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Manure management: Getting the smell out of farm policy

by Wylie Harris

(Thursday, June 10, 2004 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- Staying clear of the manure can be as tricky in the nation's capitol as it is in a feedlot. As the line from the play goes, we are up to our necks in it which is why we walk with our heads held high.

In our barn there's an old manure spreader that's been rusting away since my grandparents' time. Back then, animal manure was a valuable source of fertilizer, and single farms commonly produced both livestock and crops. But with the postwar push to feed the world, "efficient" and specialized industrial-style production approaches, aided by farm policy, segregated crops and livestock on separate farms.

With the livestock gone, fertilizer had to be bought off the farm. Conveniently enough, the same factories that had spent the war turning nitrogen into explosives could switch easily to making cheap synthetic fertilizers. Livestock, meanwhile, could be grown fatter and quicker by feeding them grain in confined feedlots, instead of grass in open pastures. The manure, with no pastures or fields nearby to absorb it, just piled up in holding lagoons.

Synthetic fertilizers are lighter and easier to handle than manure, but they're also more mobile in the soil. They percolate quickly into groundwater, making it toxic. They wash overland into streams, poisoning them for fish and people alike. And they volatilize into the air, adding to the atmosphere's growing load of greenhouse gases. Synthetic fertilizer is produced in an energy-intensive process that burns natural gas, contributing further to the greenhouse effect. Natural gas, by the way, is most of the rising cost of the once-cheap fertilizers. During the 1990s, its climbing price turned the U.S. from the world's largest exporter of nitrogen fertilizer to the largest importer.

Meanwhile, the livestock manure, an ideal domestically produced organic fertilizer, sits unused in big factory feedlot holding lagoons just waiting for a heavy rain to turn it into a toxic spill. The City of Waco is engaged in litigation against several upstream confined-animal dairy-feeding operations over just such spills. But the problem of nitrogen contamination isn't just a local one. Excess nitrogen draining off the continent's fields through the Mississippi River is the cause of the 8,000 square mile "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico.

Despite the rhetoric about saving family farms, federal farm payments go disproportionately to the biggest operations, whose environmental offenses are the worst. Government support for corn which sucks up both the most fertilizer and federal dollars of any crop totaled $2 billion in 2002, with the largest 10 % of growers capturing 61 % of the take. Livestock producers received another $1 billion, with 53 % of that going to the biggest 10 %. That same $3 billion, incidentally, could have bought, and converted to wetlands, enough acres of Mississippi River basin cornfields to filter excess nitrogen out of the runoff water and absorb the 1993 floodwaters that did $10 billion worth of property damage.

Our political operators and their corporate agribusiness sponsors have their heads too high to notice the smell of their own misguided farm policies. That means it's up to taxpayers to raise enough of a stink to get them to manage their manure both the agricultural and political kind more responsibly.

About the Author - Wylie Harris ranches with his family on their fifth generation cow-calf operation in Texas. At Texas A &M, he is working on range ecology. He is also a member of the 2003-2005 class of Food and Society Policy Fellows, a national program funded in part by the Kellogg Foundation, administered by the Thomas Jefferson Agricultural Institute and the Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy.

This piece aired on Touchstone Radio on April 16, 2004