that such a course of action would be a logical extension of what they do propose. Logsdon likes to poke at the corporations, poke at the organic farming movement, poke at the government, poke at his neighbors, and poke at universities. Perhaps he figured that if he devoted a chapter to poking at vegans it would get everyone in the mainstream back on his side again. But even if the vegans were as absurd as he makes them out to be (and in my opinion they are not), they are a tiny but principled minority of the country. Picking on them is kind of like shooting fish in a barrel. Sure, plenty of people will pay to do it, but is it sporting? He is so dedicated to ridiculing vegans that he even seems to imply that methane isn’t really all that big a deal in terms of global warming. Wrong.

Still, you haven’t fully enjoyed a Logsdon book until he’s made you good and irritated. He is known as The Contrary Farmer, and penned a well-known book of that name. Part of his shtick is to push a point until you are just about ready to walk away from him, and then to lure you back with funny lines like “I have had it with all movements. Except of course the one driven by the bowel.” Incidentally, that bit about having had it with all movements doesn’t really ring true, since later he exhorts his readers to get involved in civic society. He’s like that, spouting out contrary ideas in order to alternately alienate and draw in various viewpoints.

On the whole, Holy Shit lives up to what I want in a Logsdon book. It’s a good read cover to cover and a good reference book that you will never loan out to a friend unless you’re sure they will get it back to you by spring.

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