The Geography of Fertilizer

The parts of the country with the most intensive animal farming have so much manure they don’t know what to do with. Manure is bulky — it has a low value per ton. This is a problem. The reason Iowa farmers are putting chemical fertilizers on their cornfields instead of manure is that it’s a lot more concentrated, so it’s cheaper to ship. In fact, it’s cheaper to ship oil halfway around the world, make fertilizer out of it, and truck the fertilizer to the farm belt than it is to truck free manure to the farm belt.

So people are doing various dodges to try to get around this. An article in Wired discusses duckweed’s ability to grow in manure lagoons and create a lot of starch for ethanol, which is a lot simpler and cheaper than growing corn, and it uses manure that’s just being wasted, anyway.

But you gotta wonder. It’s supposed to be like the old ads for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. “Hey, you put manure on my cornfield!” “Hey, you put cornfield on my manure!” Two great things that go great together.

You’re supposed to generate manure in an area where people will pay you money for it. You’re supposed to grow crops in an area where you can get cheap manure. In spite of the current namby-pamby attitude towards manure (“Ewww! It’s so organic and smelly! Shouldn’t we disguise its origins by composting it first?”), manure is something that belongs out in the field where plants can benefit from it directly. Plants know what to do with manure. Plants and animals co-evolved for 600 million years. Plants have this manure stuff figured out. Farting around with methane generation or composting is okay if you don’t have any fields to spread it on, but it’s second-best.

On a regional level, getting the location right is hard. Crop generation and animal raising have different needs and cost structures, and livestock production drifted away from the Midwest back when fertilizer was cheap. Now it looks like the poultry industry is shifting back towards the Midwest, with its insatiable appetite for fertilizer.

On a local level, though, your setup is more controllable. For one thing, it’s possible to go into the manure-generation business yourself, by raising enough livestock to generate the fertilizer you need for your crops. This is what Edmund Morris describes in his 1860’s classic, Ten Acres Enough, one of my favorite back-to-the-land books. (Go buy a copy.) Morris had a ten-acre farm near Philadelphia, where he grew high-grade fruits and berries. His expenses for manure were astronomical, so he started keeping cow-calf pairs over the winter. This operation only broke even when you considered just the cash, but was insanely profitable when you counted the value of the manure.

This can still be done today. Frankly, I’m amazed that anyone even considers going into the contract broiler-growing business without having enough acreage to use all the manure profitably, because it’s the only edge that’s available to you. But most people don’t, so manure is free, or at least cheap, near broiler-growing areas.

In our case, we do things the laziest possible way, and raise our chickens outdoors, where their manure is added to the soil with no intermediate steps. This increases the fertility of the pastures and keeps them lush and green through most of the year. Chickens can eat lush green plants but not mature, woody plants. A diet that includes lush green plants does wonders to the flavor and appearance of eggs and meat, so we’re getting direct value from the exercise, plus restoring the fertility of the land.

I Publish Books! Norton Creek Press

Thoughts? Questions? Comments?

I'm wondering what your thoughts are on this issue. Most of my posts are based on input from people like you, so leave a comment below!
Robert Plamondon on EmailRobert Plamondon on FacebookRobert Plamondon on GoogleRobert Plamondon on LinkedinRobert Plamondon on StumbleuponRobert Plamondon on TwitterRobert Plamondon on Youtube
Robert Plamondon
Robert Plamondon has written three books, received over 30 U.S. patents, founded several businesses, and is an expert on free-range chickens. His publishing company, Norton Creek Press, is a treasure trove of the best poultry books of the last 100 years.

Author: Robert Plamondon

Robert Plamondon has written three books, received over 30 U.S. patents, founded several businesses, and is an expert on free-range chickens. His publishing company, Norton Creek Press, is a treasure trove of the best poultry books of the last 100 years.

2 thoughts on “The Geography of Fertilizer”

  1. You are right on with your comments. I’ve read Edmund Morris’ book several times, enjoying it each time. And I’m going to raise some chickens for the first time this year to complement my garden. (Your site has been helpful.) The gardening/small farm life is a wonderful way to spend one’s time.

    But it is cheaper to “ship oil halfway around the world, make fertilizer out of it, and truck the fertilizer to the farm belt than it is to truck free manure to the farm belt” only because costs are badly calculated. A lot of the harm done by this process to the environment, to soil and productivity, to underpaid and mistreated workers, and to global warming is ignored. I wish the prices could be correctly calculated, taking into account properly all costs.

    It is sad that corporate interests have such a firm control over agricultural policy in this control. But there are hopeful signs that the Obama Ag. Dept. is beginning to change course, judging from the nomination appointments. We can hope!

  2. DennisP,

    Thanks for the comments.

    I think that “true cost” arguments have failed the test of time. When I was given a subscription to Organic Gardening in 1970, people made the same arguments and gleefully predicted we’d all be dead by 1975 due to a combination of financial and ecological collapse.

    I’m all for eliminating farm subsidies of all kinds, but other than relieving the taxpayer of an unnecessary burden, I don’t think the overall picture will change much. Conventional farming is dominant all over the world (not just in areas that get US subsidies) because it works really well. You can tell it works well because an entire generation of American farmers (the ones who started farming before 1945) started out as non-chemical farmers, switched over en masse to chemical farming, and stayed with it for the rest of their lives. There was nothing to keep them from switching back if they wanted to. They didn’t want to. Farmers are nowhere near as dumb as people make them out to be, so the fact of their preference for chemical-based farming needs to be taken seriously.

Leave a Reply