Everything Comes Down To Poo – Part One

It’s better to break this one up into two parts due to length, but keep in mind when I describe how I walked through the mountains of manure that it’s all part of a grand poo-themed scheme.

Not that farmers, mothers, pet owners, sanitation engineers, and zookeepers don’t already know this, but everything comes down to poo.  In reefkeeping, waste management is as important as lighting.  The energy that goes into the tank has to either stay in the tank in a useful form, such as increasing the mass of the livestock, or come out of the tank before it contaminates the system.   Waste products are pollutants, and if the pollutants cannot be transformed they need to be removed.

Now before we get to the bit about fish, since this whole thing is about an unpleasant topic I’ve decided to throw all dignity out the window and tell you about the most disgusting day in my life.

Her job only looks bad until you realize she sells the bag on Craigslist for $500 per pound.  She does not ask the buyers any questions, and she has a steady list of returning clients, one of whom has asked for her hand in marriage.  She would have said yes, but so realized he was only using her to get to her elephant's poo.  I have made all of this up.

Her job only looks bad until you realize she sells the bag on Craigslist for $500 per pound. She does not ask the buyers any questions, and she has a steady list of returning clients, one of whom has asked for her hand in marriage. She would have said yes, but she realized in the nick of time he was only using her to get to her elephant's feces. And none of this is true, except a woman did catch elephant dung in a bag and it seemed to beg an explanation.

My degree is in the environmental sciences and I went to a very hands-on college.  One of my natural science classes was in sustainable agriculture, which is often very… um…  gross.  In conventional agriculture, you can pay someone to haul away and dispose of your livestock’s waste products.  In sustainable agriculture, you’re supposed to put the poo to good use.  We studied the process of waste management to try and find better ways to deal with it – ideally, we’d find better ways to transform it and reuse it on the same farm to keep the energy moving within the same general area, but failing that we’d find new strategies to remove it from the system.  And, sadly, unless he’s been lucky enough to befriend Elroy the Stinky Organic Fuelmaker, a farmer practicing sustainable agriculture is most likely going to experience problems managing the waste all by himself.

Efficient methods of waste management in sustainable agriculture is such an important concept that you could structure entire classes around it.  As was the case on the most disgusting day of my life.    One of the farms we visited was a dairy farm, with a small herd of cows and a gigantic mound of poo.  The farmer kept piling the manure off to one side, where he’d gradually bag it up and sell it to be turned into fertilizer.  Unfortunately, the demand for cow poop was far exceeded by the supply, so it was very, very rare for the farmer to look out of his kitchen window and not see a towering hillside made completely of poo.

Well, here comes the eeew eeew gross! part of the story.  Our class went in to collect chemical samples at several sites around the farm.  There were the distant fields (no poo), the barn and livestock areas (some poo), and the fuck-all gigantic pile of feces (quite a bit of poo).  My job was to sample about ten different sites in the fallow field between the poo pile and a stream about five hundred feet away.

I should probably mention that it was late spring and had been raining.

I should also probably mention that I was wearing shorts and sandals.

The fallow field immediately behind the poo pile was a deep, thick mixture of mud and poo.  I … sunk.  Up to my thighs.  And got stuck.  Mud-poo is surprisingly thick and sticky, and I must have fallen into a hidden sinkhole of the stuff.  I’m not a very big woman so when I sunk I didn’t have the mass to power my way out of it.  After a few minutes of flailing and general “Throw me the rope!” jokes, the guy I was dating had to slog his own way through the mud-poo and pull me out of the hole.  We then went down to the stream and rinsed off.

I learned three things that day.  First – obviously – never, ever wear sandals to an agriculture class.  Second, if you do wear sandals, always suggest that you might be better suited to collect chemical samples from a different site than a fallow field, such as the front lawn of the house across the street.  Third, streams that are fed by runoff from fallow fields only look clean.

Remember how I described the purpose of a refugium?  In a refugium, water goes into the first chamber where it is treated with a protein skimmer (the topic of Part II).  Then it goes into the second chamber, which is basically a small 7-gallon aquarium filled with macroalgae.  The macroalgae uses waste products in the water, such as nitrogen, as fertilizer.  The macroalgae sucks up these pollutants, which are then removed when the macroalgae overgrows the mini-aquarium and is then harvested to make room for new growth.  The fallow field served a similar purpose, as the farmer planted it with nitrogen-fixing vegetation and let the plants suck the pollutants from the poo-mound out of the soil.

But I did mention it was late spring and had been raining, yes?

The runoff from the poo mound was far too much for the vegetation in the fallow field to process.  All it did was ensure that the pollutants that reached the stream were invisible to the human eye, so when I used the stream to clean off the poo I was actually washing myself with…

Gah, it was years ago and it still disgusts me.   I’m going to go take a shower, gargle with some bleach, and post Part II in a day or two.

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~ by KBSpangler on May 11, 2009.

5 Responses to “Everything Comes Down To Poo – Part One”

  1. The first comment I have to make is about the picture: I seriously thought “recurring clients? Oh right, dung-beetle owners/breeders!”… and then you crushed my ideas by having made it all up.

    Also, I wouldn’t worry too much about high levels of invisible faecal matter in water you’re bathing in. Ever been to the sea?

    • “Ever been to the sea?”

      Yep, and the Coast-to-Coast poo bath shows up in Part II. : )

  2. You are far stronger than I am. I am so tired of wastewater management, I don’t even want to talk about wetland treatment plants. And those are kind of cool!

    Wearing shorts on a field trip is never a good idea.

  3. urgh, that sounds incredibly unpleasant. At least you didn’t let it stop you from starting the poo-post. I’ve never commented here before, but I came here via Ursula, and your posts are always entertaining and I’m learning lots for when I (someday) start a reef.

  4. Zoo Poo is a commodity. Not a $500/lb commodity, but still, people pay good money for it.

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