Wednesday, January 12, 2011


            This past Monday, two disparate but dovetailing print snippets caught my eye. The first, from the Wilmington, NC, StarNews, was about a lawsuit brought against one of the area’s industrial hog farms for “…persistent dumping of hog waste into” the Neuse River watershed. The second was the epigraph to Chapter 12 of Greg Mortensen and David Oliver Relin’s Three Cups of Tea, which details Mortensen’s struggles to build schools in the Baltistan region of Pakistan.

            You connected pig poop with Pakistani schools? you ask.

            Well, yes. Read on.

Hog-waste lagoon
flooded by 1999's Hurricane Floyd

            Problems with hog waste disposal are not new to eastern North Carolina. Typically, the tons of pig excrement produced by concentrated animal feedlot operations (CAFOs) is collected, thinned with water, then stored in huge above-ground structures euphemistically called “lagoons.” There is currently no environmentally sound or commercially feasible use for the noxious slurry. Mostly it leaches into the ground. Eventually. A rumor persists that the USDA has research teams working around the clock to alchemize this crap into some kind of gold. Be that as it may, during the epic flooding caused by Hurricane Floyd in 1999, dozens of lagoons breached, inundating acres of land and tributaries of the Cape Fear and Neuse Rivers with skillions of gallons of the stinky stuff, an environmental disaster downplayed with great skill by local media who know on which side their bacon is buttered.

Arguably, it’s one thing when the powers-that-be can blame an act of god. It’s something else entirely when CAFOs regularly thumb their noses at the federal Clean Water and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Acts. Industrial agriculture, like Wall Street, Big Business and the NRA, calls the shots, because our elected “representatives” are willing to sell their souls and our futures to the highest bidder just to stay in office.

Well, enough political rant. It just gets me all het up, raises my blood-pressure and serves no useful purpose beyond venting. The frustration itself remains.

The second bit of print that sparked this diatribe speaks to what we, as individuals, as gardeners, can do in the face of the Big Boys. (This is where Pakistan comes in.) Attributed to Helena Norberg-Hodge, founder and director of the International Society for Ecology and Culture, the epigraph that caught my eye goes like this: “…our search for a future that works keeps spiraling back to an ancient connection between ourselves and the earth.” (Emphasis mine.)

Helena Norberg-Hodge
The continuing hog waste debacle, and how profit for the few trumps the well-being of the many, got me thinking about synthetic fertilizers. Connections!

Let me tell you a story.

Until the end of World War I, farmers everywhere used only composted manures, kitchen-and-garden wastes, and seaweed to amend their fields. That’s all they had. Recycling wasn’t some hippie-tree-hugger pipedream, it was both an economic necessity and the only course of action that made sense. Once hostilities ceased in 1918, however, armaments manufacturers faced severe income losses. Some bright soul, probably noting the lush plant growth at his factory’s out-flow, figured out that the same ingredients used to make big booms—nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium—also enhance crop performance (kind of Timothy McVeigh reasoning in reverse). Tim says he can almost see the foremen on the packaging floors yelling “Stop!” and manhandling big valves closed, bringing the clattering lines to a stand-still. They produce bags and boxes with different, unwarlike labels, and install them on the filling machines. “Okay, start ’er up!” they cry while reopening the valves.

Toss in an aggressive marketing campaign, and day dawns on the commercial fertilizer industry.

Better living through chemisry...

Crop yields rise dramatically the first several years. But over time, so do pest problems and soil depletion. (Can you spell “Dust Bowl”?) Why? The new, “chemical” plant foods come formulated as salts that, once in the soil, have to break down in the presence of water before their nutrients are available to plants. The salty by-products of this reaction don’t magically disappear from the soil: they accumulate. Exposure to excessive salt causes the soil microbiota that form the base of our food chain to dehydrate and die. That’s why, once you start using synthetics, you have to keep on using them, and more of them, because their mode of action essentially renders the “fertilized” soil sterile.

The whole concept seems rather stupid when put that way, doesn’t it?

...and gene splicing
Eager to accelerate the environmental mess they'd fomented, the armaments guys—now with names like DuPont, Bayer Crop Science, Monsanto, Dow Agrochemical, Scotts, and Ortho—got into the pesticide business as well. Now they could poison fish and birds and whole ecosystems as well as bacteria and fungi. Bottom lines burgeoned.

Okay, I’m being a tad over-dramatic here, but you get the idea. Taking the non-blame-laying path, one could say the early days of “Better living through chemistry” had myriad unintended consequences. Anybody out there besides me old enough to remember DDT and Rachel Carson? I’m just not too sure about the “unintendedness” of the consequences of agri-business practices today. The politics of genetically modified organisms, especially the ones we eat, is a subject for another day.

Soil science made understandable
The point of all this is, as gardeners in our own little yards, in our own community gardens, on our own town’s streets and medians and parking lots, our first responsibility is to the soil. Without healthy, living dirt, ultimately we got bupkis.

For me, the eureka moment came during a class on soils Tim and I attended, opening my eyes to the notion of feeding the soil instead of the plants. Then I read Teaming with Microbes: A Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis (see “Good Reads” on the sidebar). The obviousness of how everything in nature connects moved to the forefront of my consciousness. "Never send to know for whom the bell tolls," John Donne warned centuries ago. "It tolls for thee."
Biodegradable BioBags
 I started a compost pile. We've reduced the amount of garbage set out on the curb each week to one bio-bag of dry stuff: the rest we turn into food for our dirt. I stopped buying fertilizers with high N-P-K numbers. I cadged shredded leaves from a client to use as mulch (he was going to throw them out!). You already know I remove weeds by pulling them. When it comes to pests, I practice prevention: right plant, right place makes a lot of difference. When damage exceeds acceptable limits, control starts with mechanical means—a jar of soapy water, the bottom of my shoe, transportation to the birdfeeder—or with low-residual-impact products like insecticidal soap and horticultural oil. We installed rain barrels. Tim uses an electric lawnmower. And the lawn gets smaller every year as I add new beds.

There’s no point in hand-wringing and moaning about not being able to make a real difference. No, we’re not going to bring the military-industrial complex to its knees by practicing sane horticulture on our little patches… not in this century, anyway. But we can change our attitudes. Little connections become clear, little adjustments follow.

“Only connect!” E.M. Forster exhorts us in Howards End. “Live in fragments no longer.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Thanks for dropping by. Wanna hear about my adventures in composting next time?