Composting Humanure

It’s December. It is certainly the time of year for snow. But first, there are just a few more things to wrap up. It’s a proverbial slippery slope, certainly, for the list of last-minute tasks could be nearly endless. But yesterday’s work was non-negotiable. 

I spent the early morning hours making space in our Clivus composting toilet. In other words, I was wheeling partially composted humanure out of the basement tank and into our humanure pile atop the upper field. You see, the toilets in our community building are not quite the standard plumbing. Rather than employing the customary waste of water for a net loss of available nutrients, we have installed a composting toilet system. A large tank is housed in our basement where human waste collects in a “direct deposit” system. Wood shavings are added with each use, and no water is squandered with a flush. Rather, a pump diverts liquids into a separate tank (which we drain and disseminate amongst our numerous compost piles). The solids/woodchips mix, meanwhile, sits in the tank where it is turned on a weekly basis to assist the active composting process. 

All told, we have a sophisticated outhouse inside our home. And it works. 

As the material within the tank composts, we extract it via shovel and wheelbarrow. A more substantial humanure pile is located in our upper field, the site of the final composting stages. Before winter – well, before the snow arrives – a partial emptying of the tank must be undertaken to ensure sufficient space within the reservoir for the coming months. Once snow has accumulated, moving humanure to another location becomes much more challenging. With the approach of winter seeming more imminent, the task at hand was gaining urgency. 

Within the Clivus tank, material becomes well-compacted. Removing partially composted humanure requires a fair amount of shoveling, knocking, and raking material free of itself. Doing this, however, was merely a warm-up for the long walk that followed. Each wheelbarrow load had to be pushed through a few inches of new snow, on top of wet, slushy ground, past the North Orchard, down the road, behind the Red House, along the Medicine Trail, up the hill to the Upper, across the wettest field we have, until, at the wood line, I arrived at our humanure pile. Here each wheelbarrow load was shoveled out. The return trip was significantly easier, downhill with no cargo. 

It is in this wood line pile that the humanure will finish composting. We are in no rush, and let it sit for months at a time between turnings. When soil is finally rendered, we will merely spread it about these upper fields. Used for periodic oxen grazing, our pastures are of poor quality. With time, this intermittent application will boost fertility. 

After eleven loads, I cleaned my tools and returned the wheelbarrow to its parking space in the barn eaves. Vital nutrients were successfully sequestered for future application, and we’ll have space to accommodate everyone’s indoor bathroom needs for the coming months. The cycle will continue.   

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