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The Many Applications of Manure


by John O’Brien

In the pink Gothic Revival carriage barn at farmer and politician Justin S. Morrill’s homestead in Strafford, there is a reproduction of a poster announcing the Third Annual Fair of the Vermont State Agricultural Society, at Montpelier, September 13, 14 and 15, 1853.  In great detail, the poster lists the categories for entry and the judges and their home towns. For example, “Welcome Bemus of Lyndon and Barnabas Dean of Weathersfield are to select the finest dairy cows.”

Most of the listed categories in the poster are still offered at the Tunbridge World’s Fair, whose 143rd edition unfolds this week.  Blue ribbons and bragging rights will be awarded as before for horses, cattle, sheep, swine, poultry, dairy, maple syrup, honey, fruits, vegetables and field crops. There is one 19th-century category, though, that has disappeared: best manure.

The 1853 poster calls for the “greatest quantity and best in quality made on a farm in proportion to the number of acres, and quantity and kind of stock kept, during the year next preceding the annual meeting of the society.” The prize for the best: $15.  And if making award-winning manure was not your passion, or in your skill set, there was also a $10 prize offered for “best essay on manufacture and application of manure.”

Obadiah Wood of Barre and the four other judges mandated truth in humus: the entrant’s sample of manure was to be accompanied by “a written statement, verified by affidavit of the applicant … and two other persons, [which] must in each application be furnished to the Judges, setting forth the quantity of manure made, reckoned in loads of 30 bushels each, that it was made during the year next preceding the Fair, the number of acres of cleared land in the farm, the quantity and character of stock kept, the composition of the manure, and giving a full and clear description of the process of making.” 

This makes me wonder if the Victorian era was rotten with cheaters or if arduous regulation kept everybody on the straight and narrow.  Nowadays, I could buy six artichokes at Hannaford’s and enter them in the Tunbridge Fair as my own, and no one would be the wiser. Probably the joke would be on me, though—I’ll be beaten by a home-schooled six year-old from “Krinth” with artichokes as uniform as the Dionne quintuplets. “There’s no way she raised those herself,” I’ll quibble as I shuffle by the half-ton pumpkins injected with performance-enhancing substances.

Speaking of probity, or its absence, it’s difficult to have a serious discussion about manure without politics coming up—and we do have an election in November. The amount of manure that Obadiah Wood had to sort through is nothing compared to what the average American voter will be subjected to by Election Day. In fact, American politics has become so soiled, manure doesn’t want to hang out with it anymore.

If politics still has any claim on manure, it goes back to the matter of handshakes. The word manure comes from the Middle English manuren, “to cultivate land”; manuren comes from the Vulgar Latin manuoperare, “to work with the hands,” which comes from the Latin manus, “hand.”  So the next time you see candidates working a crowd—say at the Northfield Labor Day parade, or at the dump—you could say they are just manuring their fields.

Farmer and politician George Washington loved manure.  In a letter to a friend, GW described his ideal farm manager as “above all, Midas like, one who can convert everything he touches into manure, as the first transmutation towards Gold.”  Washington’s experiments with compost went so far as to borrow a boat to dredge the river in his backyard and spread the Potomac mud—“Black Mould”—on his fields. 

Farmer and politician Thomas Jefferson also loved manure. The kitchen garden at Monticello was a mad scientist’s lab for organic horticulture—330 varieties of vegetables and 170 varieties of fruit thrived or withered on TJ’s hillock.  While the average home-schooled six year-old in Krinth grows this many varieties these days, Jefferson did have other stuff going on.  For example, he was a writer of some talent. In fact, if he had lived, it’s quite possible he could’ve taken the laurels for both Best Manure and Best Essay on Application of Manure at the Vermont State Agricultural Society’s fair. Sadly, he passed away on July 4, 1826, but not before he wrote about manure and politics, thusly: “And what country can preserve its liberties, if its rulers are not warned from time to time, that this people preserve the spirit of resistance? … The Tree of Liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”