Articles By The Author
Gene Logsdon: Throwing Away Billions of Dollars In Pet Manure
August 18, 2010
Not until I was well into writing my new book, Holy Shit: Managing Manure To Save Mankind , which is about how to manage manure for soil enrichment, did I realize that cats, dogs and horses are a very significant source of valuable fertilizer that we are mostly throwing away. Or, as our friends’ cat, Django, indicates in the photo above, flushing it down the toilet. Until I got to know Django, my attention was focused on farm animal manure and human manure. I was really surprised to find out how much feces, urine, and litter that pets were adding to our overflowing waste stream, let alone realize that cats were learning how to use the flush toilet.
Instead of wringing hands over the problems of livestock manure, the non-farm sector of society might first want to take a closer look at its own problem: manure from pet cats, dogs, and recreational horses animals that have little or nothing to do with putting food on anyone’s table. According to recent statistics, there are 73 million pet cats in the United States in addition to an equal number of feral cats roaming the alleys and fields (and killing millions of songbirds). There are some 68 million pet dogs and of course millions of strays out there doing beneficial work like killing my sheep. In addition there are some 9.5 million horses and the number is rising.
The numbers I use in Holy Shit to calculate the amount of manure flowing from these pets can only be approximations but they are based on the best statistics I could find. A horse weighing a thousand pounds produces about 20 tons of manure a year including bedding. So unless I can’t multiply any more, 20 X 9.5 million equals 190,000,000 tons of road apples. Pet dogs and cats together produce per year another five million tons of manure. All this waste is good, holy fertilizer. Dog and cat waste is particularly valuable because, compared to most manures, it is higher in phosphorus, the plant nutrient most difficult for organic farmers and gardeners to come by naturally.
Read the whole article here.
Coping With Vomitoxin In Wheat
By Gene Logsdon
August 4, 2010
I’ve been eating home-baked bread from wheat flour slightly infected with vomitoxin. I have not vomited, nor have I suffered any ill effects as far as I know. The bread tastes just as delicious as our non-vomitoxic bread. I will try to explain and can only hope that you, gentle reader, will not think that this time I really have gone mad.
Agribusiness discourages the use of the word, vomitoxin, since it sounds more horrendous than the problem it causes, at least so far. The other term for it is “DON” which stands for a word so long it is hardly pronounceable and sounds even more forbidding than vomitoxin.
This spring, parts of the country, especially in the Midwest, experienced heavy rains right when the wheat plants were flowering and beginning to set on seed. Fusarium head blight struck. This fungal disease can carry vomitoxin. Heads of wheat with the disease display whitish shrunken kernels or scabby empty husks of kernels. When the vomitoxin content gets really bad, the shrunken grains go from almost pure white to pinkish in hue and are referred to as “tombstones” in the trade. Agribusiness is discouraging the use of that word too, for obvious reasons. There were no pinkish grains in any of the fields I walked in around here. In fact the wheat all looked quite healthy to me at harvest time. Vomitoxin is not carcinogenic and hardly lethal in low amounts. Grain with low levels of it can throw livestock off feed or make humans sick to their stomach. There have been cases of gestating sows eating only vomitoxic grains aborting or getting ulcers, or so I read.
Now that I no longer raise my own wheat (old age knocketh at the door) for our bread, I like to get it straight from the field, not after it has gone through the long process of being trucked to elevators where it is comingled with other wheat, and then shipped to processors. I am almost literally surrounded by wheat fields and kind farmers, so getting wheat straight from the combine is fairly easy. But to my dismay, much of the wheat in our area was infected with vomitoxin above the allowable rate for human consumption which is generally put at no higher than 2 parts per million. (There is some confusion here because FDA’s limit for human consumption is 1 ppm, but that is on finished wheat products, not on raw grain. The lower limit applies to the milling industry which can “substantially reduce” DON during processing.)
Wheat from fields where I selected the grain for our bread tested 4.6 ppm of vomitoxin. Every sensible person I talked to said I should just throw it away. But what if all the grain in the Midwest, or even half of it, tested too high for human consumption? Throwing it away without proof that it was truly toxic would hardly be a practical solution if that meant a bread shortage. I had another idea. Most of the wheat kernels infected with vomitoxin are very light and can easily be removed from small amounts of wheat by immersing the grain in water. The light, infected grains float off. Winnowing also removes some of the light grains. We always wash and winnow our grain before grinding it into flour anyway. But, said the sensible people, some wheat berries that look healthy can still carry some vomitoxin in them. (And that is true.) Just throw it all way, Gene. Be sensible.
Gene is rarely sensible the way other people are sensible. I washed a bucket of this wheat, (all we needed since we have some left from last year), floating off the light kernels and washing off the field dust on the grain which can also carry vomitoxin. Then I spread the cleaned grain out on a sheet in the sun to dry quickly. I had the wheat tested again at the local grain elevator. This time the vomitoxin count was 1.7, safe enough to eat. Whoopee.
Actually, I was a little disappointed that the wheat had come down to safe levels. I had made up my mind to make and eat bread from it anyway just to make a statement, as they say. In fact, I had already been eating bread made from this wheat. From the homework I had done, I don’t really think I’m crazy. How many people really appreciate the paranoia that grips modern society over this business of parts per million? One part per million equals one minute in two years. In terms of wheat, it equals one teensy, weensy little wheat berry in 80 pounds of wheat which is about one and a third bushels. All the discussions of vomitoxin that I read insisted that at low ppm levels, a human would have to ingest an enormous amount of bread to suffer any ill effects.
There’s another hitch in the problem. It is almost impossible to take samples of wheat, say, from a semi truck load, that accurately represent the true vomitoxin content of the whole load when one is trying to count tiny little parts per million. Samplers are instructed to probe all parts of a load and blend the different samples thus obtained before testing. But grain handlers I talk to all say the method is fraught with inaccuracy. I’ve heard tales, which I can’t prove or disprove, of truckloads of wheat being turned down at ethanol plants because the vomitoxin content was above the limit imposed by FDA, 5ppm last I checked. (The FDA gets involved because the spent grains after distilling are fed to animals.) So the trucker drives around, gets back in line again, and, surprise, surprise, the next samplings give a test result below 5ppm. I don’t see anything wrong with this kind of subterfuge either. The second test could be more accurate than the first. We must, as a society, start using a little more common sense in how we interpret parts per million. I will bet anything that we are unknowingly eating lots of food that has in it materials toxic at high levels but not at extremely low parts per million or parts per billion. Iron in food is good for you at low levels but can kill you at high levels. I don’t mean to sound frivolous, but maybe vomitoxin has some advantages at low levels. It discourages appetite and so might be a way for the obese to loose weight.
I fear that a whole lot of wheat is going to get unnecessarily dumped, or at least a whole lot of farmers are going to get underpaid more than they should, simply because we now have the technology to measure extremely small amounts that are not necessarily significant.
Nor do I blame government officials for covering their asses by being as strict as they are. Heaven help the regulators if people got poisoned from bread, or even thought they got so poisoned.
Read the whole article here.
Happy Homestead Happenstances
By Gene Logsdon
July 29, 2010
How many slick tricks have you learned about farming and gardening more or less by accident? My favorite example happened because of laziness. I didn’t clean out the roof gutter on the barn for over a year. I have a longstanding prejudice against roof gutters anyway. Why not just let the water run off the roof onto a layer of gravel or stone along the wall? The gutters plug regularly and the water overflows anyway. This is especially true of my barn which sits in the woods. All sorts of tree leaves, twigs, and seeds end up in the gutter. Five tree leaves can plug a downspout no matter what kind of contraption you install to prevent it. And those screens that are supposed to keep debris out of the gutters become clogged and the water cascades right on over and down to the ground. That is, in any event, how I justify my laziness. Water running off the barn roof (as opposed to running off the house roof) is certainly not of any consequence as far as looks are concerned. In fact that water off the roof keeps the whole barnyard lawn nice and green all summer.
Now the plot thickens. Last year I decided to turn one of my pasture plots into woodland as you know if you have been reading this website. I figured I would just scatter all kinds of tree seeds over the plot and by and by some of them would sprout and grow. That does work, but I could see right away that nature’s way was going to be too slow for this old man. So I started transplanting seedlings. That too has proven not to be as easy or automatic as it sounds. Digging up seedlings is hard work and some of them die no matter how careful I try not to disturb the roots.
I was thinking about this situation one day in June when I happened to be walking past the barn. I looked up at the gutter and was startled to see that it looked like one very elongated pot of plants. All sorts of things were growing ludicrously out of it. But of course: maple, oak, ash, elm and wild cherry seeds had been washing into it for over a year. Some of them had sprouted and were growing with the abundance of rain that had fallen. I could lift them out with all their roots intact without straining one muscle, carry several dozen in a bucket at once, and plant them with only minimal effort.
Sometimes laziness pays. Happy happenstance farming!
Read the whole article here.
Despite Gloom, Things Are Looking Up For Garden Farming
By Gene Logsdon
July 21, 2010
There were several times so far this year when I almost wished I lived in a high rise luxury apartment in New York far removed from the paltry world of cutworms and purslane. First the crows ate up my whole first planting of open-pollinated field corn and when I replanted, too deep for the crows to peck out, several oceans of water fell on the cornfield and hardly a fourth of the kernels came up.
However, the sweet corn in the garden grew just fine. The raccoons and deer thought so too and somehow outwitted the electric fence. The score of the first planting: coons 65 ears; deer 18, squirrels 11, Carol and Gene, 8. And the eight were still immature because if we had waited one more night, they’d have been gone too. Still we had second, third, fourth and fifth plantings coming on and were getting the electric fence more fine-tuned for the job. So? A storm flattened planting No. 3. Why it bypassed most of planting No. 2 next to No. 3, I do not know. Meanwhile, the biweekly deluges also kept our onions from growing much beyond the size of ping pong balls and peas produced only about half. To top off all other calamities, the wheat crop in this part of the eastern cornbelt became infected with a fungal disease with the appetizing name of vomitoxin and lots of it can’t be used for human food and probably not animals either.
To raise food means to understand that Americans constantly totter on the brink of starvation and don’t know it. Society worries instead about where LeBron James is going to play basketball. We need a LeBron James of garden farming to put peoples’ heads back on straight.
We actually do have garden farming stars all over the place, and that’s why we keep winning the food games, despite raccoons, deer, Japanese beetles, cutworms, tornados, hedge fund investors and government “oversight” (good word for it). We never succumb to starvation or haven’t yet. And when I look out beyond the troubles that beset the world, I see much to be optimistic about as long as I don’t look in the direction of my pathetic field corn.
Food production is moving toward decentralization, and that is good news. With all the toxins and varmints and contrary weather and disintegration of the economy, our best bet, maybe our only bet, is to spread out the risks of food production to the largest number of people possible and that is happening.
I am just amazed at the momentum of change in this direction. I could use any number of news sources to prove the point but I am partial to the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA) and Innovative Farmers of Ohio (IFO) because I know quite a few members of these two organizations. I also pay attention to the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society because it is located in North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota. When you see organic, sustainable, natural , small scale, diversified food production growing vigorously in the very heart of large scale grain farming, you know for sure we are on a roll.
OEFFA and IFO members this summer have a very impressive program of farm tours and workshops going on. The diversification is amazing. 1.) A certified organic produce farm where you can see how to use windpower, rain barrels and heat sinks to decrease carbon use. 2.) A CSA organic produce operation (run by the Dominican Sisters of Peace!). 3.) A family farm poultry processing operation. 4.) A small scale poultry and beef operation featuring a “barnyard garden” (I’ve got to find out what that is). Also there is hands-on information offered here where one can also learn how to permanently protect a farm from non-farm development. 5.) A sixth-generation farm producing food for restaurants and CSA sales as part of a 300 acre corn, soybeans, small grains and hay operation, plus an apiary and a 32 stall horse boarding facility. 6.) Raised bed vegetable production with poultry that uses horse manure delivered to the farm for fertilizer. 7.) A goat dairy. 8.) A farm demonstrating conservation practices like real no-till and cover crops plus information on how to reconstruct old barns. 9.) An ecological center and farm not only demonstrating all aspects of sustainable farming but providing many programs for children. 10.) A bunch of educational programs conducted by the Ohio State University’s Sustainable Agriculture Team, including instructions on drip irrigation and advanced wine grape production. (I can remember when Ohio State sort of looked down its over-educated nose at what we were calling sustainable farming.)
I am getting too longwinded for one post here, but the farmers in the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society are just as diversified with emphasis more on all kinds of grains and grain processing. Its publication, The Germinator, though little known beyond the membership, is growing into a very useful source of information about sustainable farming in general. I can’t resist one item in the Spring 2010 issue because it involves the scourge of pasture farming. The North Dakota Department of Agriculture has been releasing a little bug with the long name of Ceutorhynchus litura that kills Canada thistle. At least two Dakota farmers have tried it and say it works. Now that’s good news. (email@example.com ) Maybe not up there with plugging that oil well, but a whole lot more important that where sports stars want to play their games.