Humanure Q&A

Humanure is a part of our farm.  It’s part of our land stewardship plan.  Humanure is also a part of your life, it just may not be part of your own stewardship plan.  We work to manage our resources carefully.  That means it belongs on the blog…just maybe with less frequency than you have seen lately.

I got an email from a reader with a few questions and comments about humanure.  I thought I would share my responses.  Keep in mind, we’re doing our best here but I’m far from an expert.  If you have a comment on any of my responses or any questions at all, please don’t hesitate to share in the comment section.  Also, as I have said before, this is more “how-we” than “how-to”.

With Humanure Handbook I do have a few questions that I keep hoping he’ll answer before I get to the end…aren’t there issues with compost piles leaching? That seems to be one of his objections to septic fields yet, surely compost will leach to some extent as well.

If the compost pile is built correctly, I’m not too worried about leachate.  Within hours of adding to the compost pile, the pile heats up to several hundred degrees.  Use big amounts of carbon at the bottom, always add to the top.  You’ll end up with a carbon barrier at the bottom, a healthy layer of compost above that and all your hot stuff further up.  I also maintain a buffer of sawdust around my compost piles when heavy rains hit because I have seen chicken…stuff…ooze out of the pile when it gets saturated.  I have to believe that happens underground too. I should also cover the pile during periods of heavy rain.  Finally, the compost pile, unlike a septic tank, moves from year to year.  This year’s is out in the pasture.  Last year’s is next to the machine shed.  The year before that was by the garage.  I don’t believe I can overload the soil with leachate in one year with 312 buckets and 1000 chicken’s guts…especially since I work so hard to put a heavy layer of carbon under the pile and work to control saturation.  The wife adds that she thinks by the time the cooked compost filters through the carbon base it’s going to be OK.

What do you do when someone in the family is sick – upchucking sick?  Currently I flush the bucket contents down the toilet.  Do you compost that?

Nobody has been sick like that for years.  I guess we’ll compost it.

He talks about hospitals having to have their own composting facilities carefully ensuring the temp in the compost is right for killing pathogens.  What if someone goes on antibiotics ([Husband’s] recent bout with his face infection comes to mind)?  Does that affect how you do things?

Antibiotics?  I dunno.  We really try not to use them.  I guess we’ll compost it.

We did have a very amusing family discussion about humanure, the upshot of which is that the kids begged me not to start that particular project till they were living away from home.  I have to get better at composting before I can do much with the idea anyway, so they’re safe for now.

For Pete’s sake.  Just build one. Composting skill?  How are you going to develop skill unless you’re motivated by 6 buckets of magical nastiness waiting by the back door and a husband and children who don’t think you’ll actually go through with it?  Go for it.  Quit fooling around.  Go show ’em!  The pretty girl with the braids wants to wear “Friends of the Environment Foundation” shirts so then give her a chance to make a positive contribution!  What can you use for carbon on the island?  We love having a big sawdust pile.  I use sawdust for everything now.

Again, let me know if you have any additional questions or comments.  The humanure toilet is really no big deal.  There is no sloshing, yucky mess. The carbon soaks up all the sloshing.  When you dump the bucket it just looks like wet sawdust…plus orange peels or whatever else you compost.

How Do You Recycle….You Know…That Stuff?

I’m going to use a dirty word.  It’s a word that will stop all conversation in the room.  People find it shocking…appalling.  Use this word and others will question your sanity.  In short, hilarity ensues.

Ready?

Humanure.

You are, quite literally, full of crap.  It’s a fact.  You produce it at intervals throughout the day.  What do you do with it?  Do you pollute drinking water to make it magically go away?  Where does it go?  Do you have a septic tank?  How often do you have to get that pumped out?  Where does it go from there?  Do you live in town?  Where does that go?  Sewage treatment plant.

Sewage treatment, under ideal circumstances, separates liquids from solids in several stages after removing odd bits of trash.  The trash and a large portion of solids head to the landfill.  That’s nice but what happens when it rains?  From a Wisconsin newspaper from October of 2010:

In all, about 9.1 billion gallons of untreated sewage-contaminated water — enough to fill 457,000 backyard swimming pools — were released into the environment by 276 villages, cities, counties and sewage districts on 1,198 occurrences statewide since Jan. 1, 2006, according to data collected by the DNR and analyzed by The Post-Crescent. The wastewater overflows happened in 58 of the state’s 72 counties, including throughout the Fox Valley.

Rain was listed as the cause of nearly 80 percent of the overflows since 2006.

The article linked above lists some truly horrifying stats on sewage overflows.  Nearer to home, I remember an event causing the sewage treatment plant in Jacksonville, IL to overflow, putting the city on a boil water order.  Let me say that differently.  Because of rain, everybody’s doody mixed with the drinking water.  The solution was to boil the doody-water so it would be safe to drink.

Ew.

Tell you what.  You can boil your doody-water all you want.  I’ll make you a promise.  It won’t be my doody in the water.  OK?  I have a better solution all of us can embrace.  Ready?  Compost.

I found Joseph Jenkins’ Lovable Loo some time ago.  We needed a solution for the barn as we were potty-training our daughter.  Plus our septic tank had failed and we were pretty desperate for an inexpensive solution.  Enter the eco-potty.

Jenkins’ excellent book describes a method of collecting our various biological deposits (wastes is the wrong word) in a bucket.  Everything goes in the bucket.  Everything.  Each deposit is covered with sawdust.  There is no smell.  Let me repeat that.  There is no smell.  We go through a bucket for each person in the house each week and use nearly a bucket of sawdust for each bucket we fill.  This is not a composting toilet, just a receptacle.

We compost our wastes on site.  Nobody hauls, pumps, aerates, filters or chops our waste.  It doesn’t have a chance to pollute fresh water.  More importantly, no Persians were shot to make the transportation of my doody cheaper.  We just carry the bucket to this year’s compost pile, open the pile and dump the bucket.  It really is just a bucket of wet sawdust when we dump it out.  Then we rinse (using rainwater when it rains (remember rain?)), wash with a biodegradable soap and rinse again.  The clean buckets sit in the full, sterilizing sun until we’re ready for them again.

We continue adding humanure to the compost pile for a full year.  At the end of the year we begin a new pile.  I don’t turn the compost because
A. that’s gross
B. that’s too much like work.

We just open the top, pour new stuff in and cover it all up again.  Then the pile sits unattended, unloved and untouched for another year.  By that time the material has cooked itself thoroughly, cooled and has been sifted, sorted and sterilized by earthworms.  Any bits of plastic or whatever are sterile and can be sifted out easily.  We also compost roadkill animals, chicken offal, pig heads and whatever else we can come up with but I’ll cover that in a separate blog post.

Jenkens uses his humanure compost on his garden after 2 years.  I have enough other sources for compost and enough need for compost other places that I choose not to.  It is uncomfortable enough asking guests to use a bucket.  It’s more uncomfortable to say, “Hey, remember when you were here 2 years ago and used the bucket?  I used that to grow tonight’s dinner!”  Nah.  Our pastures will benefit from the compost and we’ll use the composted winter animal manures on the garden…mostly chicken manure.  Somehow that’s less icky from a guest’s perspective.  Now, the EPA disagrees and says it’s no big deal.  It is unusual for me to quote a government alphabet soup agency in a positive way but let me state clearly that I am in favor of using biosolids in agriculture.  That’s kind of the point.  I think the municipal collection is wasteful, inefficient and unsustainable but since we have it let’s put it to good use.  But far better is to gather your own waste and deal with it yourself.  That may not be easy for appartment dwellers but I’m sure we can find a workable solution.  In a normal world, companies would pay you to collect and process your biological wastes…but we don’t live in a normal world (IMHO, largely due to alphabet soup agencies).  All that said, I promise you, when you’re at my house eating food from my garden you aren’t eating people doody.  Just composted chicken, cow, pig, goat, worm, duck, toad, snake, mouse doody mixed with a dead baby bird or two that fell out of a nest in a windstorm.

“OK.  Fine.” you say.  “I’m willing to try it if you can prove to me it really saves any water.  I mean, I have a low-flow eco toilet that I sometimes have to flush twice if I want to “deliver the mail”…but it says it’s eco!”  Did your water bill go down by 30% when you started using your double-flush low-flow toilet?  Our water bill went down by 30% immediately.

It deserves more excitement than that. We have saved at least $500 on water since we began using the toilet 14 months ago.  I think that’s pretty cool.  On top of that, I have an enormous pile of…compost I can spread on my fields.

This post is more “how-we” than “how-to”.  In fact, it really just introduces the concept.  For the real how-to I have to suggest Jenkins’ book and his series of Youtube videos.  Outside of those two resources, let me know if you need more detail or if you have any questions.  The best thing you can do is just get a couple of buckets and take it for a test drive.