I half-jokingly suggested about a year ago that animal manure—used livestock, horse, and chicken bedding—was going to be the hottest commodity on the Chicago Board of Trade one of these days. Shortly after that I got a call from a close acquaintance who manages an awesome business of growing 8,000 acres of corn and soybeans—which he knows I consider insane. He wanted to tell me something I never expected to hear from him: He was thinking of going into the feedlot beef business. I reminded him that this is rarely profitable in Ohio except as a tax shelter, but he said he didn't care if it only broke even. It was the manure that he was after, for fertilizer. And he had not read what I had been writing in that regard. Holy shit. I almost dropped the phone. Most of the farmers in my neck of the cornfields agree with what one of them told me over a martini one day: "The only shit that is going to drop on this farm is mine and my wife's." He much preferred fertilizing with anhydrous ammonia (one whiff of which could kill him and his wife).
It has taken us about 100 years to reduce soil organic matter to dangerously low levels—from about 5 percent, on average, to below 2 percent.
My 8,000-acre friend is no fool, believe me. There are indications now that such a seemingly absurd prediction about manure might not be so absurd after all. Even the agricultural colleges (almost always among the last to recognize either agricultural or cultural shifts) are scheduling what Ohio State University calls Manure Science Review days. The main reason that manure is suddenly seen as a science is that chemical fertilizer prices are on the rise. Yes, they rise and fall with every paranoid scuttlebutt of the marketplace, but the general direction is definitely north. The price of a specialty fertilizer like ammonium polyphosphate is nearly $1,000 a ton as I write. Deposits of potash in Canada, which we have long relied on for potassium fertilizer, are dwindling, and there is no other known supply as readily available. There is much talk of opening a huge phosphorus mining operation in the South American rain forest, which will hardly be hailed with joy by environmentalists. Natural gas, the major source of commercial nitrogen fertilizer, is rising in cost as other users compete for it. In fact, there are reasons to believe that the era of reliance on manufactured and mined fertilizers is passing. A society so utterly urban-ized as ours may not want to face up to what that means, but the end of cheap chemical fertilizer would be almost as earth-shaking as a nuclear bomb.
If we run out of cheap sources of commercial fertilizer, there will be no way to avoid a precipitous decline in crop yields, no matter how rapidly farmers try to switch to organic methods. And as they switch, the demand for organic fertilizers will also rise precipitously. It has taken us about 100 years to reduce soil organic matter to dangerously low levels—from about 5 percent, on average, to below 2 percent—and experts say it might take at least that long to build them back up again using organic methods on a large scale. Getting all the manure and other organic wastes needed to maintain yields high enough to support rising populations without a full complement of commercial fertilizers would be an enormous challenge requiring new agricultural and cultural attitudes.
It is difficult, however, to suppress a smile at the irony of the situation. For years shit has been seen as something so repugnant that the word itself was scrubbed from polite conversation. The real reason for the ancient prejudice between urban and rural cultures was that before Fels-Naptha—the favorite heavy-duty farm soap—the odor of manure lingered on the skin and clothing of farmers. To become truly civilized meant to escape the barn and pretend that excrement was not a part of life—flush it and forget it. Even farmers bought into the notion. In 1961 Farm Journal, the leading farm magazine of the day, published an article arguing that manure was not worth hauling to the field. To its credit, the magazine renounced the error of its ways in April of 1976 and rather lamely admitted that, in fact, manure was very much worth applying to cropland.
The almost totally urban society of today has energetically opposed gigantic animal confinement operations mostly because of the stench of factory manure. (There are better reasons.) A few years ago, things looked bleak—they couldn't give their manure away. Not enough farmers were interested. ("The only shit that will drop on this farm . . . ," et cetera, et cetera.) Their huge lagoons of liquid manure regularly overflowed and polluted the landscape. Drying the manure artificially cost heaps of money. Trying to make fuel and energy from it took a heap of money too. Occasionally operators tried to get rid of the stuff in bad weather, when it could not be spread on farmland, by letting it leak out into waterways, but the manure police caught and fined them.
So precious was manure that Chinese farmers stored it in burglarproof containers.
Today, the situation has changed rather dramatically. In 2009, with no assurance that grain prices would be high enough to cover the high cost of manufactured fertilizers, farmers lined up at animal confinement operations willing to fork over good hard cash for the manure, since it seems to be cheaper (depending on how you jigger the figures) than commercial fertilizers for farms close by. Manure brokers now flourish. With farmers willing to buy the stuff, animal factories can almost afford to partially compost it, even dry it (with government subsidies to cover some of the cost), to make manure more appealing to farmers—and especially farmers' neighbors. The farmer next door to me spread dry, partially composted chicken manure from an egg factory on his acres this year, and wonder of wonders, there was no odor. Thank you, American taxpayer. The laugh of the day now is that maybe manure will become more pricey than food—that the confinement operations will become, in fact and not in jest, manure factories that just happen to produce meat, milk, or eggs as by-products.
The idea that all of agriculture might have to rely on animal (and human) waste to maintain the necessary soil fertility to keep the world from starving is not at all new. Only in the last hundred years or so has it been possible to lard enough anhydrous ammonia, superphosphate, and muriate of potash on crops to attain record-breaking yields (while burning and beating organic matter out of the soil). Before this "progress," human society had no choice but to consider manure—animal and human—to be more precious than gold. At least humans did so in countries that sustained an ample food supply for long periods of time, as China and Japan did. We all need to read again Farmers of Forty Centuries, by F. H. King, published in 1911, about Asian agriculture at that time. In Japan, Korea, and China, manure was treated like a precious gem because it was a precious gem. Every scrap of animal waste, human waste, and plant residue was collected and reapplied to the land. So precious was manure that Chinese farmers stored it in burglarproof containers. The polite thing to do after enjoying a meal at a friend's house was to go to the bathroom before you departed. I am not making that up.
NEXT: How manure boosted Asian agricultural output, and what manure is worth