Jerry Nelson: A presentation at Penn State

Jerry Nelson
Special to the Farm Forum

I want to be perfectly clear about something: I have never gone to college.

Well, that’s not entirely true. When I was 21, I attended a dormitory party at Hanson Hall, located on the campus of South Dakota State University (go Jacks!). I don’t think that should count, even though it was a highly educational experience.

I also want to be perfectly clear that I’ve never set foot on the campus of Penn State University, even though I was a presenter during a recent Penn State educational symposium.

The marvels of the internet made this possible. Online meetings have become such a large part of our lives that many feel as though the Zoom icon has been burned into their retinas.

Robb Meinen, senior extension associate at Penn State’s department of animal science, invited me to address a webinar that he was holding. This virtual get-together was part of a continuing education opportunity for people who work with manure and people who work with people who work with manure.

I met Robb a few years ago at the North American Manure Expo. You’re probably thinking, “Wait, there’s an expo that’s focused entirely on manure? What does that look like? More importantly, how does it smell?”

A manure expo looks like a vast display of manure-related equipment. It smells like new paint and new rubber because all of the equipment — especially the so-called “honey wagons” {span}— are brand spanking new.

A manure expo is attended by manure handlers and agronomy experts, along with random civilians who are fascinated by GPS-equipped liquid manure injection systems that feature Bluetooth controls and a Facebook app.

A conversation between two manure handlers might go something like this:

“How’s business been?”

“Crappy. Real crappy.”

“That’s great to hear!”

“Yep. And with any luck, it will get even crappier!”

So, how did an avowed non-academic like me end up as a presenter at a university symposium? It’s due to the other side of the education coin, the one labeled “experience.”

Hydrogen sulfide is one of the deadliest substances around. This colorless gas is produced by anaerobic bacteria as they feast on rotting organic matter. Hydrogen sulfide has very a distinctive odor, the one that often causes teenaged boys to declare, “If you smelled it, you dealt it!”

One hot July morning more than 30 years ago, I descended into a manure pit on our family’s dairy farm to work on a balky manure pump. I never made it back out.

Unbeknownst to me, hydrogen sulfide, which is heavier than air, was lurking at the bottom of the manure pit. When I bent over to work on the pump, I stuck my head into a puddle of the toxic gas.

I felt woozy and immediately began to exit the pit. I had nearly made it {span}— I could hear our 4020 John Deere tractor patiently idling as it waited for me {span}— when everything abruptly faded to black.

My parents noticed that I had been gone a bit too long and went to the barn to investigate. Dad found me floating, unconscious, in the manure pit. He ran to the house and placed the 911 call that no parent would ever want to make.

Our local first responders arrived on the scene and extracted me from the pit. They couldn’t find a pulse and I wasn’t breathing. I was soaked with manure, so somebody called for water. A bucket of water was obtained from a cattle fountain and I moved a little when the cold liquid hit me. This was the first hint that I was still alive.

I was ambulanced to a nearby hospital where the ER doctor told my family that my chances of survival were approximately zero. My wife, who had just been informed that at age 28 she was about to become a widow with two small boys, kept her wits about her and demanded that I be helicoptered to a larger hospital 50 miles away.

The short story is that I spent more than three weeks in the ICU. It was a big deal when I was weaned off the respirator. It was a big deal when I moved out of the ICU. It was a huge deal when, five weeks after I entered the hospital, I was able to go home and resume my life.

The takeaway message of my presentation at the symposium is that manure-related hazards are no joke.

Many thanks to Penn State for this opportunity. And go Lions!

Jerry Nelson