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More Farmers Turn Away From Chemical Fertilizers.

With the cost of commercial fertilizer keeping pace with gasoline prices, more and more farmers are turning to their great grandfathers' fertilizer--manure. Last week's annual Great Lakes Regional Manure Handling Expo, held this year in London, Ohio, gave the public a chance to learn about how to turn this waste product into a resource, and how the environment might benefit as a result.

Jerry Yanos and his sons started finishing hogs last October-his new barn holds 4,000 of them. 4,000 hogs can produce a lot of manure; he can't tell you exactly how much off the top of his head, but it's already 3 feet deep in a storage pool beneath the barn. The money that the manure will help the Yanos family save on fertilizer was central to their decision to start the new enterprise.

"You know when we were considering this it was almost two years ago, fertilizer prices were a lot lower, but even then the value of it as fertilizer was a big part of the equation of making the barn pay. It really wouldn't pay very well without that fertilizer. So that makes it economical [And now it's even better] Yeah. Some of the things we fertilize with have doubled in price since we decided to build, so, yeah. It helps a lot." Says Yaros.

A combination of factors is responsible for the price increase in commercial fertilizers. While rising natural gas costs have helped make nitrogen fertilizers more expensive, one of the Expo's organizers, Sandusky Watershed Soil and Water Conservation Districts' Mark Fritz, says that's just one factor.

"Most of them are petroleum based, and then tremendous demand from the developing world, primarily China and India. They have finally understood that they need to increase domestic production, give incentives to the farmers, and they will buy fertilizer no matter what the cost. I'm not placing the blame on them-that's a good thing, but that and oil price rises. That's it." Says Fritz.

When fertilizer was cheap, it could be easier to view manure as a burden, a waste product that could present challenges for storage and disposal. Increases in intensive animal agriculture over the last several decades also helped make animal waste a target of environmentalists. Lagoons of what one exhibitor euphemistically described as "swine nutrients" can leak or overflow into the surface water, and the biological effects can be devastating. But Fritz says that rising fertilizer costs could bring a welcome benefit to the environment.

"Manure has been the whipping boy of the environmental movement for quite some time. Those of us who have been around manure a long time know that it's a tremendous organic resource, but it has to be managed correctly, and it can indeed be a nasty environmental problem. So there is increasing environmental awareness, and also with the tripling of fertilizer prices in the last three years, there are huge economic incentives. Basically, if you manage the manure for economics, the environmental stuff will pretty well take care of itself." Fritz says.

The organizers took advantage of the good attendance to introduce "slurry seeding," a new technique that agricultural scientists and managers are excited about. Seeds for cover crops-plants that help the soil retain nutrients and organic matter in-between commercial crops-are mixed in with the manure fertilizer. But Mark Fritz says farmers are still warming up to the idea of cover crops themselves, and it will take a while longer before they're comfortable with slurry seeding.

"It's a fairly radical idea. Farmers are inherently conservative, but we think it will take off. They just need to think about it, see it a few more times, but we think it has great potential." Says Fritz.

Manure still presents environmental issues, though, especially when phosphates finds their way into lakes or streams, where it can create large fish kills. Department of Agriculture Soil Scientist Frank Gibbs, whose long hair, drooping mustache, and mirrored sunglasses might look a little more at home at a rock concert, uses an unusual demonstration to show farmers how watered-down manure can seep straight down to the drainage tile and out into surface waters.

"I put a giant smoke bomb that makes like 40,000 cubic feet of smoke in 3 minutes-the fire departments use them to simulate fires. And so I do this demo-where ever there's these pathways that lead down to the tile, the smoke will come right out of the ground, so I can make smoke come out of the ground thousands of places, and the farmers walk around through it, and then they realize that this is a real potential problem." Gibbs says.

Though farmers may have a deeper appreciation for the economic benefits and environmental consequences of manure, it's not always a welcome addition to a community: Neighbors protested when Jerry Yanos applied for a permit to build his hog barn. It's a new industry in his Indiana county-his is one of just three farms that finish hogs-and hog farms have a lingering reputation for odors and environmental pollution. Though Yanos says he hasn't had any complaints since the barn was built, he might have lost some friends in the process.

"Might be too soon to tell. Because some of them had definitely cooled-the relationship, and we didn't really, when we see eachother in public, we didn't kinda look the other way, and we'll have to see whether that heals over. I think it will." Says Yaros.

Like it or not, manure is here to stay. Nelson Creech, who was at the expo representing the farm equipment manufacturer Roto Mix, thinks it's is an integral part of the American lifestyle, even if we don't like to think about it.

"It's always going to be there. We like steak, we like to go to the steakhouse, and we like all these other things, but we don't think about manure. But it's something that's got to be handled, and handled properly, it's actually a big advantage to the farmer." Says Creech.

[JEH] Jonathan Hickman, WOSU News.