What We Know
One early morning last week, my sister’s blue Honda pulled into my driveway, just as the sun was turning the branches of the neighbor’s oak tree golden. We live about 10 minutes apart, so we get together a few times a week for a run or bike ride, and to catch up on family news.
This morning she walked up the front stairs and as I opened the door to let her in she handed me an old publication – flaking, yellowed, and lightly dusted with mold and mildew.
“Look at the date,” she said. I was afraid to unfold the thing or turn the pages for fear it would crumble in my hands. In truth it was not as fragile as I had first thought. So I put it down on my desk and opened it so I could see the front page. October 14, 1893.
Gently examining the time-stiffened pages further, I saw that it was a copy of the Orange Judd Farmer, published near the conclusion of the six-month Chicago World’s Fair. The fair showcased a newly rebuilt city, 22 years after the Great Chicago Fire; exhibits from 46 nations; and the latest in architecture, art, transportation, urban planning, engineering, science and agriculture. Among the ads for Spencer’s Full Circle Hay and Straw Press, the Staver Buckeye Feed Mill and Power, and the Page Woven Wire Fence Co., an article on the second page caught my attention: Saving Manures.
The article starts:
It is not necessary for Experiment Stations to tell us that manures, kept continually exposed to rain and sun, must lose their essential elements, and that, too, very rapidly. We see very often streams of dark, black liquid issuing from fertilizer heaps, and perhaps running down some slope into pond or brook, where the crops are not liable to receive much benefit from them. Why are these leaks permitted and how remedied, are the questions. The first is hard to answer, but the second is no very difficult solution. Mix manure liberally with absorbents, and keep under cover.
It concludes with this sentence:
The matter of saving manure can not be looked into too closely. It is folly to depend on commercial fertilizers when much of our own manure goes to waste.
I was struck by the idea that this article could have been written today – nearly 125 years later. I must confess the realization gave me mixed feelings. My first reaction was one of comfort. Why? In part, because I had just attended a manure composting demonstration as part of the 2017 North American Manure Expo at Endres Berryridge Farm, LLC. Jeff Endres, one of three brothers that operate the dairy farm, is experimenting with manure composting for the heifer calf part of their operation. Jeff’s composting operation uses the same basic practices recommended in 1893 – Mix manure liberally with absorbents, and keep under cover. There was comfort in being reminded that some best practices never change.
During the tour, Endres shared three primary reasons for looking more closely at composting as an innovative manure management strategy: yield boosts (alfalfa), operational flexibility (spreading on growing crops), and keeping nutrients on the farm and out of the water (lower mobility and longer spreading windows to further minimize runoff risk).
Given all the benefits of managing manure through composting, my second reaction was a bit of frustration mixed with curiosity. How do the fundamentals become lost? When we respond to changing market conditions and new technologies, how do we keep the fundamentals intact?
Then I realized that as much as we know about managing manure, we probably know even more about fundamental best practices for communicating information. Humans have always passed important lessons down from generation to generation, through relationships and stories. Even in the age of automation, social media, and big data, we rely on relationships – person to person and smaller group communication with trusted sources – as we attempt to sort fact from fiction. And we know the value of stories for translating complex ideas and helping them stick in our individual memories and our networks. While we need science to help us analyze information, we need compelling stories to communicate that information effectively. While funding for manure management and other conservation practices is critical, we know that investing in a sufficient number of well-trained people to assist with conservation decision-making is a fundamental best practice.
A lot has changed since 1893 Chicago World’s Fair; however, we cannot lose hard-fought lessons that are still valid today. We know that composting, saving, and properly distributing manure nutrients makes sense for agriculture. And while the Orange Judd Farmer said we didn’t need the Experiment Stations to tell us that, we do need someone to keep speaking up. Perhaps the Experiment Stations, the Extension system founded nearly 20 years later, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, conservation NGOs, local conservation districts, and insightful farmer and ag industry organizations, all working together, can help us keep ideas that have anchored agriculture and rural communities for hundreds and probably thousands of years front and center.
If you would like to contribute ideas for the future of the North Central Region Water Network, feel free to send me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rebecca Power, Network Director