Solving the slurry problem
John Seymour, the author of a number of books on self-sufficient farming, here confronts the irony that one of the banes of the environmentalist nowadays is manure slurry - yet dung is the prototypical fertiliser.
Slurry is a raw, stinking liquid which poisons waterways and does a lot of other nasty things besides (one of which is to spread and encourage parasites and other diseases). Grazing animals will not touch grass that has been contaminated with it for up to a year or more, and who can blame them? It almost always gets heavily diluted with rainwater, and the farmer has got to get rid of it - particularly in deep mid-winter when his land is too waterlogged to absorb it and it all runs down into the nearest stream.
Farmyard manure is straw, stover, bean haulms, bracken or any other dried vegetation that has been used for bedding for grazing animals, pigs, or poultry, dunged on by them, then stacked in a muck heap for several months, then spread out on the land. Far more of the valuable elements (N, P, K and certain trace elements) that were in the dung originally are fixed and retained and can be used by the crops on which it is spread. It does not contaminate water courses, nor does any of it sink down to contaminate the water supply. Above all it adds humus to the soil and it is the presence of this latter substance that makes organic agriculture (ie agriculture that was traditional until sixty years ago) quite different from non-organic.
'By divorcing the grazing animals from the land on which their food is grown, agribusinessmen have taken a solution and cut it neatly down the middle into two problems!'
As Wendell Berry so elegantly says, by divorcing the grazing animals from the land on which their food is grown, agribusinessmen have taken a solution and cut it neatly down the middle into two problems!
The problems are: what to do with the manure produced by the animals and how to fertilise the land which produced their food? The solution, which worked for thousands of years and will work again when the world gets sane again, is to keep the animals on the land which grows their food, and put their manure (suitably composted) back on the land. I would claim that a third problem has been produced by destroying that solution and that is - what to do with the straw inevitably produced by the crops that feed the animals and also that feed us. The agribusinessman burns it if he is allowed to, thus destroying what should be a most valuable addition to the fertility of his land. If he is not allowed to burn it, he chops it up small (with an enormous expenditure of scarce oil) and ploughs it into his land. If he does this, the bacteria that rot the straw rob the soil of all its available fixed nitrogen and so the agribusinessman has to dump ever more artificial nitrates onto his land (most of which eventually find their way down to the water table - or into the nearest river).
'Work on a mixed farm, with a great variety of crops and animals, is the most delightful thing in the world'
Critics argue that people are not going to be persuaded to leave the busy and exciting environment of a big city for the loneliness and isolation of a farming community. Therefore, because of a shortage of willing hands, we cannot go back to organic farming. They speak, rightly, of the utter boredom of life on the farm. But they are thinking of the large-scale agribusiness holding. Sitting in the cab of a vibrating tractor with ear-pads on for day after day is absolutely soul-destroying. But work on a mixed farm, with a great variety of crops and animals, is the most delightful thing in the world. I know - I have done both. There are plenty of people who would be only too glad to leave the ugly and polluted conurbations for that sort of life.
As for the ones who don't want to - who knows - when the oil runs out (remember the feedstock for all those lovely chemicals) they may have to. After all - we country people don't have to feed them, do we?
John Seymour, Killowen, New Ross, Co. Wexford, Ireland (tel 010 353 51 88156).