Monday, 16 August 2010 12:13

The Grass Is Always Greener

Written by  Dan Davalle
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Before there were golf courses at every turn, before lawn mowers outnumbered lawns, before commercial fertilizers were available at Wal-Mart, there was manure ...

Interestingly, no one race, tribe or person can be attributed with the use of organic fertilizers to boost crops. Its history started with that of plant cultivation itself ... some 10,000 years ago. Native American tribes of the American east coast used fish to fertilize numerous crops. The most common species used for this purpose was the menhaden. The Narraganset called it "munnawhatteaug," which roughly translates to "that which manures." English colonists soon corrupted the word into “menhaden.” The Abenaki of Maine called them "pauhagen," their word for “fertilizer,” hence “pogy,” still a common name for the fish Squanto likely taught the Pilgrims to plant with their corn.

For much of the coastal farmland of New England and the mid-Atlantic, menhaden actually became an industrial-scale fertilizer during the early 19th century. Farmers often joined ranks to form small companies–with jaunty names like Coots, Fish Hawks, Eagles, Pedoodles, and Water Witches–that owned the boats, huge nets, and draught horses necessary to catch and haul tens and even hundreds of thousands of fish at a time.

Driven by industrialization, demand for lubricants and liquid fuel soared. Initially, this market was satisfied primarily by whale oil, but hunting caused whale populations to plummet. After the 1850s, menhaden, consequently, became the country's greatest source of industrial oil. Menhaden oil production was twice that of whale oil as early as the mid-1870s. Over 400 ships, from Maine down to the Carolinas, chased schools of the fish, sometimes 40 miles long. A single haul from a purse seine would often yield enough menhaden to weigh the equivalent of a blue whale. Their oil was extracted at nearly 100 factories, which sold the by-product as fertilizer to the nascent agricultural industry. The harvest of menhaden became a major component of this country's economy.

But this isn't about fish. It's about fertilizer. Which, naturally, brings us to Chicago's stockyards.

Fifteen rickety railcars delivered the first bovine arrivals to the Union Stock Yards & Transit Co. of Chicago on Christmas Day 1865. During the Civil War, the Union Army's ravenous demand helped to bolster the city's meatpacking industry into the largest the world had ever seen. With unprecedented growth, came growing pains. Consolidating the city's scattered stockyards into one colossal site seemed the only way to handle the swell. To make usable a tract of adjacent swampland, some 100 men dug 30 miles of ditches and drains that emptied into a fork of the Chicago River, later termed "Bubbly Creek" when slaughterhouse offal mired its waters.

Covering a half square mile, the yards soon filled with livestock in numbers never before witnessed. During World War I and the height of its existence, 15 million animals made their way through Chicago's stockyards in a single year, resulting in nearly nine million pounds of meat per day. There was nothing like it and nothing quite like the volume of manure generated by that many animals in one place, which brings us back, once again, to our subject.

The November 11, 1908 Breeder's Gazette included a story about utilizing stockyard waste, one worth revisiting. It would seem that the "virtues" of manure had only recently been unveiled to the growing populace. It is best told in its original form:

Until a few years ago even the barnyard manure pile was not always regarded as an asset of especial value. Every ocean-bound creek and river carried leached fertility, robbing the soil forever. Wherever a stockyard perched on the bank of a river, manure was persistently dumped into the passing current as the most expeditious method of disposal. Fertilizer values running into uncounted and inestimable millions have been wasted in this reckless manner, but the inevitable change has already been registered. Instead of a waste product, stockyard companies find manure a salable product and an accumulation impossible. Owners of large feed lots in various sections of the country no longer appeal to neighboring farmers to haul away the manure. Commercially, animal waste is acquiring standards.

Probably the American farmer will never place the same value on fertilizers that John Chinaman does. The wily Asiatic is credited with keeping his manure in fire and burglar-proof receptacles. While this is merely an exaggeration of speech, the Mongolian who may be found raising vegetables in the environs of the great American cities produces incredible quantities. His method of cultivation is intensive in the extreme, possible only by liberal applications of liquid fertilizer. It is not the American farmer, but the agricultural specialist who is responsible for developing trade in fertilizers. Adjacent to New York, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and other large cities are thousands of glass-roofed acres devoted to the floral propagation. Thousands of other acres produce vegetables at a season when out-of-door cultivation is impossible. The up-to-date vegetable grower in the North is busiest when nature frowns on activity in that sphere of production and his industry would be impossible without manure. It engenders heat and supplies plant food. The open-air gardener also crops his land in such an exhausting manner that manure must be applied annually by the many tons to the acre. The great and ever increasing park systems of the country call for more fertilizer annually, all of which must pass through commercial channels. Little wonder then that the refuse of the stockyards is carefully conserved.

Probably the largest accumulation of manure found anywhere is at the Chicago stockyards. Other markets produce it in smaller quantities, but their market is local, much of the product being hauled to adjacent farms and gardens in its original form. At Chicago, a definite system has developed and a regular scale of grades established from coarse strawy manure, worth $6 to $8 per car, valuable mainly for the liquids it has absorbed, to pulverized fertilizer quoted in bags at $18 per ton. The quantity of manure left by the 40,000,000 or more animals reaching the livestock markets of the United States annually may be imagined and yet a few years ago, most of it was wasted. St. Louis, Kansas City, Omaha and Sioux City hauled stockyard refuse to the river at considerable expense as the most expeditious and inexpensive method of disposal. Even farmers in the immediate vicinity refused the opportunity to carry the stuff away. The remarkable fertility of Washington and Jackson Parks, Chicago, is attributable to manure. For many years a conspicuous feature of stockyard landscape was a huge pile of decomposing refuse. During the winter months, thousands of tons of this condensed fertilizer were placed on the sterile gravel ridges created by the receding waters of Lake Michigan that the people of Chicago might have breathing space. The cavalcade transporting this manure from the stockyards was gaudily caparisoned. Harness glittered with resplendent brass and horses were the best that money could purchase, the procession moving with precision under the watchful eye of a uniformed, mounted marshal.

That stockyards dump has long since been replaced by a spur track where a string of cars is always waiting. The sorting process is severe, furnishing material that goes to the drier and pulverizer where, after careful preparation, it is sold on a guaranteed analysis. The coarse residue is sent to nearby points, florists and gardeners fairly clamoring for it. Mixing hog and sheep manure pulverized is the acme of fertilizer quality. Enormous quantities are used in cultivating house plants. New England tobacco growers are heavy buyers of concentrated manures and demand is always in excess of supply.

A few years ago manure was a serious menace to atmospheric purity at the big sheep feeding stations around Chicago. Feed yard owners actually paid the expense of hauling it to adjacent farms, soliciting permission to dump the stuff. Under changed conditions, each plant has a drier and whenever a carload is ready, it is promptly consigned to some customer in the East, orders being booked for months in advance. When St. Paul and Minneapolis became the centers of a great mutton-finishing industry years ago, manure disposal presented itself as a problem, but was solved by the hay-farming community nearby. Sheep feeders needed hay in large quantities and demand soon created a supply. Farmers discovered that the bald hills of Ramsey and Hennepin counties once treated with liberal applications of sheep manure produced grass luxuriantly and all winter they hauled hay to the feed yards, returning with the fertilizer that insured a succeeding crop. Had the mutton feeding industry in that locality not dwindled to small proportions in recent years, this by-product would be going east in dried and pulverized form by the trainload.

Coincident with placing a market value on what was but recently a stockyard incubus, a growing appreciation of the value of manure is evident everywhere. Tobacco growers in the East close feed every winter a large number of cattle not with the object of profit on the feeding operation, but solely for the purpose of securing manure, not an ounce of which is permitted to waste. Illinois, Iowa and Missouri corn growers prefer running sheep in their cornfields if they can thereby secure the market value of the grain consumed, realizing that the fertilizing value of the operation yields a profit. Land thus treated invariably responds with increased yields of grain in subsequent seasons. Southern Michigan, denuded of fertility by continued wheat growing, discovered a route to prosperity through the mutton finishing lot and farmers in that state now feed sheep and lambs regardless of cost to get a supply of manure. Land in the lower tiers of counties of the Wolverine State has trebled in value in a decade where sheep have been fed. Interest in manure has revived everywhere and in the economy of the future the compost pile will have a fitting and conspicuous place.

Within the memory of the present generation, cottonseed found a repository in the refuse pile, packing house by-products were dumped into vacant lots when no handy stream could be utilized for the purpose, and mill screenings (for which the sheep feeder is now asking $15 to $18 per ton) were consigned to the Mississippi River by Minneapolis millers. Material formerly wasted is now converted into manufactured product worth many million dollars annually and it was but logical that manure should finally receive enumeration in the category of salvage. An eminent engineer commenting on Chicago's expenditure of $50,000,000 in constructing a canal to carry the sewage of the western metropolis expressed the opinion that the money had been wasted. "What Chicago should have constructed was a reduction plant capable of converting sewage of the city into commercial fertilizer," he said. "Some day and perhaps the time is not far distant, every urban community of considerable size in the country will possess such a plant and they will all pay dividends.

And that, folks, explains how Chicago's parks and public spaces became so lush and green ... and how manure rose to its current level of distinction in the annuls of American history–no shit! POSTSCRIPT—The Chicago Stockyards were one of the city's world-famous wonders, visited by nearly every tourist and many luminaries from around the globe. Founded on its railroads, the stockyards became obsolete with the advent of refrigerated trucks and the interstate highway system. Packers decentralized and moved west, bringing this chapter to a close that had endured for almost a century.

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