mill run: the manure blues

They forgot to mention that a mature hog, in a year’s time, will produce 5 tons of waste products. This figure is from a government bulletin and I’m not prepared to argue with it, though my own feeling is that it is immoderately conservative…”


by moritz thomsen



A couple my devoted readers who are also apparently confirmed Freudians have been pointing out to me whenever we meet that they have deduced certain of my abnormal traits. “You say such nasty things,” one of them told me the other day. “Why can’t you write about nice things? Why are you always mentioning hog manure? You seen quite obsessed with it, as though it were continually on your mind.”

Now, anyone who has spent over an hour on my ranch, especially since the recent rains, and comes away without being obsessed with hog manure, in fact positively scarred for life from the full horror of the experience, is in my opinion the abnormal one. Yes, I’m obsessed with hog manure all right. Not only is it continually on my mind, but on any part of me you’d care to mention. At the moment it’s knee-deep on the high ground. The low spots are as yet unplumbed.

This grotesque development, this slowly creeping envelopment in hog by-products, is a direct consequence of my own naïve tendency to believe what I read in the farm publications. About five years ago Farm Journal, Farm Quarterly, and all the rest of them began pushing the raising of hogs on concrete slabs. Every month they ran another big article on the advantages of confinement, how much cheaper, quicker, and easier it was. There were big color pictures of fat faced smiling farmers lolling around in the shade counting their money while the hogs got fat. The hogs in the pictures were so sleek and shiny that you had to squint to keep from being blinded by the splendor of the scene. There wasn’t a solitary speck of dirt in the pens. Under each picture was some insane caption like this: “Now hog farmer Jones feeds 1,600 hogs and it only take him 3 minutes a month.”

These articles as the poured from the presses went into every phase of confinement feeding, except one. They forgot to mention that a mature hog, in a year’s time, will produce 5 tons of waste products. This figure is from a government bulletin and I’m not prepared to argue with it, though my own feeling is that it is immoderately conservative. On certain depressing days I am prepared to swear that one of my normal swaggering, nasty little hogs, after having swung into high gear and full production, can manufacture about a ton an hour, day in and day out.

I read the articles and studied the pictures, sort of substituting my own smiling face for farmer Jones’, and it all sounded so great that I finally called Mr. Starnes in Gerber and asked him to start hauling Ready-mix.

Five years later the farm magazines have finally begun running articles on the disposal of what I have been talking about. The biggest problem in confinement feeding of hogs, they point out, is the problem of manure disposal. As though I didn’t know. The full page color pictures show how it is done. The same smiling farmers, pushing buttons on enormous electrical panels, set into motion $50,000 worth of gears, paddles, belts, augers, and endless chains and the stuff is whisked away to a 15 acre lake which you can see in the distance. Upon it in a bright red dinghy especially hauled in for the picture sit his happy, smiling children fishing for crappies. At least I feel it reasonable to assume that’s what they’re fishing for.

In the meantime, back at the ranch.

A couple of years ago, when the full horror of my situation began breaking in on me, I started digging pits in front of all my pens, which would, I hoped, hold a week’s supply. They were dug in a sort of wild desperation, and as it turned out they held about a 20-minute supply. They still sit there, full to overflowing, a monument to my unwarranted optimism.

Last week a very dignified elderly woman drove onto the ranch. She got out of her car and walked toward me. Between us was the pit. My vocal chords must have been paralyzed, because I simply stood there, hypnotized, as she stepped into it and, with great dignity, like a proud warship with all flags flying, began slowly to sink from sight.

That was one depth that got plumbed, and in case anyone is interested in how deep the manure pit is in front of the farrowing house, I can tell them with some degree of precision that it is about belly-button high on someone’s average-sized grandmother.

And I can tell you one other thing. Somewhere in this immediate area, there is a sweet white-haired old lady in a rocking chair, and she is rocking and thinking, rocking and thinking. She is thinking about that day. I’m not the only one around here who is obsessed with hog manure.


Originally published:
Issue Twenty-Four
February 2003


After his discharge from the Eighth Air Force after World War II and before joining the Peace Corps in 1964, Moritz Thomsen spent 20 years as a farmer in Los Molinos, California, a small agricultural town near Chico and Red Bluff, in Tehama County. His first book, “Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle” was not published until 1969, but in 1959 and 1960 he wrote a column for his local weekly, the Los Molinos Sun. The paper was short-lived, but Thomsen saved clippings of his “Mill Run” column, as well as the notebook he used to write out his columns each week in longhand. The clippings and notebook, now in the possession of his niece, Rashani Rea, provide a fascinating glimpse into the life and thoughts of Moritz Thomsen, eleven years after his death in Ecuador in 1991.  Smokebox has been granted permission by Rashani Rea to reprint selected “Mill Run” columns, seen here for the first time since they were published some 41 years ago. For more on Thomsen you can read Marc Covert’s excellent analysis of his published output in the 3 part Smokebox feature Howls From A Hungry Place.

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