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).
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.