Wednesday Quotes
The Best Manure
July 2, 2014


“We must observe what parts of the land must be manured, how the manure is to be applied, and the best kind to use; for there are several varieties. Cassius states that the best manure is that of birds, except marsh- and sea-fowl; and that the dung of pigeons is the best of these, because it has the most heat and causes the ground to ferment. This should be broadcast like seed, and not placed in piles like cattle dung. My own opinion is that the best dung is from aviaries of thrushes and blackbirds…” Marcus Terentius Varro, On Agriculture, I

Clearly these ancients gave much consideration to their manures. Modern science actually backs up their findings, ranking bird manure—especially that of chickens—as having a higher nutrient density than other animal manures.

Every once in a while we need to step back and wonder. Manure has a remarkably balanced spectrum of the nutrients and other elements on which depend soil health, and plant health. And thus also our health.

We are talking here about excrement, feces, poop. But call it what you will, this typically smelly, often unpleasant stuff is vitally important for the life of plants of all kinds, and is an essential element of most sustainable forms of agriculture. It can be a very exciting and rewarding part of the home garden too.

But while it has many names, it really shouldn’t be called waste. Neither should it be unnecessarily wasted. On this score we might all re-examine our approach to manure—from large farms to the home lawn and garden.

Rather than genetically modifying pigs to reduce the phosphorus in their manure (this because of the dangerous over-concentration of pigs in factory farming), we might take our cue from the contents of the manure, using it once again to the advantage of all. On the home front we can be aware that suitable manure might be available from local farmers or homesteaders—manure that can used in numerous lawn and garden applications. Households might even look at raising their own small animals—such as rabbits or chickens, or other birds!—and thus enjoying the full complement of the natural cycle of life. What a difference it could make, on several levels, if each of us reduced or eliminated our use of petroleum based artificial fertilizers.

Will the circle be unbroken? Most of us won’t be in a position to determine, find, or use what in the abstract is the best manure. But in the concrete, the best manure is whatever natural soil amendment we can reasonably find, and use to feed the earth that feeds us in our own little corner of the world.

It might seem that E.B. White exaggerated when he wrote: “There is no doubt about it, the basic satisfaction in farming is manure.” But maybe he was thinking especially of the satisfaction of knowing, indeed enacting, that everything has its place, if we have the humility and patience to take our cue from the order of nature.

Marcus Terentius Varro (116-27 B.C.) was a Roman scholar, soldier and statesman. Educated in Rome and Athens, he wrote over seventy books. Res Rusticae, or On Agriculture, begun in his eightieth year, is a practical manual on husbandry.

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  1. “In heaven, the most beautiful trees are those that have sinned the most. But they used their miseries as dung that is around the base.”~ Bl. Mariam of Jesus Crucified. It’s good to know that God even has a use for our sins, like dung, to make something beautiful grow! Thought-provoking post!

    1. Thank you for sharing this very striking quotation, and comment!

  2. Hi John –

    I am reminded of AC’s question to you on our first visit to the farm? “How do you get rid of all the manure?” or words to that effect.

    Hope all in the family are doing well and that we can get together soon. Grafton has been sharpening up his balderdash skills for round two.



    1. I remember that question too–a very appropriate one, the answer to which is always changing. We’ll try to get ready for round two too. Thanks Paul.

  3. It’s funny that you should mention E. B. White since I’ve been wanting to ask you about your thoughts on Charlotte’s Web. In a letter (, he gives his reasons for writing the book. This early paragraph’s mention of pigs immediately made me think of you and your love of them:
    “A farm is a peculiar problem for a man who likes animals, because the fate of most livestock is that they are murdered by their benefactors. The creatures may live serenely but they end violently, and the odor of doom hangs about them always. I have kept several pigs, starting them in spring as weanlings and carrying trays to them all through summer and fall. The relationship bothered me. Day by day I became better acquainted with my pig, and he with me, and the fact that the whole adventure pointed toward an eventual piece of double-dealing on my part lent an eerie quality to the thing. I do not like to betray a person or a creature, and I tend to agree with Mr. E.M. Forster that in these times the duty of a man, above all else, is to be reliable. It used to be clear to me, slopping a pig, that as far as the pig was concerned I could not be counted on, and this, as I say, troubled me. Anyway, the theme of “Charlotte’s Web” is that a pig shall be saved, and I have an idea that somewhere deep inside me there was a wish to that effect.”
    I guess my question is how would you respond to a fellow lover of pigs, one who from this letter it would seem could not kill them, and yet you do, following man’s role of stewardship, which includes using what God has given us for the well-being of our bodies?

    1. What an outstanding question. I will sleep on it and share a thought tomorrow. Thanks Sean.

    2. Sean, This is a truly outstanding question. I will begin by saying that I very much respect the positions of people who have reservations or objections about slaughtering animals. At a conference I attended last week on stewardship and the environment I met a gentleman who is a vegetarian–at least for now–because he realized that he cannot come to terms with killing animals. While I do not concur with his judgment, I found myself in sympathy with much that he was thinking and feeling. This topic is worthy of a careful consideration, especially in an age where we have been so separated from farm life and the production of our food. I think it is very important that people be more aware of what goes into the raising of animals and the production of meat. I think we need to demand, through law and direct economic action, more humane conditions for livestock–in their life and their death.
      As regards your fascinating quotation from E.B. White I do take issue with the use of the word murder. While I understand the sentiment, I think it is important that we be more careful in the use of such terms. The killing of an animal for use as food, which I think is clearly in accord with the natural order of things, should not be characterized as murder, a term that points to something that is always evil in itself. White refers to the ‘double-dealing’ of killing an animal that we have cared for. Again, I understand the sentiment, but I think this fundamentally misses the point. Why? Because it is not inconsistent that a person both truly care for an animal, AND that he thoughtfully and appropriately kill that animal for food. But White’s provocative point does have the salutary effect of making all of us give a more careful consideration to these matters. I am actually writing a piece right now which I will title: “Killing the Animals that We Eat,” in which I will share some of my experience in this area and some more thoughts. The piece will of course be announced here at Bacon from Acorns. Thanks again Sean.

  4. By what means does one direct bird droppings? Did Romans have them in cages?

    1. I am assuming that they did have the smaller birds in cages. They might also simply have collected droppings of roosting birds, such as chickens, from under where they roosted, even if they weren’t in cages. It is remarkable how many ways there are to try to utilize manure. Of course there is also the method popularized by Joel Salatin of having chickens roam in the pastures behind where cattle have been grazing. The chickens are then simultaneously breaking up the cow patties (by picking at them) and adding their own dung.