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Image: Jacob Stead

You know the dream. Maybe you’ve dreamed it yourself: Chuck the day job and city traffic for the bucolic life of a yeoman farmer. Ditch the cubicle for five green acres on the Snoqualmie, Snohomish, or Skykomish River. Trade brutal bosses and backstabbing coworkers for placid cows and chirpy chickens. Knit sweaters from your own alpaca yarn. Finally get the pony you wanted.

More and more people are chasing that dream to the rural margins of Pugetopolis.“There’s a huge five-acre homestead move under way,” says Bobbi Lindemulder, a program manager with the Snohomish Conservation District. In fact, farms are proliferating in Snohomish County at the second-fastest rate in the state, despite surging urban sprawl. King County, meanwhile, had 975 farms under 10 acres in 2012, according to USDA stats, 20 percent more than it had in 2007. And even those numbers may be low because the agency only counts commercial operations.

Unlike the last back-to-the-land wave in the 1970s, which consisted of young counterculturalists, today’s homesteaders and hobby farmers arrive at all stages of life. Lindemulder sees two main cohorts: “Twentysomething up-and-comers who want to grow their own food, and older burnouts—techs, ex-techs, ex-executives—who just want to get away.” Either way today’s Eddie Alberts and Eva Gabors face an oft-forgotten but inexorable law of nature: Everyone poops. Especially cows and horses.

One horse can produce 50 pounds of manure each day. A dairy cow drops up to 150 pounds. King County has nearly 20,000 horses, plus thousands more cattle, sheep, and goats. And twice that many horses roam the fields in Snohomish County. Nationwide, reports Modern Farmer, farm animals produce more than 335 million tons of manure, “an environmental disaster in waiting.” Where land and plants can absorb them, fecal matter and urine are nature’s favorite fertilizers. But when manure washes into streams, lakes, and vulnerable estuaries, it spreads pathogens and excessive nutrients that, in extreme cases, could cause fish-killing dead zones. Or, as has happened in Yakima County, it can contaminate drinking water.

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The volume of manure wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if it weren’t for the fact that today’s homesteaders rarely stop at just one horse. “They need one so they wind up with seven,” thanks to a never-ending supply of surplus rescue horses, says Lindemulder. “They think, Oh, these horses will get butchered if I don’t rescue them.” And the manure piles up. “Once it’s stored, it just accumulates and becomes a real nightmare to dispose of,” says Sean Edwards, a Snohomish County senior planner who deals with the consequences when nightmares spill over.

Composting can turn nightmares into fertile dreamscapes, but it presents its own challenges for those unfamiliar with the science behind it. Some shy away from using fresh horse manure—leading to a pileup—for fear that it will “burn” plants. But that effect actually has nothing to do with droppings. Wood chips, which are widely replacing straw for stable bedding, get mixed in with the manure and then spread on crops. Unlike straw, though, fresh chips deplete the soil of nitrogen, turning plants yellow and wilted.

With 45 horses and 40 acres of pasture, Rosebud River Ranch is one of King County’s larger boarding stables. It can use—in fact, needs—virtually all the poop its boarders produce to grow the grass that feeds them. But for smaller, more crowded operations and those that bury their compost in mountains of fresh sweepings, it’s a different story. “Sixteen years ago we [dealt with] a small farm with manure piled up till it ran in a landslide right into a creek,” says King Conservation District’s Josh Monaghan. 

“Another [horse boarding] operation, probably the largest in King County, had 85 horses on 10 acres, with nearly no pasture and a pile nearly the size of the barn.” The state finally shut it down.

The good news, adds Monaghan: “Those are outliers. We don’t see that anymore.” That’s partly due to outreach agents like him and Lindemulder working with the property owners to find solutions. At one point at Rosebud River Ranch, the manure piled up till it began smoking ominously. But the operation hooked up with King Conservation District, which provided plans and partial funding for a proper poo recycler: three stalls on impervious concrete, their contents aging in handy, spreadable sequence.

On the other hand, Snohomish County still has “a long way to go with the five-acre people,” says Lindemulder. “Some flat out don’t want to work with the government. The cattle guys get it, but the horse people are different. A lot of them consider their horses family. How do you get them to understand?”

“For some folks, the change feels really slow,” says Monaghan. “But for me it feels permanent.” He sees manure management as the new poop scooping. When kids inherit family spreads, they embrace obligations their parents sneered at.

That manure mountain that slid into the creek? After a massive cleanup overseen by the county and the Department of Ecology, the property owners reevaluated their waste management practices and started hauling poo off-site. “I’ve seen farmers and citizens generally become more aware about how they can become better stewards of the land,” Monaghan concludes. “It gives me hope that humans can learn to take care of the planet.” Or, at least, their horses.

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