The bottom line on Obama’s ‘manure management’ remark

August 19, 2011

Earlier this week, at a stop in Peosta, Iowa, President Obama remarked that he had just met a former state senator who was working to “manage manure in creative ways.”

Several news outlets picked this quote up, as one might expect from any quote alluding to an elected official Shoveling It. Especially in a creative way, as opposed to dull, pedestrian manure management.

We tracked down the man with the plan for the full scoop:

“We’re not really doing anything creative with manure,” explains Michael Sexton, the founder of Manure Works and former state senator, when reached on the telephone at his Iowa home. He’s glad to have a chance to clear up that misunderstanding. “We’re just trying to manage it better.”

The issue:

The average farm building in Iowa holds, for example, 2,400 pigs. These 2,400 pigs produce 800,000 gallons of manure every year. To meet Environmental Protection Agency regulations, this manure must be catalogued. It is really hard to catalog the manure.

“You have to keep track of every ounce of manure that leaves these facilities,” says Sexton, who got a chance to explain some of this to the president when they breakfasted together, along with other local business owners, on Tuesday. “You have to be able to show what field it went to, how it was applied, who applied it, the weather conditions, the weather the day after, the nutrient content.” He pauses for a moment. “Most people don’t realize.”

Most people have no earthly idea how much excrement is involved in the industries of America.

Sexton is a lifelong farmer — the 1990s turn in politics was just a side trip — whose crops are corn and beans. His wife runs a consulting firm, working with family farmers who lack the assets to easily meet government regulations. Says Sexton, “One of the recurring themes we would hear is, ‘You’ve got to help us with the record-keeping part of the manure application.’”

He did some Googling around, looking for a product that would assist them, but came up with nothing. “Finally, I just told Becky” — that’s his wife — “Why don’t we just create our own software program?”

They rolled out Manure Works in 2009. The Web-based program allows users to keep track of soil readings and other data online, and also calculates averages and provides reminders for upcoming deadlines. Now it represents about 200 farming sites, or 100,000 acres. Sexton has stopped accepting new members for the time being, as they’re planning to roll out an upgrade. The upgrade will allow for an up-front nutrient management plan. “On the back end,” there will be more advanced record-keeping stuff, he said. They were supposed to roll out the upgrade for World Pork Expo in June, but got a little behind.

As for his breakfast with Obama, Sexton says it went fine. He’s a Republican, and didn’t vote for the man, but said that he seemed very genuine, like a regular guy, plenty interested in the business of manure.

Monica Hesse is a staff writer for the Post Style section. She frequently writes about culture, the Web and the intersection of the two.
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