Like many who find themselves socially isolating in the days of coronavirus, I have been busy in the vegetable garden. The difficulties of shopping, coinciding with the start of spring proper, have reminded many of the importance of a good vegetable patch. This may become even more important in the financial collapse and recession we are likely to meet after the plague has settled.
I had been planting and sowing and found that I needed labels to identify what I had put where. Without labels I would never know what had failed to grow in each bare patch of earth. Normally these labels are scattered about the greenhouse and garden scribbled with hopeful names which only occasionally become useful. But now that I needed some there was not one to be found. I could not go into town to buy new tags, as in nobody’s view could this be seen as essential travel. I needed to improvise.
Fortunately we buy a number of sheep licks each year. These come in large tubs with colourful plastic lids. These are often pressed into service as frisbees for the dogs but I realised that they could also help in my predicament. Five minutes work with some scissors and we have wipe clean colour coded plant tags and less plastic that will need to be dealt with as waste.
In miserable times, such as these, simple successes like this do tend to raise the spirits slightly.
Unfortunately this blog needs the reader to understand the basics agricultural science and animal husbandry. I will try and simply these as best I can and I hope that what follows is not too dry nor technical. I am sure that any reader of average intelligence will be able to grasp the fundamental principles with only a modicum of effort. Let us start with the basics – the animal. Figure 1 is a schematic of a basic farm animal and, as we will show later, is a satisfactory diagram for all livestock including cattle, sheep, pigs and even poultry or exotic species such as llamas or alpacas.
As you will see from Figure 1 there are two ends to your animal : the front (or pointy) end and the back (or round) end. One of the first tasks in farming is to be able to tell these ends apart. The front end the the usual end that leads when the animal is moving and the end it will present to you when it wants to be fed, or wishes to injure you. For this reason, the pointy end often comes complete with jaggy horns or sharp teeth. While the front, or pointy, end is the prettier end it is also usually the more dangerous.
The round back end is the end that follows when the animal is moving. This is the end you will see when you are trying to capture your animal. Something you will learn quickly, when you have animals, is that all your animals are faster than you when you want to catch them. You will spend a lot of your time looking at the rear ends of your animals as it disappears into the distance. A primary reason for knowing the ‘ends’ of your animals is that it helps understand the throughput of the animal. The front end, to use the modern computer jargon, is the input end while the back, or round, end is where all the output arises.
The rear end has multiple outputs. At the bottom , on some species, there are dangly bits; these, with a bit of manipulation, give production of milk and subsequent dairy products. Above this is the first of two openings. This one, if all your stockmanship has gone well, will give rise to meat production by giving new small versions of the animal. Above this is the most prolific output opening. This is the source of animal excrement something the budding farmer has to become familiar with very quickly as they will spend a large part of their time covered in this.
It is a mistake to call this last product animal waste. It is only waste if you waste it. The entire agricultural revolution that allowed humankind to start to grow and colonise the world was based on animal excrement. Humans discovered that by rotating crops, interspersing harvests with periods leaving the ground fallow, and using animals to manure the fields they could make land much more productive and stop the loss of nutrients from the soil that otherwise would follow on taking the crops as produce. This allowed a sustainable cycle to be developed. The soil gave nourishment to the plants, the animals and we ate the plants, and then we and the animals nourished the soil. Ultimately by being buried in it when we died.
This revolution allowed us to expand as a species and provided the energy and population growth which permitted the next great revolution : the Industrial revolution. In this there was the formation of large towns and cities and a growing disconnection between town and country. This broke the cycle that had been established. Now nourishment was taken from the land and moved to the towns for consumption. In the urban areas the excrement was not returned to the countryside and the nourishment was not returned to the land. There had been systems where ‘nightsoil’ was collected and returned to be used as manure but after the link between cholera and human excrement became known this fell from favour. The problem became much worse with the development of flushing toilets and sewers which meant the excrement was sent out to sea where sometimes it us harmful rather than contributing to a growing cycle.
Even Karl Marx was aware of this problem and he wrote :-
“Large landed property reduces the agricultural population to an ever decreasing minimum, and confronts it with an ever growing industrial population, crammed together in large towns; in this way it produces conditions that provoke an irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself. The result of this is a squandering of the vitality of the soil, which is carried by trade far beyond the bounds of a single country.“
Karl Marx, Das Kapital, 1894
For a while this breach in the cycle was filled by importing large amounts of guano (bird poo) from across the other side of the world until the discovery of the Haber-Bosch Process which allowed the production of chemical fertilisers. All modern agriculture now uses this method of chemical enrichment of the soil to try and compensate for the loss of sustainable and natural ways for farming. However, there are serious concerns that this method of working is not sustainable and we are ignoring potential irreparable damage to our soils.
Indeed, rather than dealing with this threat we are increasing its risk. Our growing use of monoculture crops and the practice of feedlot farming (where animals are penned and fed concentrated feedstuffs, usually cereals, to rapidly fatten them) further break the sustainable cycles we know we need. Even with regard to waste we have not learnt much. We have, on rather faulty logic, essentially ended the recycling of food waste by feeding swill to animals (usually pigs). Now this food waste which could have, after going through the guts of a pig, given manure for the land and food for the people (and hence reduced the need for production) instead finds its way into landfill. At best it finds its way into anaerobic digestion plants to create biofuels which is a very inefficient way of dealing with it. This is only considered because the food waste is considered ‘waste‘, were it considered a resource it would not be undervalued like this.
So, in conclusion, the round end, although it is often the smelly and dirty end of your animal, is possibly the most important part of the beast and what comes out of it should be treasured and not squandered. There are good reasons to think that this also applies to our own round ends and we should seriously think how we start using the one thing all of us manage to effortlessly produce.
If this sparks an interest the book Humanure may be well worth reading.
I can remember often uttering phrases such as “from what I can glean” or “I glean that the management had plans to close the unit“. All these times I spoke about gleaning I never actually did any gleaning, and was unaware of the origins of the verb, until recently. Today, however, I, and my wife, were mainly occupied in gleaning.
Gleaning is the action of collecting leftover crops from fields when either the form of collection, e.g. mechanization, or the quality of residual produce, make it uneconomic to collect 100% of the harvest.
Today we gleaned our neighbour’s field for some hay. His cutters and balers do not work into every corner of the field and there is plenty of good quality hay which goes to waste because it can not be gathered mechanically. When we collect it by hand we save on our feed bills for the goats and our neighbour benefits, marginally, by having a tidier field. By gleaning after the main harvest we increase the productivity of the field to closer to its maximum.
The practice of gleaning has a long history and is discussed in the Hebrew Bible where it was seen a right for the poor – only the poor were allowed to glean, not the rich landowner, when the crop was taken the remainder was to be left for the gleaners. It was in 1788 that the right to glean in England was removed (to secure property rights), prior to this often a church bell would toll morning and night to let the poor of a village know when it was right to glean the harvested fields.
As it increases the efficiency of the harvest by reducing waste we need to promote gleaning but it need not be as physically demanding as our day raking the loose hay in the fields. The developing action of giving unsold food in supermarkets to the poor is a modern form of gleaning, as are the trends to gather and use the “ugly” fruit and vegetables that can’t be sold in the normal trade. At its extreme “dumpster foraging” is a form of gleaning as it saves some of the harvest from being lost.
It is shameful that we waste up to 40% of the food we harvest. We need to try to tackle this problem. In America the Society of Saint Andrew is the largest gleaning organization, here in the UK it is The Gleaning Network. Excuse the dreadful pun, but I’d urge you to try and glean as much information as you can about this and see if there are opportunities for you to take part in this activity.
When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all your undertakings. Deuteronomy 24:19