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Dairy Farmer Takes Manure to High Design
August 29, 2016

The Dairy Farmer, Gianantonio Locatelli climbed up the steel ladder and peered over the brim of a large corrugated vat, about the size of a very deep above-ground swimming pool. “It’s full!” he exclaimed, with warbling joy. “It’s beautiful!”

The vat was full of liquid cow dung. I handed my phone to Locatelli’s friend, the architect Luca Cipelletti, and climbed the ladder to the top, disembarking on a viewing dock. Beneath my feet the manure bubbled and gurgled, forming foamy peaks and crests. It was a topographical map, a primordial stew. A rich and beautiful shade of brown.

The day was sunny, with a gentle wind. T-shirt weather. From the top of the poop vat we had a view of the entire Castelbosco farm, one of eight farms run by Locatelli in the province of Piacenza, about an hour south of Milan. We could see the barns, home to some 1,500 dairy cows that produce milk for Grana Padano cheese. Their roofs and eaves were painted in cheerful geometric patterns by the British artist David Tremlett: yellows, fuchsias. We could also see the 13th-century medieval castle where Locatelli lives from May to November with his wife, Laura, a cheesemaker. We had breakfasted there a little while ago.

Another vat, this one disused, was directly behind us. At first it appeared to be some kind of “green roof” building. But the verdure that covered it had sprouted spontaneously, nourished by the remnants of fecal waste. It reminded me of the wild grasses of Manhattan’s High Line. We took in the processing facilities and digesters, also painted by Tremlett, where cow dung is transformed into electricity. Since 2007, Castelbosco farm has been entirely powered by energy produced on the premises, from the cows’ excrement; Locatelli sells the electricity he does not use. Last year, he and Cipelletti, along with the artist Gaspare Luigi Marcone and the art collector Massimo Valsecchi, opened a Museum in 10 rooms on the castle’s first floor. It’s a charmingly unmodern space that showcases paintings, objects, video art about poop, a display about the dung beetle (also the museum’s logo) and a giant coprolite. (Visits are by appointment only, and include a guided tour of the property.)

In addition, the museum produces and sells home goods — including vases, flowerpots, coffee mugs and plates — that are made out of a compound of baked manure and clay that they call merdacotta — “baked shit.” For a site-specific show, composed of the museum’s goods and some of its installations, the group won the top prize for exhibition design at this year’s prestigious Milan Design Week.

But I am still standing on top of a vat of liquid waste, and you are wondering about the smell. Of course you are. The thing is, unless you have the well-trained nose of a sommelier or a professional taster, it’s hard to describe smells. They are not over there, something to be coolly appraised and summed up; they are overwhelming, literally consuming. Describing a smell is like describing a feeling or a mood or an atmosphere. Smells are reminders of the body’s defenselessness and porousness; they come from the inside. But here’s what I can say. The smell, from the platform on top of the poop vat, was pleasant — earthy, farmlike, wholesome. It was far, far preferable to the smell that clung to the barns like a bad memory.

Castelbosco farm is no mom-and-pop operation. Locatelli is an intensive farmer. His cows do not range free over open fields. When they are not being milked, they jostle haunch to haunch in file. Poking their blocky, sweet heads between bars, they scarf ever-diminishing piles of hay. They defecate. Properly speaking, they do all of these activities at once. And these are big animals. Waste floods out of them like water from an open pipe. It drops out of them like grenades. They stand in their own filth. The pregnant ones lie down in it. It stains their haunches.

If the wind is favorable, the odor around the barns is tolerable — a little sweet, a little sharp. But when the wind blows against you, the odor is rank and nauseating. Fun fact: Every day the cows on Locatelli’s farms produce 50,000 kilograms of milk and 150,000 kilos of dung.

It’s ammonia that makes manure smell bad, a by-product of its natural decomposition. When manure is collected and stored in an oxygen-free environment, it produces several other gases, including methane — a greenhouse gas that traps heat many times more effectively than carbon dioxide. Globally, agriculture is the number one source of methane emissions. According to a recent E.P.A. report, in 2014, 8 percent of U.S. methane emissions due to human activity were produced by manure management. And 23 percent were produced by enteric fermentation — the digestive process in which cows also produce methane, which they mostly release through burping. (A typical dairy cow can emit 145 kilograms of methane per year.)

Source – NY Times Style




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