Hogs feed in a pen in a concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO, on a farm, in Lawler, Iowa. Farmers say they're trying to reduce the smells, but storing vast amounts of manure in open air lagoons for months can be a source of headache for local communities. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

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Like many farmers of his generation, my dad referred to hog manure as “the smell of money.” As for fertilizer produced by our dairy herd, his favorite saying about the smell was, “It keeps the riffraff out.” 

In his day, manure was something to be scooped up, piled up, then shredded and flung on fields from a box wagon pulled by a tractor. Back then, a dairy herd might be 25 to 50 cows, and a hog operation might be 100 head. Back then, those were mostly family farms, not agribusinesses owned by investors who mostly don’t live downwind.

Ah, those were the good old days, when farm kids developed diverse and hardy gut biomes and flinging cow patties was a festival-worthy sport. But today’s liquid manure is not your father’s cow pie.

Liquid manure is a byproduct of Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). The mix of manure, urine and water may be held in lagoons until it can be spread on crop fields in spring before planting and in fall after crops come off and before the ground freezes. Winter typically lasts about five months in northern Wisconsin. CAFOs are required to have six months of manure storage capacity. An early winter followed by a late spring can push their storage capacity to the limit.

In spring, CAFOs are anxious for ground to thaw and load limits to be lifted from township roads so they can haul a winter’s worth of accumulation. In fall, they’re equally anxious for crops to be harvested so they can spread as much as possible before the ground freezes and load limits go into effect. During both seasons, folks in the country don’t much want to hang laundry outside on the clothesline.

Those trucks are about as welcome in a rural neighborhood as a family of skunks. Local government officials in my township tried to hold CAFOs responsible for wear and tear their trucks cause to town roads. Wolf River township passed an ordinance requiring large farm operations to post surety bonds to cover the damage. It’s no surprise the town was threatened with litigation from interests outside the area. 

That leaves the town board in a difficult position. Their constituents want them to use whatever means possible to protect roads and bridges and curb the stench. The irony is that many of those same constituents voted in the legislators responsible for a 2013 revision of Wisconsin’s Implements of Husbandry Act that limits townships’ ability to do so. I think that’s called reaping what you sow. 

Trucks loaded with liquid manure on the roads around Wolf River township can cause road wear and tear. They are also one of sure, although not very welcome, signs of the post-harvest season. (Photo by Donna Kallner)

This time of year, it’s not just manure that stinks. Election season seems to have many of us holding our noses. There’s an odor clinging to messages coming from both sides of the aisle. That’s a little milk parlor humor, in case you missed it. But there are striking similarities between bovine behavior and partisan politics if you can hold your breath long enough to sort them out.

I live in the battleground state of Wisconsin, where the big winners of this election cycle are the media companies responsible for producing and broadcasting political ads aimed at triggering the gag reflex in voters of both parties (undecided voters are scarce as hen’s teeth).

Wouldn’t you love to divert all the money spent on raising our collective blood pressure into, say, grants for smaller farmers? Many felt the negative impact of the trade war with China but didn’t benefit from the bailout since payments varied so widely by location, farming operation, and type of commodity. 

Isn’t that what small farms know how to do — convert B.S. into fertilizer?

Wouldn’t you love to convert some virtual B.S., too? The stink on social media these days is approaching the olfactory level of a hog CAFO liquid manure pit on a hot day. Friends on the right mock the “cow fart” concerns of friends on the left, who mock rural hicks who “don’t understand” what’s in their own best interests. They’re so busy flinging cow pies at each other they don’t seem to notice the parade of poop trucks sent to unload more liquid manure in the neighborhood.

I understand that passions are high, and many people feel a responsibility to call out the other side. But it’s not hard to imagine the meme-makers and data miners who create most of what folks “share” as the agri-suits of a large hog operation: They know exactly how much each of us is worth on the hoof, and they know the dollar value of the collective crap that trickles down and stinks until it can be collected and spread somewhere else.

Maybe instead of comparing social media behavior to barnyard behavior we could think of it like playground behavior. Imagine this: Little Bobby has a deep-seated belief that beans in chili are gross. Little Susie doesn’t agree. So Bobby makes farting noises whenever she passes by.

Soon, all the boys make farting noises when she passes by. Then the girls make farting noises when she passes by. Then the girls and boys make farting noises behind anyone who talks to Susie or fails to shun her. 

It’s no crime for a kid to make the occasional rude noise and certainly not unusual for kids to carry a joke too far. But imagine those kids’ elders treating every candidate, elected official, and neighbor of a different political persuasion to farting noises, or the social media equivalent that generally ends with “I bet you won’t share this.” It seems that’s what we’ve come to. On the playground, my elementary school teacher mom would have called it bullying. In a barnyard, that’s the critter you load first on the truck to the stockyard.

But we can’t load up all of our problems and send them away. Hard choices at every level of government have been deferred again and again because no one will give an inch. They can’t, or their constituents and donors start bellering like calves that don’t want to wean. We better learn how, though – and soon. This is the real world, not the winner-take-all partisan playground of the ad campaigns. The idea that the other side is 100% wrong and evil to boot is a big pile of steaming manure. 

My mom would have pulled two playground bullies aside and made them each say one thing nice about the other then shake hands. It was a terrible punishment, and effective. I miss my mom, even though her vote would surely cancel mine. I miss the expectation of decent behavior. I wish my mom was in charge and everybody on Facebook got a grade for citizenship and another for comportment. 

We’re all concerned about this election and its aftermath. Our concerns have been well-fertilized by those whose job is to stir up the muck and spread it around. It’s hard to ignore that hashtag outrage because they are very, very good at what they do. But we can be better.

We can all take a deep breath, despite the stink, and resolve to stop wallowing and start working to be better neighbors. To model civility both in person and online, and save cow chip flinging for the festival.

Donna Kallner writes from rural Langlade County in northern Wisconsin.