20 March 2011

Poop Scoop a Loop

Agriculture is all about the poop (and pee).  Manure, feces, cow pies, rabbit turds, sheep pellets, butt mud, corn dogs, logs rollin’ down the river, crap; whatever you may call them they are a valuable source of nutrient cycling on a farm.  You may be wondering why I am so obsessed with poop.  Well it’s not because I like the smell (depends on the animal), or because of its texture (although interesting in its own right), but because I went to a conference on grazing and pasture today.
Yes, I went to a work-related conference on a Saturday for those of you who value your weekends like I value manure.  It was refreshing to sit down and listen to people talk about something I want to learn more about in order to further my future plans.  It got me excited about improving soil quality, which grazing does in a few basic ways.  Without getting into too much detail, having animals such as cows, sheep, goats, and chickens provides many services for the farmer that are currently subsidized by fossil fuel inputs on conventionally farmed land; including the fertilizers, pesticides, and mechanical processes that must be done to the land in order to continue the ultimately detrimental means by which 80-90% of the food people in our country eat is produced.
A poop collective
Pre-processed plant food
When livestock graze on grass, they accelerate the storage of carbon and organic material (the stuff that makes good soil a deep, dark black/brown) in the soil as well as minerals such as iron, magnesium, and calcium.  They do this by eating the aforementioned grass and its stored nutrients, using 10% of the energy and nutrients for themselves, and excreting the other 90% in a form readily available for other organisms to digest and breakdown into plant food again!  
Those tall things are made of recycled poop.

These same livestock help break up the soil by walking on it with their hooves; a process that would take much more fossil fuel energy to do and thereby costing the farmer more money to maintain the land.  Why is Breaking Soil important you ask?  The insects, bacteria, and fungi that live with and among the plant roots, as well as the plants themselves have better oxygen access, better water access, and both roots and insects have an easier time doing their respective things in order to eat.  Trampling the grass into the soil also helps replant grass seeds that would also take longer to germinate if otherwise left alone.
Bill's good at trampling ground.
The good stuff.

Oh, hay!  You used to be manure at one point and now you're gonna be turned into it.
The most valuable thing about grazing is that if you manage it properly, just as one would with any business, the land that the animals graze upon will become a healthier, more sustainable ecosystem that requires little to no external outputs.  We all find nature beautiful in one form or another and I think part of the reason why is because the organisms we observe always find a way to restore balance and continue reproducing against the odds that we and other organisms put against them.  The real, basic difference between us and any other organism is that we are always trying to do too much and make things go in a straight line when everything in nature works in circles (talk about having your cake and eating it too, that just makes more poop).  
The cycle is almost complete.

Hence my obsession with poop.  All that energy has got to go somewhere.  It is a waste to continue to transport things hundreds or thousands of miles when you have what you need to live relatively comfortably within a hundred miles.  Right now, what we are doing is taking nutrients from places like California and the Midwest, eating them wherever we live (i.e. New York or Maine), and depositing 90% of those nutrients into the sewer, septic tank, or what have you.  At some point, there will be no more nutrients in those places if we continue to avoid eating locally.
There is a real reason that the small farmers’ mantra is to eat local and it isn’t just about supporting them and their families.  It’s about supporting yourself and your kids in the future, and creating a vibrant, local community that understands the importance of their food beyond just being something you need to get through the day.
At any rate, we may be done logging for the winter as it’s getting really muddy (I have the Carhartt’s to prove it) and thus would be too difficult for the horses to pull logs out of the woods.  We started our onion seedlings Friday in preparation for their growth and then storage in the fall.  Onion seeds are small, need precision planting in order to not waste too many, and I planted the majority of 52 trays of onions.  This took most of yesterday.  I just have to say that Ipods are great in a hot greenhouse.  Anyways, if you have any questions or are interested in learning more about livestock, manure, etc., let me know in the comments and I will try to let you know now that I am an expert on livestock from one conference.  Or just leave me a comment if you’re sick of me talking about poo.  I’ll try not to include it anymore in this update.