Deborah Rich Gets Her Hands Dirty


in her March article "Manure Happens,"  she investigates the source of the E. coli outbreak, pointing out that

Across the country, operators of large conventional dairies, poultry farms
and feedlots face an emerging patchwork of state guidelines and regulations
aimed at minimizing the escape of manure into ground and surface water. But
only the nation’s certified organic farmers and livestock producers are held to
a set of standards that promote the safe and ecologically sound handling of

and raising some interesting points about how industrial agriculture has changed how we deal with manure:

"Historically, cultures have figured out how to recycle nutrients with
manure, and they’ve done it without killing themselves," said Deanne Meyer, a
livestock waste-management specialist at UC Davis. 

"The two things in our industrial nation that have altered how well we
deal with nutrient loads are the advent of the railroad  —  which allowed us
to shift things from point A to point B far beyond what a horse and a cart
could do  —  and the discovery of the nitrogen-fixation process, which allows
us to literally fix nitrogen out of thin air and to transport it where someone
needs it. An energy-intensive process, to be sure, but that’s scarcely mattered
until recently." 

These two events eliminated the need for farmers to couple crop production
with animal husbandry. Farmers began to specialize in one or the other
activity. Feed crops could be shipped to distant livestock facilities, while
synthetic nitrogen, after its widespread commercialization in the 1950s, could
stand in for animal manure back on the farm. 

She also provided advice for handling manure in the garden and profiles a company that composts dairy manure, tests it for heavy metals and pathogens, then ships it off to nearby farms who use it instead of synthetic fertilizers. What a concept.

And finally, her latest story, "Questioning the Compost Supply Chain," asks some interesting questions about exactly what’s in that stuff.  A few tidbits:

Yard trimmings, wood waste from construction, animal manure, agricultural
byproducts and biosolids from sewage treatment plants are the primary feedstock
for the roughly 170 composters and waste processors that operate in California.

Yum!  Construction waste!

Often these feedstock materials enter the composting process still laden
with chemicals. Yet standards for finished compost, which vary from state to
state, generally require regular testing only for heavy metals and pathogen
indicators. Seldom do states ask that producers test their compost for residual
pesticide or pharmaceutical compounds.


"Compost," says William Brinton, founder and president of Woods End
Laboratories in Maine and a pioneer of modern compost production and testing
systems in the United States, "has become anonymous and untraceable; a single
compost product can now contain a mixture of unknown ingredients from all over
a county or a state."

and finally…

"Composting now is being driven by recycling
mandates set by politicians," Brinton says….Now it’s the cart pulling the horse: The recycling cart is pulling the
compost horse."

Thought-provoking stuff, Deborah, and just the sort of thing garden publications need more of. These are important issues with serious implications, not just for backyard gardeners but for agriculture and the food chain.  Recycling our waste into compost and fertilizer makes all the sense in the world; now if only we could stop manufacturing the toxins that end up in our waste in the first place.  One thing at a time, eh?





  1. Not even the gardening biz is all sweetness and light, huh? I did not know they were putting construction waste into compost, but I did know they grind that stuff up and use if for the mulch that is dyed that frightening shade of red. If that is the same waste they put in compost, the world needs to know about this! If my link works ( I am SO challenged by this blogging stuff) it goes to a column I wrote about this topic.
    Now I’ll be giving my organic blueberries that sideways look…

  2. Interesting articles. Now I know what to say when some dittohead makes the “plants don’t know the difference between synthetic and organic fertilizers” claim. Chemically, they might be identical, but in an ecological sense, they are very different in terms of resources used and effect on the environment.

    And, K Wade, I’m glad I used cedar mulch last year — no dyes, no preservatives, and it repels insects like Argentine fire ants and mosquitoes too, for at least as long as it’s aromatic.

  3. Deborah is on target pointing out that synthetic fertilizers are non-sustainable. I did not notice in her article the difference between quick acting synthetic nitrogen fertilizers and slow acting synthetic nitrogen fertilizers – the coated ones with a time release mechanism sometimes stretching 16 weeks.
    It’s probably a moot point but until the industry is producing sufficient natural fertilizers to meet the market, at least the slow release synthetics, while not sustainable, have few if any of the problems of the quick acting form.
    The problems Deborah notes have been with us for 40 years. Our problem is trying to convince the average gardener and yardener to shift to the natural product. The arguement has not yet been couched in a form acceptable to those folks.
    The quick acting stuff is the cheapest. A tough advantage to oversome.
    My preference is to ignore all the technical problems of quick acting fertilizers and pound out the fact that those fertilizers repel earthworms and kill beneficial soil microbes, making the soil essentially dead. Plants are in stress in dead soil. That arguement has not changed the world, but I seem to get a larger number of light bulbs going off when I take that approach.

  4. Humans evolved as hunter/gathers and, as such, had little impact on their environment. Certainly no more than other animals. At least until they began using fire to modify their surroundings and invented agriculture. If you haven’t done so before, you might find it illuminating to consider that agriculture is an environmentally destructive, unnatural activity in itself, regardless of whether synthetic or organic fertilizers are used. Making a farm requires destruction of a natural ecosystem and the creation of an artificial one. That is not to say that we should not do the best we can under the circumstances, if only for self preservation. But anything we do will be a technological fix. Compost is an example. It is a human invention too–the “synthetic” fertilizer of its time.

  5. Many gardeners, even organic gardeners, are shocked to learn that their first concern should and must be the condition of their soil.

    Synthetic fertilizers, even the slow release kind, deter and kill the microbial web of life that is so important to healthy plants. Kill the microbes and the worms, the plants go into distress, attract pests and disease and we start pouring on the fossil-fuel-based insecticides.

    Compost, on the other, simply feeds the subterranean food web, releasing its nitrogren and other nutrients only as needed.

    We are running out of natural gas. In Canada, more and more wells are being drilled every year just to maintain current production levels. But I would not look for factory produced nitrogen to just go away. Originally the hydrogen for the fixation process came from coal. We have lots of coal. My guess is that agri-businees would just as soon pollute the hell out of the planet with coal just to continue spreading chemical nitrogen.

    But on the sustainability question, everyone needs a self-examination. Start adding up the black plastic and plastic tools and plastic everything else that’s derived from fossil fuels in your garden. Even organic farmers spread black plastic like crazy, or grow their organic salads in un-sustainable peat moss shipped in from Canada.

    Compost is a great start. But it’s only a start.

  6. I am a retired microbiologist and would appreciate being referred to studies of the effects of slow release fertilizers on soil microbe communities.

  7. Numerous studies have shown that long-term use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides result in acidification and salinization of the soil and adversly affect not only total biomass but DNZ diversity of the microbial population.

    You may be technically correct about the paucity of study regarding “slow release” fertilizer types, but I think you can extrappolate from the wealth of data already existing that uncontrolled use by homeowners and lawn care companies and longterm applications would eventually arrive at the same results.

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