Thursday, October 30, 2008

Fertilizer/Hog Reversal

Keeping pigs on dirt in the same spot leads
to nitrates building up in the soil.

Michael Pollan recently wrote:
But if taking the animals off farms made a certain kind of economic sense, it made no ecological sense whatever: their waste, formerly regarded as a precious source of fertility on the farm, became a pollutant — factory farms are now one of America’s biggest sources of pollution. As Wendell Berry has tartly observed, to take animals off farms and put them on feedlots is to take an elegant solution — animals replenishing the fertility that crops deplete — and neatly divide it into two problems: a fertility problem on the farm and a pollution problem on the feedlot. The former problem is remedied with fossil-fuel fertilizer; the latter is remedied not at all.
I've read other things in farming publications.

Essentially, fertilizer is expensive. It turns out that people are building hog confinements so that they can get the fertilizer. You even have people asking if "manure is more valuable than hogs?"

The basic idea is that if you capture all the manure (something possible with a modern confinement building), you can then apply it to your fields and reduce your fertilizer cost, in addition to recycling the manure.

If you keep your hogs in dirt lots (as opposed to a modern confinement), it is harder to capture the manure. The nitrates go into the ground, increasing over time. Eventually, if it rains on your property, the rainwater leaches away nitrates, which go into the streams and rivers.

So from one perspective, building a confinement that allows one to capture and then redistribute the manure, in a controlled fashion, is more environmentally friendly than alternatives that don't allow one to capture and spread the stuff. Hog confinements don't have to be big - a lot of farmers in the Midwest own small hog confinements. Some of them don't capture the waste so that it can be reused - but they'll retrofit them in the coming years.

If nothing else, if fertilizer continues to be so expensive, you'll have more big hog confinements, due to the new incentive. That would be like a return to the days of Harris, about a century ago. Back then, people also raised hogs for the manure, in addition to raising hogs for their fat (which, barring the gourmet segment, isn't likely to happen again).

Perhaps people who don't like confinements should be rooting for a return to the day when manure wasn't so valuable, because the fertilizer income gives confinement operators a competitive advantage over non-confinement pork producers.

I'm not intending to attack Mr. Pollan. I think this issue is interesting because it shows that farmers (big or small) react very quickly to incentives. When manure was toxic waste, they treated it that way. Now that things are different, they treat it like liquid gold. Smelly, disgusting, liquid gold.


Anonymous said...


It seems pretty clear based on the last few weeks of your posts that you have plans to, or are seriously considering, either opening a confinement barn or contracting a confinement farmer to raise your pigs.

I wish you would just come out and say so.

Heath said...

Stonybrookfarm -- I don't have any plans to what you think is "pretty clear."

What happened is that I've been studying issues related to confinements and how people raise Iberico. When I learn interesting pig things, I often share it via my blog.

As Richard P. Horwitz explains in his book - most issues related to hogs aren't crystal clear.

I delight in making issues - particularly hog issues - clearer to people. A lot of times that means showing people that two things that they think are the same or somehow working in the same direction are actually different and working at cross purposes.

Other times it means showing people that there's an entirely different way to do things. E.g. the way the Spanish produce their hogs with a hybrid of traditional and modern methods. Not only is their way of producing hogs hard to reconcile with Big Agriculture or the ways of hobby farmers, but their focus on eating quality is something that neither big producers nor American hobby farmers generally concern themselves with.

Brian Hayes said...

"I delight in making issues - particularly hog issues - clearer to people."

"...that there's an entirely different way to do things."

Every so often somebody bumps you to the side. For example, Bob bristles when he reads about industrial methods, or, Bruce in Seattle reacts to excessive gentry. This is generally darn healthy. There's plenty of issues to rediscover and clarify.

Maybe typing a few extra words merely to say, "Hey look. This is the issue over here," or "This is how it's been done over there," will allow you to keep your candor without being thrown out as the messenger.

I enjoy your curiosity and the vigorous pride put into your work.

Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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