Oh, Vermont. We love you for your pristine forests, your Ben & Jerry’s ice cream plant, and even your completely unironic Phish-jamming populace. You’ve got a long history of free-mindedness: in the 80s, you elected a democratic socialist as mayor of Burlington; in the 90s, you were leagues ahead of most of America in your legislative embrace of same-sex marriages; and in the aughts, you were the first state to call for a withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. Today, you’re using crowd-sourced human piss to fertilize your crops.
Founded in Brattleboro in 2011, the Rich Earth Institute is “dedicated to advancing and promoting the use of human waste as a resource.” In 2012, the group—started by a compost toilet expert and a former Peace Corp volunteer and educator—began collecting donated pee from a group of about 60 locals. The urine was then transported by a private septic service company to Fair Winds Farm, a local livestock and vegetable farm where fieldwork is powered entirely by the farm’s team of five horses. There, farmer Jay Bailey applied the pee to his hay crops as a powerful mid-season fertilizer. The project was so successful that in 2013, about a hundred more donors signed up, bringing membership of the so-called “Urine Brigade” to around 175. Last year, the Brigade produced 3,000 gallons of pee. This year, Rich Earth co-founder Kim Nace—the former educator—expects volunteers to hand over 6,000 gallons and for two more hay farms to join up.
“It’s sort of taken off big time,” Kim said. “This is just a novel idea in people’s minds, and because of that, they’re extremely intrigued by it.”
Kim explained that urine is rich in three substances that are key to soil health: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Found in commercial chemical fertilizers that organic farmers won’t use due to concerns about toxicity, among other issues, these basic elements are absorbed by plants as they grow, brought into our bodies when we eat those plants, and finally are flushed out in our urine when our diet contains too high an amount of them. Kim, who has long been passionate about sustainable sanitation alternatives, said that peecycling, as it’s sometimes called, is an attractive option for people who are concerned about the environment but often feel powerless to take any measurable steps in their daily lives.
“This is a very empowering project,” she said. “So often, sustainability is about doing less—driving less, using less electricity. But this is something that we already have, that comes out of our bodies, that can help close the nutrient cycle.”
Jay Bailey, the farmer using the urine on his hay crop, agreed.
“Using a wasted resource—which is what this society currently does with urine, we try to make it go away—makes perfect sense,” he said.
When the pee gets dropped off at his farm, Bailey doesn’t have to do much to it to make it usable. Urine is essentially sterile, which is why you can drink it if you’re dying of thirst. But to negate the risk of fecal contamination, Bailey pasteurizes the urine in large tanks heated by solar panels, raising its temperature to 50 degrees centigrade for half an hour.
Prior to 2011, when the Urine Project started, Bailey was already making use of waste, collecting, composting, and then applying his horses’ manure to his hayfields. But with only five horses worth of manure and with 14 acres to fertilize, Bailey wasn’t able to re-fertilize his hay grass midway through the season, after the first cutting, when the hay and the soil it grows in is drastically depleted of nutrients. Since joining the Urine Project, Bailey now uses the volunteers’ pee to fertilize at that point, and he said the results have been dramatic, producing more nourished—and nourishing—hay.
“It’s been fabulous. It’s great hay. It’s like salad to the animals,” he said, referring to the farm’s horses, cattle, sheep, and goats, who all dine on the hay.
Charles Butterfield, a retired chemistry teacher who worked at Brattleboro Union High School for 32 years, is one of the Urine Brigade’s most enthusiastic members. He learned about the project through Rich Earth Institute’s co-founder, Abraham Noe-Hays, the compost toilet expert who was Charles’s student back in the day. After attending an informational Powerpoint presentation hosted by Abraham and Kim, he and his wife Nancy were sold on the idea.
“It made sense to me that we should conserve those good minerals and get them back into the ground,” he said. “We signed up and took our little jug home.”
That five-gallon plastic jug is equipped with a funnel, Charles said, and between the two of them it takes about two weeks to fill up. At that point, he said, “we take it over to headquarters [in Kim's home] and pick up a new one.”
Charles said that the few acquaintances he and his wife have informed of their new hobby have, on the whole, been interested in the endeavor.
“But,” he said, “I’m not sure we’ve convinced anybody to join the group.”
Currently, only the animals on Bailey’s farms are actually eating a urine-fertilized crop. But Rich Earth’s founders are looking into whether pee can safely be applied to human edibles: They recently received grant money from the Environmental Protection Agency for a two-and-a-half-year-long research project that will use urine to fertilize lettuce and carrots, and to then test those crops for any pickup of the pharmaceuticals and hormones we take, which are excreted in our urine. Kim said she was hopeful such pickup would be minimal and that, after peecycling spreads to other regions of the country, as she expects it will, Rich Earth could focus on the next step of its sustainability plan: crop fertilization using human feces. The question is how donors will feel about that one.
Charles said he wasn’t certain he could incorporate such a task into his daily regimen.
“I’m not sure I would have the same eagerness to do this with solid waste,” he said.