Each week in our Farm Confessional column, we hear from the farm workers and other folks who help make our food. Do you have a story to tell? Anonymity is okay and guaranteed. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. This week, we hear from Cleve Benton, manure hauler.
My brother, man, he still can’t believe people pay me to do this.
It started back in 2007. I’d been working for the Department of Defense — I’d rather not say more than that — for 23 years. At home, my wife Bobbi and I, we had three horses. We let the manure pile up for six months, almost a year sometimes. When we’d call this guy to pick it up, it nearly killed us, how much we had to pay.
This guy, he’d show up at our place in grimy old clothes, rutting up the land, making a real mess of things. And he was just trucking the manure into the woods and dumping it wherever he found a spot. Bobbi and I thought: we can do better than this.
I tell people, ‘I spent 23 years dealing with government BS, I can handle a little horse manure.’
My wife can tell you, this is the perfect line of work for me — I’ve always had a bad sense of smell. At this point I can barely smell anything at all. Bobbi’s nose is just fine though; she’s always telling me to leave my boots outside.
Our goal was to bring manure to a farm that would use it as compost. Somewhere organic, friendly to the environment. But would you believe it — it took four or five months just to find a farm who wanted it.
Now we’ve got three different places that take the manure. This one place, it’s one of these big organic farms, 800 acres. They supply produce to restaurants, health food stores, that kind of thing. They’ve got 5 acres — 5 acres! — just for composting. I don’t think they’ll ever get enough manure. Just a prodigious amount, really.
There was a study recently. In our area of northern Virginia, there’s something like 164,000 horses. When you consider each horse can produce 70 pounds of manure a day, well, I don’t think I’ll be running out of work anytime soon.
Most of our clients are small-scale, between eight and twenty horses. It’s a niche — people who need waste removal but can’t afford to go with one of the big companies like Waste Management.
We do have a few bigger clients. One place, we’re getting up to 10,000 pounds of manure, every 10 days. We’ve also got a high-end spa and horse farm. That place is going to start giving us all their kitchen waste, and all the waste from their gardening.
We tell people to give us whatever they’ve got. We’ll take soiled bedding, veggie scraps, even leaves from your yard. We’ll take other kinds of manure too — chicken, cows, anything besides dog or cat. Chicken manure has lots of nitrogen — it composts real hot. Not sure if we could deal with waste from a large-scale chicken farm; most of our clients don’t have more than a dozen chickens.
Same with cows. Cow manure’s got about 50 percent more water than horse manure; it’s harder to handle. Our clients don’t have more than a few cows. Those big dairy farms — and there’s not too many in our area — they collect all the manure in lagoons, then use a liquid spreader to put it out in the corn or soybean fields.
We’ve added other things to our business over the years. Like the other day, I brought someone’s sick horse down to the vet hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina. I’ll taxi your animals around, I do hay deliveries sometimes. We actually changed the name from Affordable Manure Removal to Affordable Farm Services.
People do tease us sometimes. Bobbi still has her day job working for the Marine Corps; she gets a lot of ribbing for what she does on the weekends. She always says she’s laughing all the way to the bank. Myself, I tell people, ‘I spent 23 years dealing with government BS, I can handle a little horse manure.’
My least favorite part of the job? The traffic. I’m not sure if you’ve ever been to Northern Virginia, but it is just horrendous, gets worse every year. When I’m fully loaded with manure, I’ve got 26,000 pounds — I do a lot of screeching of the brakes and laying on my horn.
But the truth is, I couldn’t ask for a better job. I’m an outdoors guy, I hate to be trapped behind a desk. I get to work with people, to work with animals. At the end of the day, I’m bone tired, but it’s a good tired.