Pee Ess

In my post on greywater, I forgot to mention that I included a urinal directly into the greywater system. So the men (and acrobatic ladies) can do what nature intended, and apply their nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, slightly diluted, directly to the ecosystem. It works great. Julie Williams chimes in on this topic here. When I plumbed the urinal, I put a simple shutoff valve into the line, rather than a flush system. That way, we’re only typically washing a cup or two of water down the drain with the deposit of liquid gold. Urine is sterile except in the rare cases when folks have urinary tract infections. Diluted 1:1 it is almost perfectly balanced like say, Miracle Grow.

Joel Salatin, my favorite sustainable farming expert, likes to say “when you smell manure you’re smelling bad management”. He is so right. In fact, I would say the number one ecological problem we face today is the fact that we have created an artificial break in all the natural waste cycles that we impact. It’s like we think the circles MUST be broken … to prove we’re in charge or something. In the case of manure, all you need to do is introduce a little carbon (wood chips, grass clippings, spent hay); the odor disappears, and compost happens. Instead, we have these huge eyesores of industrial agriculture, that can be smelled for miles around. Cesspools of hog manure; piles of raw chicken manure.

Some of the ways we break the cycle

Some of the ways we break the cycle

In the case of manure, good management involves a recognition that for nature to digest feces and urine, the optimal ratio of carbon to nitrogen is 30 to 1. Urine has no carbon, but it can be useful applied directly to plants. Feces has both carbon and nitrogen, but tends to have more nitrogen than can be digested by nature. The bacteria start working on it, but quickly run out of carbon … the excess nitrogen then gets made into ammonia gas (NH3) or nitrates (NO3). Methane gas is also produced by mismatched chemical balances … it is a combination of CN4 and CO2.

We extend our hatred of natural waste processes through the distribution nightmare of our food supply: We ship grain and animals to feedlots, where blood and manure overtax the land’s ability to handle it. We ship unnatural, destructive fertilizers to where the grain is grown and the young animals are raised, wearing out the land and creating wasteful energy usage patterns.

Allan Nation, who writes my favorite magazine, Stockman Grass Farmer, (as much about economics and marketing and philosophy as it is about farming) often has joked about the average beef cow traveling 3000 miles before it reaches our table. The result of all that shipping of animals, their feed, and their manure — and our failure to use the natural fertilizer they give us in a way that completes the circle of life — is that we have economically disastrous conditions festering across our heartland. And South America, which we’ve pressed into this awful symbiotic relationship of beef cattle production, is also facing a meltdown of the whole system. In the feedlots of the Midwest, liquified manure has become a disposal nightmare, because huge quantities of animals are assembled for the final fattening on grain in factory conditions.

Manure lagoons near factory farms

Manure lagoons near factory farms

When you go to Salatin’s farm, you see a barn where in the wintertime cattle are fed hay grown right on the ground where they live; as they eat the hay, the spent and wasted hay mixes with their manure to build 3 or 4 feet of trampled biological matter with just the right ratio for composting… 30:1. Joel keeps a few large hogs around each winter, who are sent into the barn periodically to root through the hay and manure, inverting the pile and aerating it in the process. By spring, the whole pile is composted, and Joel sends in his one old tractor with a frontloader to distribute the compost onto the fields.

No, he doesn’t use wet raw manure on the fields. That smells, and that’s bad management, producing flies and leaching nitrogen out of the soil to feed the bacteria who want to break it down. Instead he composts it during the winter when there are no flies, and spreads it after the bacteria have done their work. He showed us where he had to put it new fenceposts because he’s added over 18 inches of topsoil to those old Shenandoah Valley hills that had eroded since the Civil War.

But I digress. Our society’s bad management isn’t confined to manure. We waste our drinking water, by using it to drown our feces. We also recklessly overpump our groundwater, and prevent it from being replenished by rainfall and natural watershed management.

We use chemical fertilizers on land, which wastes energy and petroleum products. It also damages good soil bacteria while over-stimulating undesirable algae growth in our ponds and rivers… overtaxing the ability of the ecosystem to manage it.

As a culture we throw away huge quantities of goods, much of it just wrapping and packing material — and most of which cannot be biodegraded… and at the same time we fail to compost massive amounts of biological matter that could be returned to the environment to keep the natural circle of life going. And it seems like when we do return stuff to the environment, we have often added a devilish little potion to that poisons the critters and people who come in contact with it. For example, cities are creating huge quantities of “composted” sewage that contains brominated flame retardants and all sorts of toxic compounds, poisoning the soils around our cities.

So on my little spot of land, I take a little pleasure in at least breaking that cycle. I pee into the grey water. I let milkweeds grow because I like monarch butterflies to come. I let thistles grow because I like flocks of chickadees and goldfinches. I let trees die without hauling them away immediately so that woodpeckers can enjoy a year’s worth of termite meals on me. I compost our food waste, and the 2 cubic yards of algae that we pulled off our pond this summer because the farmer across the road puts too much fertilizer on his field. It’s hard to justify economically, but it’s one small thing we can do to try and stop our human habit of breaking cycles of life wherever we turn.

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One Response

  1. Wow, I’m so impressed by your body of knowledge. I wonder if when this trend will catch on? Thanks for sharing your info.

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