Maneuvering Humanure

In taking the steps away from dependence (on fuel, on outside food sources, on nameless, faceless people making things in factories we will never see) one goes through many layers of hype, inflated opinions, greener-than-thou judgement and a speck of truth for every log of ambushing agendas.

My own journey has been one from processed white bread, bologna and boxed macaroni with ‘cheese food’, to food-based beauty and skin care, to shopping organically, to discovering my definition of ‘whole foods’, to growing and making things myself and shopping for items as close to their source as possible.

 As a person winds their way through the curves of discovering and implementing sustainability, it becomes less of a ‘level’ issue and more of a holistic thought issue.  As the Australian-born permaculture concept displays so clearly: little waste = little outside input.  The way we think about ‘waste’ in our culture is very wasteful indeed.

So I’ll just cut to chase in this instance.  You’ve all read the title, you all know where this post is going.  You may suspect what is about to hit the fan.

Aside from things like plastic cups, styrofoam bowls, paper plates, car batteries, toaster ovens and CDs, the thing known as “human waste” commonly refers to excrement; our poop and urine.  The term is quite fitting when these by-products of digestion are discarded (into landfills, into incinerators, into our water supply), when people think that when we flush it simply goes ‘away’.  But when the concept of recycling these things is harnessed, “humanure” can be one of our richest organic resources.

One of the tenets of a holistic view is the concept of cycles.  For humans, eating and digestion are both part of a cycle.  Other steps include enriching the soil, growing the food, discarding the post-digestion materials and, in the case of a broken cycle, wasting and polluting.  But in the case of a healthy, intact cycle, (the re-cycling aspect that keeps it all going) is to compost, and return to the soil that which we have taken from it.

Without going into great detail, I am not talking about the “night soil” that parts of Asia are infamous for (the spreading of raw human manure over agricultural fields) which is a known pathogen-spreading method.  But fully composted (meaning combined with adequate dry, absorbent material, and allowed to stand for at least a year with internal temperatures reaching at least 113F) humanure can be a rich source of (FREE) organic matter and (FREE) minerals, like nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus plus calcium and carbon.  Done correctly and well, not a trace of pathogens or harmful bacteria will exist in the finished, composted humanure.

While I’ve used outdoor latrines and squatted in the bushes many times, a compost toilet (as opposed to a ‘composting toilet’, which is the entire system – often quite expensive to assimilate or install) seems to me the best option for stewardship of our resources and ‘micro-husbandry’.  Latrines are a good idea in light of not wasting by flushing, but often carry the dangers of polluting ground water.  Squatting in the bushes, as any dog-walker will attest, is favorite of nitrogen-loving weeds like dandelions.

This simple compost toilet looks much like its cousin, but doesn’t get clogged up or spill over onto the bathroom floor when it’s upset.  As long as you can haul a 20-pound bucket from your bathroom to your compost pile this is a smoothly running system.

First you take a bucket, then you think about how you want to sit over the bucket and you construct a seat (in this case, it looks very similar to a regular toilet.  You then find some absorbent material (weed matter, dry vegetable scraps, cocoa fiber, rice hulls, sawdust – just not from pressure-treated wood which contains chromated copper arsenate, a known cause of cancer and not something you want to end up in your food garden) and keeping a supply nearby, like in another bucket next to the toilet, you line the bottom of the toilet bucket with 2-3 inches of the material to get a good absorbent layer started.  Then each time you use the toilet, simply cover your deposits with another fine layer of material and you’re good to until the bucket gets full and you exchange it for another clean bucket while you take that one out to the compost pile.

When composting the bucket contents, you want to have another good layer of absorbent, dry material covering the bottom and dug out, kind of like a bowl for you to toss the raw humanure into.  Cover that with another absorbent layer (all these absorbent layers are your carbon sources.  The human excrement is high in nitrogen and would take for-stinky-ever to break down and compost; you ideally want a ratio of 30:1, carbon:nitrogen in any compost pile.)  Once you have added consistently to this pile for a year, let it alone and start another pile so this one can get up to temperature and have time to break down, cool down and finish the composting (and disease- and pathogen-killing) process.

You are now ready to use your (FREE) humanure as you would any other compost throughout your garden, ornamental bed or orchard.  Congratulations, you have closed that loop and completed the cycle.

A Few Facts:

The Humanure Handbook, by Joseph Jenkins

-10,000 landfills have closed since 1982; 20% of these are the hazardous waste-contaminated Superfund sites.
-Older, unlined landfills can have a groundwater contamination area of 3.4 miles or more
-Organic materials thrown into landfills are the greatest contributors to global methane emissions; goodbye ozone layer.
-In the west, most of the water we defecate into is purified drinking water
-67% of the world’s households don’t have running water
-Americans use 340 billion gallons of water every day
-In 2000, 55% of US lakes, rivers and estuaries were not clean enough for fishing or swimming according to the EPA
-By flushing soil nutrients down the pipes, we increase our need for agricultural fertilizer – otherwise known as synthetic chemicals.  And so, erosion, nutrient run-off and excessive or incorrect use of these synthetic fertilizers is the largest diffuse source of water pollution.


And Now Back To Our Regularly Scheduled Program

Life. That’s what has happened for the past 4 months.  Busy-ness. That’s how we roll in Port Townsend.  Fundraisers, dance parties, fundraiser dance parties, volunteer projects, short-term house-sitting jobs, restaurant work, complaining about the weather and trying to sneak a or two into the mix are all some of the excuses I’ve used to neglect this portion of my life.  Those, and the fact that there isn’t really a portion of my life that is farming right now (which was the original purpose of this blog.)  But I’ve been doing plenty of gardening, personal and community, and finally feel rested and ready to reinstate relating to you my reflections on different representations of farming.

This is my community garden.

This is what two straight weeks of sunshine will do for any garden in the Pacific Northwest

Known as Wayward Farm Community Garden, it is one of more than 25 community gardens that have emerged in Port Townsend’s community at large of 8,000.  In the past few years the initiative to create community food security (mainly influenced by this grassroots collective) has simultaneously raised people’s awareness about what a secure food economy and community looks like (thus, all the community gardens and the surge of support the Jefferson County Farmer’s Market has seen the past few years) and raised the bar on relationships between the growers and the eaters (our market was voted the Best Farmers’ Market in Washington state!)

Statistics show that Jefferson County is the county with the highest percentage of its food dollars going to local food.  Folks, that number is a resounding 4%.  Of all the counties in Washington state, none are spending more than 4% of their food-buying power to support local growers and cottage-industry entrepreneurs.

Scarlet runner beans; food and beauty

Now one caveat to take into consideration (especially in Port Townsend)

Blackberries and Scarlet Runners grow towards one another's trellises to create a tunnel

is the amount of community gardens, where money isn’t being used to buy food to eat, but rather to purchase seed, fertilizer and tools to grow our own food.  Those are dollars not accounted for that contribute just as much – if not more – to local food security.  Having an abundance of small farmers and local food producers is a great thing to support, but taking the growing power into your own hands, working your own plot of soil and harvesting a bounty you helped to create, that’s the definition of securing your own food.

And even with the year we’ve had here in the northwest corner of the country (until about two weeks ago our temperatures were topping out in the low 60’s and it has been recognized that this has been the chilliest, wettest year on record since weather records have been kept starting in the 1950’s!) the production capabilities of the earth here are bountiful.

Did you know that lettuce is a cut-and-come-again crop? The heads on the left were harvested last week and are re-growing their leaves.

Eating locally means kale, broccoli, peas, carrots, beets, turnips, radishes, arugula, cilantro, lettuce, Asian greens, Swiss chard, potatoes, blueberries, blackberries, string beans, onions, garlic, strawberries, huckleberries, thimbleberries, salmonberries, spinach, zucchini, raspberries, orach, cabbage, plums, apples, pears, celery, salad burnet, thyme, rosemary, sage, parsley, chives, artichokes, and even grains like spelt, triticale, rye, wheat and quinoa.  It also means raw Jersey milk (legal for sale in Washington), artisan cow and goat cheese, pastured lamb and beef, free-range chicken and ducks (and their eggs), beet, carrot and cucumber pickles, jam, hard cider and wine.  (If you have a greenhouse, or a cold frame for starts, it can also mean tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and basil.)

I got lucky and found myself in a community garden that has been taken care of by its members. They have amended the soil, compost religiously, established some wonderful

Triple-bin compost system, some mulch and 'finished' manure

rows of perennial fruits (raspberries, strawberries, currants, blueberries and thornless blackberries) and play well together.  We consist of a landscaper, a dental assistant, a home-designing consultant, a computer whiz, a fiber artist, a full-time mom and her insect- and dump truck-loving 6 year old, a couple of retirees, a rowing club member and me.  Since we began turning under the winter cover crops back in April, we have seen at least 2 sowings come to bear in each of the 7 beds dedicated to annual veggies, with a third promising time to harvest before winter cover crops will again be sown.

We work together on Sunday afternoons and often bump into each other during the week as we stop by to harvest our suppers.  We have potlucked together a few times and some of us have found common interests bringing us together outside the parameters of the garden.  But mostly we all know that our reasons for joining a community garden, whether for human interaction, to learn about growing food, to celebrate good food or just to have a chance to work outside for a while, unite us when we probably wouldn’t have the opportunity otherwise.

Calendula; a hardy annual, reseeds itself and proliferates when dead-headed

Springing Forward

The weather on the Olympic Peninsula is slowly starting to warm up, the days are lengthening, the sun is poking its head out a little bit more and garden fever (or is it just March flu?) is taking over.  My new community garden had our first work party yesterday; pruning and trellising the berry patches, weeding and mulching the perennial herb bed and turning over the cover crops for the annual row beds.  At home (my new home, that is! no more living out of my suitcase), I’ve started seedlings in flats (repurposed bead boxes and egg cartons); broccoli, kale, turnips, beets and lettuce.

An old dresser that came with the house is in transition to become useful garden containers (cold frame, individual garden beds and a compost bin.)

Recycled window pane and altered drawers await cold frame-age

And I’m trying to cover all my bases in terms of deer-proofing my 2011 garden (Uptown, PT is notorious for snacking and roaming deer, at all hours of the day and night.  You should see some the inventive deer fences and barriers people have come up with!).  Currently scheming up a dome tunnel cloche, made out of bendable PVC pipe, rebar stakes and re-may fabric. Any suggestions?

Where it all ends up...and begins again. The compost heap.

Daylight savings time is less than a week away; it’s a shame that the weather doesn’t always get the memo that the people are ready to “Spring Forward.”

Oh No!

Check out the link above.

All you farmers out there (and concerned consumers) beware! The USDA has officially de-regulated the use of genetically engineered alfalfa – meaning that it will now be allowed to rampantly taint any other source of true and organic alfalfa crops nationwide!

With alfalfa being such a staple crop for any farmer with livestock, this means it is imperative to consider when buying hay for animals, meat from producers and manure for composting.

Please be conscious of this new loss in the organic world, and if you can, find some way to vocalize your outrage, discontent, fear, non-support, etc. for this move on the part of the USDA.

Of Milking and Hibernating

Great view of the morning, eh?

One of the reasons I love having animals on the farm setting is the routine they bring to the daily chores.  Most anyone with farm animals will tell you that the first thing you do when you wake up – before coffee or breakfast or reading the newspaper (ok, what farmer has time to read a newspaper?) – is to check on the animals; especially when there are calves or lambs that need more attentive care with feeding and milking, or when animals have to be moved out on pasture every day and brought into a paddock or barn at night.  And in the case of a dairy operation, milking is usually done at 12-hour intervals, somewhere in the neighborhood of 6-7am, and again at 6-7pm.  Besides, I like to rev up my body a little bit and get the blood pumping before devouring a hearty breakfast.

There’s something refreshing and peaceful about starting your day before the sun, even on chilly New England fall days, the cold, crisp air hitting your face wakes you up like nothing else.  This morning as we treaded past hilltop orchards on our way to the barn, we were admiring Venus in her celestial spot before the first rays of sunlight blinded her out.

Waiting for their scoops of grain

We arrived at the barn around 6:30 this morning and roused the 6 milking cows up from their slumbering in the barnyard; trying to give them adequate chance to use the little-calves’ room outside before being brought into the milking parlor.  Once all the ladies were up, we cleared the way for them to rush straight into the barn to their own, numbered and recognized stanchion (animals are routine like that and like to walk in the same order in line and stand in the same spot to be milked.)  To keep the cows from getting rowdy while we’re marauding their udders, they’re given grain to nibble on.

Into the strip cup

This particular dairy milks by machine, so all we did was wash the udders and teats with warm, soapy water (this helps the cow to let down her milk and wipes away anything she might have been laying in,) strip each teat into the sieved strip-cup, iodine dip and wipe each teat before hooking up the 4-prong, suction-power milk vacuum.

On the average, it takes about 8 minutes for the machine to milk out a cow, and we got around 2 1/2 gallons from each lady.  After each milking, we hauled off the 2-3 gallons in a pail to the holding tank where the fresh milk is cooled to about 35 degrees and slowly and constantly mixed to keep the cream from separating.  This farm sells both raw milk (on premises, per NY legalities,) and pasteurized milk and yogurt.

Once the deed is done, we unhooked all the cows from their positions and herded them into their pasture for the day across the road.  They walk in a single-file line, and like to have someone in front to guide them, though they need to have someone in back to poke and prod them on.

We told her we wanted to get a silly one

Yes, milking and animal chores first, then breakfast.

Some lately planted overwintering greens and herbs in cold frames

General garden cleanup is happening too; now that lots of things have died back with the first frosts (and with more time in a farmer’s busy schedule) we’re doing some maintenance landscaping – pulling up and cutting back deadness and old-growth to give the garden a bit more air and breathing space.  But overall, the feeling in the garden this time of year is one of unhurried-ness, a breathing out, more talking and conversation and less regimented daily orders of tasks.  There are no wilting deadlines to beat, no market deadlines to harvest before, no plant-by deadlines to ensure a profitable and successful season.  More of just relaxing and taking in all that the garden did this year, all that you ate and put by, more opportunities to check out that yoga class you didn’t have time for earlier, or getting to play around with baking some new ideas and recipes (both to come close to a warm oven and because you actually have the time now.)  The cycle of the year is coming to a close with winter coming on, hibernation and rest are the keywords for this time of year.  Planning next year’s endeavors will come in no time.

Inside the farm stand at the Pfeiffer Center

And so go the natural cycles; fall closes into winter and the garden goes to sleep for a bit, and though you may get to whip up some breathtaking baked goods and work on perfecting those poses, the animals are still there to regulate your daily cycles of attention – just to keep you on your hibernating toes.

The Dirt on Biodynamic Compost

Friend Kirstin

So I’ve taken a bit of a hiatus from the West Coast and am visiting another farm gal up here in the historic and beautiful state of New York.  Who would think that 45 minutes outside of the city, the charming village of Chestnut Ridge holds the nation’s first Waldorf School and education center based on the writings of Ehrenfried Pfeiffer and the principles of

Rudolph Steiner, grandfather of biodynamics. 

Kirstin with Eva

  The Pfeiffer Center here in the valley boasts 120+ acres of summer camp, a school, a eurythmics studios, intern and staff housing, an organic/biodynamic cafe, two miniature draft horses, historic barns and a community-centered garden.  My good friend is here doing a year-long internship with the garden and is getting an intensive education of all things biodynamic.

To start off with, the soil and its health are everything to the biodynamic farmer.  Live cultures and a viable life energy are the focus of building the soil through intensive composting and different concoctions made out of both plant and animal material that are added to the compost piles or made into a “tea” and sprayed over the crops and soil.

This morning we brought all the compost bins (trash cans on wheels) from around the community; one from the Waldorf school where the kids toss in everything from half-eaten apples, to lunch leftovers to the tired jack-o-lanterns of the last holiday; two from the co-op store up the street where the staff toss in food and drink leftovers from to-go meals and coffee; one from each dorm building on the campus where mostly kitchen waste and the occasional bouquet of flowers makes its way in; and even food scraps dropped off by neighbors and members of the greater community.

The mesh-lined compost bins are lined with straw or dried leaves on the bottom and around the sides as more is added to the heap, and between each good 5″thick layer of fresh food scraps about 2 cups of powdered lime is sprinkled on top and covered with a thin layer of readymade compost from a previous pile – a sort of inoculant to the new batch, kind of like keeping a sourdough starter going to use in fresh bread every week – before putting the mesh-lined lid of the container over top.  After about a month the container pile will have decomposed and packed down enough to scoop  by the forkful to an open pile that is then covered with straw and allowed to fully decompose and break down to the point that it resembles rich, dark garden soil.  At this point the pile will be gradually added to the garden rows after heavy-feeder crops (like corn and all the Brassicas) and also used as the inoculant for the contained fresh piles.

The thermometer is reading over 100 degrees

I have yet to encounter anyone or any farm that focuses so heavily on composting, makes it into a weekly ritual even.  And from first-hand experience, the folks here can tell you that the ‘biodegradable green cups’ (like what most hip, organic coffee shops give you to take your morning latte with you) are still in the piles after the rest has turned to humus, so they’re probably not the best composting material out there.  Although, the corn- or sugar-based utensils and cups that mimic their plastic counterparts break down readily and are don’t leave a trace as they break down just as fast as whole-food waste.

As I mentioned before, there are some compost ‘preparations’ that are used regularly; their purposes are to fertilize, make nutrient uptake more efficient, protect against diseases and give a certain vitality to the plants.  It could be said that these preparations give biodynamic produce that little bit of an edge over conventional and even organic produce from the same region – if you haven’t tried it, trust me (and then try it), biodynamic produce just tastes better!

Prep #500 (this doesn’t mean that there are 499 before it, it’s just the name assigned to the concoction…don’t ask me)  Manure is stuffed into a female cow’s horn (it’s hollow, as opposed to a bull’s horn) and buried in the ground for a year.  After a year it’s dug up, mixed into a barrel of water – stirred quickly one way and then the other for about an hour, this is said to “introduce chaos and potentize the tea” – and flung onto crops with a large paintbrush.  It’s said to stimulate root activity, promote beneficial bacteria, regulate pH and mineral content and help seeds to germinate.

Prep #501  Silica is also stuffed into a horn and buried for a year, then dug up and stored in direct sunlight.  It’s mixed in the same way as the manure tea, by short and quick rotations of stirring one way and then the other before being flung onto garden plants.  It resonates with light metabolism in the plants (photosynthesis and the making of chlorophyll) and heavily influences the color, flavor, keeping qualities and even aroma of the plants.

Prep #502  Dried yarrow is stuffed into a stag’s bladder, hung up over the summer and then buried for a year before being placed by the teaspoonful into a slot made in the compost pile then covered back up.  This happens anytime the compost pile is turned, maybe once every 6 months.  It helps plants take up any trace elements in very miniscule amounts for their optimal nutrition preference.

Prep #503  Chamomile is buried from fall to next summer inside cow intestines and upon being dug up also placed as a teaspoonful into a slot made in the pile and covered up.  It helps majorly with stabilizing the nitrogen (N) in the compost and invigorates the soil “life” which helps stimulate plant growth.

Prep #504  Nettle is another herb used in the compost pile, usually at its center, or “heart”, as nettles are known to enliven the soil and resonate with circulation and iron content.  A teaspoonful is placed in the middle of the pile and covered back up.

Prep #505  Oak bark is chipped off a tree and ground into a fine meal before being moistened and stuffed inside the cavity of a cow skull and buried in a swampy, moist area for a year.  A teaspoonful goes into the compost pile the same way and gives healing qualities to the plants to combat diseases; like a dose of white blood cells for your crop.

Prep #506  Dandelion is placed inside the mesentery of a cow, buried also and placed in the pile similarly.  It helps forge a bond between silica (Si) and potassium (K), and thus aids Prep #501. 

Prep #507  The nectar of valerian flowers is droppered into water to make a tea form that is then dripped into a hole in the compost pile as well.  Its use is for proper phosphorus (P) usage in the soil and plants.

Prep #508  The final prep is a spray of horsetail tea that is sprayed over the compost pile once all the other preps have been placed inside it.  It helps in resistance to fungal diseases and improves the moisture content of the soil.

*This is a great visual source for the preps

Sound cosmic, paganish or just plain weird? Maybe.  But the strong spiritual ties that biodynamic farmers feel in relation to the soil, garden and animals (in particular, cows) is attested to in the fantastic flavor and heartiness embodied by biodynamic produce.  To quote a member of Monday’s sauerkraut-making party: “It’s biodyummy!”