Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Reason unbound

Via Kate at SDA: a study that sheds some light down the communication chasm between left and right.

The blog where Kate found reference to this study, Crumb Trail, looks intriguing. From what I've read so far, this author seems to be making an effort to keep reason free of the fetters of emotion. I could feel my own emotional reactions kicking in as I read the post about fertilizer and organic farming, but the exercise in patient listening was rewarding.

Another busy day for me: no more blogging until . . . until . . . tomorrow.


Madcap said...

I read that post about the fertilizers. It took me a while to understand the Multi-Personality Disorder approach to writing, but what he seems to be getting at is that there's nothing wrong with commercial fertilizers. (?)

I don't have the science to know yea or nay, but the first thing that occurred to me was that his favoured system is dependent on big business and large scale, which I would judge to be more a factor in world hunger than almost anything else.

arcolaura said...

I read it again, mcm. I would say, he is arguing in favour of "synthetic" fertilizers, whether they be "commercial" or made on the farm. I think you're on the right track with your argument. When I thought about it some more, I figured that his approach is just adding another step between organic waste and fertilizer. Adding that step would be inefficient. It might make the fertilizer more exactly what you want to add, and make the application process more controllable, but there is a trade-off in extra energy for transport, processing, handling etc.

This is just my intuitive response, and some number-crunching might prove me wrong. (For example, I trust there is some physical explanation for the extra efficiency of a bicycle over walking shoes.)

It makes a good illustration of what Eleu has been telling me about protests, though. Organic certification draws attention to a certain approach to farming, and some of that attention is negative. Odds are that the negative argument, having greater numbers of people behind it, is going to win the support of the powerful and the eloquent, and ultimately, of the majority.

CG said...

Well, I read it too and may link to him after reading more. He's somewhat right and somewhat wrong in his chemistry. The methane that he proposes to use to fix nitrogen only exists because there is nitrogen in the manure the methane is coming from . . . so just put the damn manure on the plants. He makes good points that synthetic nitrogen is expensive and farmers don't *want* to use more of it than they have to, but ignores the economics of scale, and that a short term profit margin of 1/2 percent so that "too" much nitrogen does in fact get used.

Ah, but the "organic" people allow the bat guano to be used, and it is chemically the very same thing as synthesized nitrogen, so "organics" actually can use synthetic nitrogens now. And they aren't allowed to use some very sensible, non-toxic and helpful things (like glysophate) because everyone has so much fun hating Monsanto they overlook that it really is useful and harmless.

The whole point in objecting to organic certification crap is because all regulations will favor the corporations and the government regulators (one and the same really), the large profitable applications of them. Organic certification ignores actually farming the soil, which is where real fertility is.

Now, as to mcm's point of scale causing hunger, yea and nay. Many millions of the current residents of the earth would be dead without large scale chemically enhanced agriculture. There isn't enough fertility to support feeding everyone without exploitation of the earth's resources. There IS, now, currently, more than enough food to feed everyone but political power systems contain them (not ours by the way, but the ones closest to the hungry), prohibiting distribution. *That* is curtailed with local production and consumption. We can't do anything about that except to eat locally ourselves. What I mean by "we can't" is that whenever we try to muck in someone else's affairs, we end up with all the things the protestors like to protest about, so stay out of it.

As TR would say, it is what it is.

back40 said...

"just put the damn manure on the plants"

Little of the nitrogen in manure is in a mineral form, it is in an organic form that plants can't use. There is some urea in urine, but not much because it is volatile. Unless the manure is excreted in the field it will be degraded by time and handling to the point that it is not a source of nitrogen.

It's a source of organic matter and some other nutrients, and the organic nitrogen will eventually be mineralized by soil bacteria and at last be available to plants, so it's still good stuff, just not a useful nitrogen source.

For example, a typical load of dairy manure - which would have some urine in it and that's where most animal nitorgen is excreated as urea - might give you 10 pounds of nitrogen per ton. A ton of urea would give you 900 pounds of nitrogen, nearly 100 times as much.

But only some of the nitrogen in manure is available to plants, somewhere between 10 and 50 percent of it depending on age, handling and spreading method. That's means that you need to apply 2 to ten times as much manure as the raw nitrogen numbers would indicate. And you need to water or plow it in right away since 10% of its already meager nitrogen will evaporate each day it sits dry on the surface.

So, for a typical rye grass and clover pasture you want 3 applications of 30# actual nitrogen per acre - early spring, early summer and early fall.

To get that with manure you'd need between 6 and 30 tons of manure for each application. That would just smother the grass.

To get that with urea, which is 45% nitrogen, you'd need about 65# per acre for each application.

The pasture uses more than twice that much nitrogen. It gets a lot from the clovers and some from rain. About 7% of the earth's nitrogen budget is fixed by lightning and falls in rain.

When fertility is balanced - meaning that the soil has the proper texture and PH so that the cation exchange capacity is high and all necessary nutrients are available in proportion - less of each nutrient is needed for a given yield, and it doesn't leach away. That's hard to do, hard to manage and get right, and simply impossible with nothing but manure. You'll surely need to adds tons of minerals to the soil unless you are watering your fields with glacier milk, the whitish mineral rich melt water.

Being able to capture nitrogen in a stable form, store it and apply it when needed is a very useful technology. You can grasp this perhaps by comparing it to dried foods, such as grain, that will keep so that it can be eaten in winter when food is more scarce. You can live without either, but they really do make life better. The fact that some people eat too much grain gives it a bad reputation. Fat food, empty calories, starchy death yada, yada. But a sensible amount at a sensible time has no ill effects and makes life better. So it is with nitogen.

CG said...

gotta love a post from someone who obviously doesn't have a "back 40".

Yes, what that comment means is that manure is the BEST way to manage your fields, and chemical nitrogen the worst. If you haven't experienced that, I'd say you have no experience.

Now, I'm not an "organic" apologist. I think most if not all certified "organic" stuff is crap, but soil works by being soil, not by being micromanaged and monocropped. Farm the soil (and gently at that), not the plants, don't harm the bacteria, and the plants will grow themselves.