Amish communities use human waste from outhouses to spread on crops, but it is not true in all communities. The practice appears to be more common in the Old Order Amish.
Old Order Amish communities may use outhouses as indoor plumbing requires a pressurized system. This can be accomplished with air pressure, but some communities find this practice outside the mandate to “live simply.”
It is important to note that laws regarding waste disposal and use of septic systems vary widely from state to state and county to county within states.
There have been multiple clashes with the Amish and local health officials over the practice of using waste from outhouses on crops.
In 2009 Pennsylvania placed restrictions on the construction of septic systems in Amish communities and at Amish places of worship.
2012 saw Amish in Ohio were told they needed to install sealed concrete tanks in outhouses and pay for a service to come pump the tanks. The need to contract an outside agency clashed with the Amish practice of “living apart” from greater society.
Again, in 2015 Michigan 14 Old Order Amish families were threatened to have their houses demolished if they did not change their waste disposal practices. This drew widespread public support of Amish families and a counter lawsuit.
The Michigan issue was settled in 2019 when the Amish families agreed to treat their waste with lime before spreading.
Local laws vary from county to county but as a general rule, the use of humanure is not illegal.
As a general rule, Amish communities use animal manure to fertilize their crops, it is simply more available and it is better for building soil than human waste.
Some Amish households will treat the human waste with lime and then mix it with the animal waste as a means of dealing with both before using them on agricultural fields.
It is important to note that the use of human and animal waste on fields is very common all over the world and for centuries of recorded history. The practice is not new, and the regulation of the practice is still developing.
What Is the Difference Between Human Waste and Animal Manure?
Manure from cows, horses and other livestock is a rich source of nutrients for plants. Human waste is very acidic because of the higher protein content in human diets.
As a general rule, human waste should be composted or treated with lime before being used on crops that are intended for human consumption because it can contain harmful bacteria or viruses.
People are often uncomfortable with the idea of using human waste on plants because of the ick factor.
Human waste is much more controversial than the use of animal manure which has been used for centuries to build soil and nourish plants.
Animal waste is commonly spread on fields raw and uncomposted. The practice is not without risk as animal waste can contain pathogens like e.coli, salmonella, and listeria.
Many of the outbreaks of these pathogens can be linked to the use of raw manure on fields.
What Fertilizer Do Amish Farmers Use?
Farming practices are individual among the Amish, but many use composted or raw manure on their crops. Some Amish farmers use commercial fertilizers the same as conventional farmers.
While some farmers will dig up outhouse pits and use the humanure on their crops after mixing it with lime.
Old Order Amish communities tend to use more traditional practices like crop rotation and manure fertilizing, while more modern Amish and Mennonite generally embrace more conventional farming practices and the use of pesticides.
Organic farmers of all religious backgrounds often rely on manure (human or otherwise) to supply necessary nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium to the soil.
These necessary nutrients are available in animal waste and it allows farmers to avoid buying expensive commercial fertilizers.
Is It Legal To Use Human Waste As Fertilizer?
I was unable to find any specific regulations in America regarding the use of human waste on fields. These laws and regulations do exist, but the application is extremely geographically motivated.
For example, the controversy in Michigan where 14 Amish families were asked to install sealed cement waste tanks is in close proximity to several large commercial cattle farms where tons of waste are produced each day.
These facilities use “waste lagoons” where the animal waste is liquified in an open tank then spread on fields.
The practices are so starkly in contrast it is confusing.
It seems that the regulation of the commercial cattle farms fall under state jurisdiction while sanitation and human waste are governed by local officials.
Local laws dictate the proper use and disposal of human waste, but on a small scale (like a home garden) it is generally overlooked unless a complaint is filed.
Is Humanure Safe to Use of Edible Crops?
Human waste that has been composted for 6 to 12 months is generally considered safe for application to edible crops. Commercially treated human waste, often called biosolids, have been treated with heat and contain no detectable pathogens.
The use of human waste comes with various levels of risk.
Biosolids, human waste that has been digested by bacteria then treated with heat, are the safest, while raw applications come with the most risk. Home composted humanure coming in somewhere in the middle.
The Environmental Protection Agency has developed regulations as part of the Clean Water Act to ensure that the processing and use of human waste is not posing an environmental risk to our population.
The regulations suggest regular monitoring of the waterways nearby human waste disposal sites and making recommendations based on the pollutant levels in these samples.
The EPA has released a Plain English Guide to the Biosolids Rule that is intended to make their regulations and recommendations clear to all interested parties.
The guide was finalized in 1994 and it encourages the use of properly treated biosolids in agriculture and other applications and provides incentives for doing so.
The USDA and Forest Service published an article in 1977 discussing the composting of human waste in a leakproof bin as an acceptable way to deal with sewage in remote areas. The publication even recommended that the compost could be used for site rehabilitation.
China used human waste on crops for many years and it improved soil fertility, but it did often pass pathogens to the edible produce.
After my research, I would not eat any produce grown with untreated human waste raw. Although, it is not always obvious what practices were used when growing that grocery store produce.
Amish and Human Waste
Old Order Amish all over the country have been known to use human waste on crops and fields. This practice has drawn criticism by neighbors and local governments. Many localities require that human waste be treated with lime before application as fertilizer.
Studies of the use of human waste in agriculture are still in their infancy and while the practice has been recorded as early as 1700 Japan, modern lifestyle and geography have raised concerns.
Uncomposted and untreated human and animal waste can contain harmful pathogens that can transfer to edible crops and cause illness, kidney failure and even death in some cases.
Be sure to ask your local farmer what their fertilization practices are and to wash fruits and vegetables that will be eaten raw thoroughly.
Farmers who use biosolids are using safe practices and closing a waste loop, the practice can be safe when done responsibly.