- Molly Zapp
- Tom Gilbert
Eggs from Black Dirt Farm often come with unexpected side dishes: printed notes nestled between the ungraded brown eggs and the cardboard carton. In the fall, those messages showcased the Merriam-Webster definitions of "democracy" and "white supremacy" to show that the two are mutually exclusive. This winter, pink inserts cite the figure that one in three Vermont women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime, along with contact information for shelters.
If the fridge and breakfast table seem like unconventional places for sparking discussions of human rights, Black Dirt Farm owner Tom Gilbert is not worried. "We are intentionally provoking a conversation, and we're open to feedback," he said during a recent tour of his Stannard farm.
The farmer, composting professional and activist, 43, said he began thinking about environmental racism after observing how often landfills and incinerators are located near low-income communities and communities of color. In Gilbert's view, ecology, food systems, democracy and racial justice are intertwined, and Americans can effect real change only by facing those issues directly, with clear eyes.
Through his diversified farm, Gilbert himself hopes to foster change in how Vermonters deal with food scraps. The former executive director of Highfields Center for Composting in Hardwick, he helped draft the part of Vermont's Universal Recycling Law that bans food scraps from landfills.
Black Dirt Farm helps local institutions follow that law, which came into full effect in July 2020. Alongside its egg production, the farm has a commercial composting facility that collects 25 tons of compost per week from businesses and schools in the northeastern part of the state. The compost nourishes the chickens, which in turn enrich the compost — and, when the finished compost is sold to food producers, the cycle begins all over again.
On a frigid February afternoon, Gilbert showed a reporter some of the food scraps that will become soil amendments and nourishment for his flock of hens. Commingling in the pile of uneaten food were winter squash innards and saucy spaghetti; not far away was a decent-looking whole bell pepper. A green bio-plastic "compostable" bag lurked in the back corner; Gilbert said the team would remove it before continuing with the composting process because such bags are difficult to compost.
The next step in that process is to add the food scraps to a "hot mix" of already-composting material, and then to combine the mixture with carbon-rich substances that "cultivate a full spectrum of microorganisms," he explained. The decomposition activity heats the pile up to at least 140 degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough to kill most pathogens; even in single-digit weather, the giant piles of compost give off a heat you can feel.
They're also hot enough to cook food in; Gilbert has slow-cooked roasts, kale and tomato sauces in piles of hot compost. Wrapped in multiple layers of foil, according to him, meat roasts better there than in a Dutch oven.
Midway through the composting process, hens get to feast on the compost, drawing part of a healthy diet from this "forage" of food scraps, bugs and microorganisms. The birds' waste adds nutrients that help transform the remaining materials into compost suitable for organic farming. The farm uses finished compost on the tomatoes and salad greens it grows commercially and as feed for its Red Wiggler worms, which make worm castings. It then sells the compost and worm castings as soil amendments.
In Southeast Asia, where they originated, chickens forage in the jungles. Gilbert said that providing his Northeast Kingdom hens with access to forage and pasture "allows them to express their natural behaviors more so than pecking a grain, because they can scratch, peck around and chase bugs." The hens, which are a cross between white rocks and Rhode Island reds, also eat non-GMO, Vermont-milled grain.
The hens produce roughly 2,100 dozen eggs per month — less in the winter and more in the spring. Black Dirt Farm's ungraded eggs have more character than conventional eggs, varying in size, shape and shade of brown. Crack one into a hot skillet, and the rich, golden yolk retains its rounded shape. (Eggs that spread out flat lack freshness.) In the warmer months, when the hens have regular access to pasture, their yolks become a deeper orange.
The farm sells its eggs at Buffalo Mountain Food Co-op in nearby Hardwick, Hunger Mountain Co-op in Montpelier, and a smattering of smaller markets in northeastern and central Vermont. Black Dirt Farm eggs also show up in Local Donut's sweets, made in Woodbury.
Unlike its produce, Black Dirt Farm's eggs are not certified organic. Gilbert believes it's more important to work with the local food system "in the moment we're in" than to source organic grains from farther away, he said.
Composting breaks down antibiotics and is generally considered a best practice for mitigating pesticides, but Gilbert remains concerned about soil integrity. He and his workers have test fields where they apply finished compost at excessively high rates to inspect crops for signs of lingering herbicides, as defined by standards developed at Washington State University. So far, he said, they haven't observed any.
"There are certainly gaps in our knowledge, and there's a lot of research to be done, but we're trying to be clear-eyed and honest," Gilbert said. "We keep looking for opportunities to be wrong and are willing to change if there arises a reason for it."
Gilbert has been source-separating compost since his days as an undergrad at Evergreen State College in Washington, 25 years ago. Before starting Black Dirt Farm in 2014, he worked for Vermont Compost.
And he has strong opinions on how the state manages its compost today. In particular, Gilbert expressed frustration at how the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources interprets and enforces the Vermont statute on waste management, which specifies that food residuals must be separated from solid waste, such as packaging, at the source.
In fall 2018, food scrap collection companies that don't require food separation at the source began getting permits to operate in Vermont. After that, Black Dirt Farm lost long-standing contracts with Hannaford and Price Chopper, according to Gilbert.
Rutland-based Casella Waste Systems and Agri-Cycle, a Maine-based composting company that operates in Vermont through a partnership with Grow Compost of Vermont, use machines that "depackage" food solids from their containers, Gilbert said. The depackaging systems have their drawbacks: 0.5 to 3 percent of the resulting compost is plastic — which, according to Gilbert, far exceeds the plastic content in source-separated compost like his own.
"We have a law that says that's not supposed to be happening," Gilbert said. "If I was getting a permit from the State of Vermont, and I wanted to compost 100,000 tons per year, and I applied saying I was applying for a permit for 98,000 tons of food scraps and 2,000 tons of plastics, who would give me the permit? [Vermont] has done nothing to actually try to achieve source separation." He's especially concerned that depackaging machines could contribute more microplastics to our food system.
Josh Kelly is the materials management chief at ANR; Gilbert was his boss when they both worked at Highfields. Kelly stands by the agency's issuing of permits to companies that mechanically depackage off-site. "Source-separated is interpreted as keeping food waste and packaged food waste separate from trash," he told Seven Days. "There are points of generation that don't have a depackager on-site, but there are service providers that can achieve that source separation on their location."
Gilbert views Vermont's Universal Recycling Law as a model that other states are watching closely to see how well it works or how easily it can be watered down. He fears that neoliberal interpretations of the law will fail to produce the environmental shift the moment requires. This February, he and a coalition that includes Vermont Compost and environmental groups sent the legislature's natural resources committees a request for a formal legislative review of the organics management hierarchy and the source separation provision of the Universal Recycling Law — and of ANR's current implementation of these sections.
"If we can't figure out how to steward food scraps in a small state like Vermont," Gilbert asked, "then how can we ever tackle climate change?"
Black Dirt Farm requires that its customers go through training to learn how to properly separate food scraps from non-compostable materials, including removing the loathsome PLU stickers from produce. Gilbert said the farm trains the staff who handle food scraps at customer institutions, not just their managers. The aim is to foster a clarity of purpose and sense of environmental stewardship that keep the farm's food scraps "by and large very clean."
Back at the hen house, Gilbert walked comfortably among his chickens, who eagerly flocked around and pecked the shoes of visitors. In the early spring, he'll set up a mechanism to pull heat from a compost pile to warm the greenhouse. It's all part of an integrated system that puts ecology at the forefront.
"If we start clarifying what our goals and values are," Gilbert said, "and build a system that fulfills those, then we start actually eliminating our problems instead of shifting them."
Correction, March 8, 2021: An earlier version of this story misstated the source of the grains that Black Dirt Farm feeds its chickens. The grain come from Vermont mills, but is not necessarily Vermont grain.