Too Much of a Real Good Thing

Richard Oswald doesn't shy away from the subject of manure; in fact, he's all in favor of it. But he agrees with a new book, that the refuse of factory farming is a peril.

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Book review
Animal Factory
By David Kirby
512 pp., St. Martin’s Press, 2010, $26.99

To most people, manure smells bad. But farmers aren’t most people. To us, manure doesn’t seem so awful because we know the truth: Manure is a simple fact of life.

It happens.

One of the greatest problems animal factories have, more than real farms, is the sheer volume of “it” — pools and mountains of it. To summarize David Kirby’s book Animal Factory in four words: It’s all about manure.

This is hardly a compelling subject unless you enjoy manure factoids; for example, that all the CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) on the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay generate enough manure to fill a football stadium to the top row of seats. The sight or smell of manure concentration doesn’t make anyone but flies want to come back for more. In fact most folks just want to get away from it. So why read David Kirby’s book?

People who read this book will do so because factory farming just isn’t right. It isn’t right to place more farm animals on land than the land can honestly be expected to support. It isn’t right for anyone to degrade the value of neighboring residential property, especially when he himself is not willing to live on site and raise his own family next to his CAFO. It isn’t right to destroy the value of native resources by contaminating them with huge amounts of manure, manure that can be a blessing on farmland where it can be reasonably utilized. It isn’t right to steal opportunity from family farms while polluting both markets and the environment with their special brand of excess.

But it happens.

Aerial view of the Aurora “organic” dairy farm


It happens all over the United States these days. Like the Dutch dairyman who sold his farm and came to the US to produce milk in a way he couldn’t at home. In the Netherlands it’s getting harder and harder to keep huge numbers of farm animals in confinement, but not in the US. So the dairyman came here and placed 1640 cows on 160 acres. That simply is not reasonable by any standard. Low milk prices have pushed his dairy into bankruptcy. But his biggest problem isn’t money; it’s what to do with manure pools where a plastic liner has been inflated by methane gas. The liner has become an explosive balloon that expels manure from the storage lagoon as it inflates.

From there it all goes downhill.

Kirby’s book describes another livestock farm that had similar problems back in 2007. Page after page is devoted to seeping, leaching, flowing manure that turns rivers and streams and even the Chesapeake Bay strange colors, right out of the Kingdom of Oz.  Water is supposed to be clear. Healthy oceans and lakes can be emerald green or sky blue. In CAFO country, where manure volumes continue to grow and flow, water can also be red, yellow, black — and putrid.

A manure pit with beet-colored water on a factory farm.


Every book needs a hero. Animal Factory has several, led by the super hero Rick Dove. He’s a Vietnam vet, Marine Corps JAG officer, retired and returned home to his favorite boyhood place on the Neuse River in North Carolina. What he found beginning in 1993 first alarmed him and later made him physically ill.  Initially Rick didn’t comprehend the extent of the problem or its cause. But he soon found out that manure had overtaken his favorite fishing spot.

In Washington State’s Yakima Valley, Helen Reddout was making a similar discovery about her own community. A little later on, in 2001, Karen Hudson tried to keep the same thing from happening in her home town of Elmwood, Illinois, when a neighbor decided to build an industrial dairy.

To farmers like me who’ve waded and worn various amounts of manure most of their working lives, it sometimes seems a little silly to place so much blame on it. The difference is that our family farms actually don’t generate enough to suit us. We’d love to have more to enrich our fields and cut back commercial fertilizer bills. To us, it’s a natural resource. The difference is that when too many animals become concentrated in too small an area, fertility overload is the result. Land can’t handle the sheer volumes of so much concentration. To make matters worse, soil types and topography can be all wrong for absorbing the surplus. What happens next? Mother Nature flushes the pipes with rain and runoff into streams and rivers. All of a sudden, water, our greatest, most important natural resource itself becomes a source of pollution.

There are parts of the book I don’t agree with. For one thing the ease with which critics compare cattle burps to car exhaust. Really, does anyone believe that our herds of grazing cows pollute the atmosphere more than all the cars and trucks in the world? Not me. As a friend pointed out the other day, cattle have only replaced herds of bison that once grazed North America all the way back to prehistoric times.

What’s worse, ancient buffalo, beef cattle, or a drove of runaway, inedible Toyotas?

Kirby tells his story in 452 pages; 22 pages more are dedicated to a section titled “notes,” to substantiate all the claims and accounts in his book. That’s nearly one and a quarter inches through from cover to cover. Even though the story changes, the monotony of the subject leaves the reader feeling, chapter to chapter, as though he’s heard it all before.

Some books are like a pleasant walk on Sunday afternoon that ends too soon. This is not such a book.

Helen Reddout, formerly a cherry farmer in Washington, now works for Community Association for Restoration of the Environment, educating people young and old about the impact of farming on the Yakima Valley’s land and water.

Reading Animal Factory is a little like doing muddy chores on a dreary day. You dream of having something better to do, but end up thankful for loyal helpers who share the burden, people like Rick, Helen, Karen, and others — like my friends Chris Peterson and Brother David Andrews — all of whom are trying to save the planet, or maybe just a few family farms. 

We can only hope that eventually our people and our government will see that food shouldn’t come from factories built by agri-executives. Real farms are gritty, not always pretty. We’re home to manure, blowing soil, and chaff. But all those things, as bad as they may seem to city dwellers, are nothing more than reusable, biodegradable waste left over from the production of food. It is a reasonable premise born out by past history.

Real farms are the first recyclers. All those things go back biblically where they came from, just the same as the farmers themselves; Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. But when greed and money get in the way of common sense, too much of a good thing is way bad. As Animal Factory proves, these days, it happens way too much.

 

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