Grow with the Flow! Recycling (diluted) human urine into plants

In April I published a post that didn’t mention in the title what it was mainly about: drinking my own urine.

Why was I coy? Because most people are squeamish. Cultural taboos run deep.

Why did I drink teensy amounts of my pee daily as summer approached? Because somebody had told me that this may be a way to prevent, or at least lessen, the terrible poison ivy allergy that has me freaked out all summer long ever since I moved to the midwest, back in 2003. Every summer, at least two or three poison ivy scourges, each lasting two weeks.

This summer? Nothing! Nada! My urine therapy works.

Now here’s an article about another use for human urine, just as fundamental. Thanks to Keith and Peter, who turned me on to the whole subject, and the book, Liquid Gold, back when I first took the permaculture design course in 2005.

Urine, Peak Phosphorous and on-farm Nutrient Cycling

June 20, 2012

So it turns out that when we go to the toilet, each of us ‘produces’ nearly 80% of the nutrients we need to grow our food. That’s quite something. If you take hold of that concept, it really does make you ask questions about why the heck we manufacture chemicals (with all the detrimental side-effects of that production) to grow food…

Recently Nick did an interview with Ollie Lavender of Sustainable Solutions Radio about this very subject, following on from his TedX Canberra talk with a similar drift.

To summarize the podcast, fortunately there’s a lot of straight-forward, completely safe and highly doable ways that you can re-cycle your family’s nutrients back though food producing systems. With very little ick factor, even. Starting with the simple act of collecting your wee.

Entry to Milkwood Farm urinal, re-fashioned from a watertank

Inside the urinal. Simple, but it works a treat.

Now before you go into the OH MY GOD mode that many people do when the discussion turns to taking responsibility for our outputs, have a look at this simple urinal setup:

It looks like a urinal, doesn’t it? And it is. With one simple difference – the outlet goes to a holding tank, instead of a drain. We haven’t constructed a girl-friendly version yet, but give us time.

Urine is not called ‘liquid gold’ by many non-western cultures for nothing. In one person’s urine is enough phosphorous equivalent to the phosphorous needed to grow an ongoing supply of food for one adult. No NPK or super-phosphates needed. How about that.

Which is a great little factoid, considering the implications of peak phosphorous. But it will only work as a concept if people actually use it.

Urine happens to be packed with nitrogen, too. Which is another major agricultural input that is added to depleted soils to ensure plant health. That’s interesting also.

Ew, you say. I’d never want that put on something I ate. And that would be fair enough – despite the fact that when it exits your body urine is completely sterile, you don’t need to pour or pee urine straight onto your lettuce. But you can add it to the soil. You can use it to grow pasture, which when cut becomes compost for your plants.

You could also add urine to pasture as part of a cycle of rotational grazing, thereby converting the goodness in that urine to grass, then to cow, and into meat (and manure).

Which in short is what we’ve started doing at Milkwood Farm, and it’s working fantastically. The urinal pictured above drains to a holding tank, which periodically is then drained to a pasture sprayer, mixed with rainwater, and sprayed out over the various pastures of Milkwood Farm.

The outlet of the urinal trough (the trough gets flushed with 1/2 bucket of water daily) which leads downhill to the holding tank

Holding tank is the grey barrel in the center, a further outlet pipe goes down to the track where the sprayer unit parks to fill up from

Milkwood Farm creek flat with cell-grazed sheep, made lush in part from periodic spraying with diluted ‘liquid gold’

Our farm is not blessed with good soils, but we’re changing that as opportunities and time allows. We haven’t quite manifested the micro-mob of cattle yet to mob-graze across Milkwood and our family’s farm next door (though we do have access to a mob of sheep), but we can still improve the soils with home-grown nutrients.

And of course, this sort of thing is perfectly achievable on a backyard scale too. All you need is a bucket. Or you could go all fancy and get one of these:

The ‘Towa’ – a Swedish designed product allowing you to make the most of your liquid gold. Doesn’t look icky to me!

In retrospect, this aspect of nutrient cycling has taken the general fertility of our farm forwards as fast as anything else we’ve done in these first years at Milkwood Farm.

And all from a supposed waste product which would normally be washed away, when it could be turned into lush pasture, orchard plantings, and tree crops. Crazy, aint it?

Thanks to Ollie Lavender of Sustainable Solutions Radio for wanting to chat about the good stuff! Definitely a podcast to keep an eye on…

>> More posts about compost toilets, nutrient cycling and liquid gold at Milkwood

*Tricia at Little Eco Footprints just posted on this important subject also, and her post contains links to a nifty-looking urine-seperator toilet if you’d rather an off-the-shelf system to collect your family’s liquid gold…

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