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Pay Dirt

Vermonters make money from manure


Published May 13, 2009 at 7:37 a.m.

Karl Hammer makes his living in a way most of us can only dream about. He takes waste, which nobody wants; uses less-than-cutting-edge science to turn it into soil, which many people want; and finally makes it into money, which everybody wants. How’s that for a business plan?

Hammer, proprietor of the Montpelier-based Vermont Compost Company, is a sixtysomething businessman-hippie (a bippie?) who sports a full gray beard and worker’s cap in the fashion of Comrade Lenin. A high school “throwout” — he didn’t drop out, he was thrown out — he’s knowledgeable on an array of subjects: local flora and fauna, particularly the ravens that occasionally steal his chickens; dairy-farming practices; and the microbial communities that turn food and animal waste into usable, profitable compost.

The end products are a dozen specialty soil mixes for gardens, greenhouses, potting and so on. In addition to his facility in Montpelier, Hammer has one in East Montpelier. He sells to more than 700 clients around the country, most of them professional growers.

Commercial composting has become a serious, if not a large, industry in Vermont since 1989. That’s when the Foster Brothers, fifth-generation Middlebury farmers, began turning manure from their large dairy operation into compost for sale — a product called Moo-Doo. That operation has since morphed into Vermont Natural Ag Products, the state’s largest commercial composter. Moo-Doo and a variety of soil products are bagged and sold through wholesalers and retailers around the Northeast.

Four other companies have emerged in the wake of VNAP’s success: Vermont Compost, Intervale Compost, Champlain Valley Compost and the Highfields Institute, which functions as a service industry for the others. The Composting Association of Vermont was formed in 2002 as a nonprofit trade group. Robert Foster serves as its president, and members include farmers, consultants and people with a personal or professional interest in composting.

Hammer came to the commercial compost business circuitously. He grew up in Vershire and got his start cultivating his family’s property. Although his parents didn’t work the land, he was well acquainted with local farmers, and watched them abandon small-scale manure-management practices honed over generations in favor of chemical fertilizers. He left Vermont to farm in Spain and later New Mexico, and finally joined a large farming enterprise in Dutchess County, N.Y., as a partner and manager. There Hammer appeared before the New York Supreme Court to argue the all-important question: Is composting part of farming or not? The case revolved around whether agricultural zoning permitted a composting operation. He won.

In 1993, after his return to Vermont, Hammer started the Vermont Compost Co. on the site of a prerevolutionary land-grant farm. Two years ago, the question he once argued in New York reared its head again, this time in the form of legislative bill H.145, which attempts to resolve the composting-as-farming issue and determine how to regulate the practice to prevent the possibility of contamination.

Hammer has watched the bill wend its way through the legislature for two years now, and he is clearly fed up. When the lawmakers went home last Saturday, the bill was held over till the next session, although the Agency of Natural Resources has decided to go ahead and start the rule-making process. “We failed to achieve clarity,” remarks Hammer, who hoped the bill would show composters a way out of the maze of local zoning permits and state regulations.

“This is a highly emotional issue. This is obviously dirty, nasty stuff,” he goes on, gesturing at the mounds of rich, black soil that surround his office, an unrestored 1820s-era farmhouse. Hammer clearly doesn’t find the stuff either dirty or nasty. He talks about making compost as if he were engaged in concocting perfumes.

“I love manure in all its glories,” he says. “We use it all: bovine, equine, swine, poultry, bark, spoiled fodder crops, hay and food residuals from the community. Each specific manure adds complexities to the ‘manurial’ density.”

Tom Gilbert is another true believer. As executive director of the Highfields Institute, his job is to explore the full “glories” of manure and to alchemize compost into rich, nutritious gardening soil. Highfields had its genesis in the mid-1990s when a local dairy farmer, Tod Delaricheliere, couldn’t find technical services to help him start an on-farm composting project. He created the service himself. The Institute’s primary mission is to research and develop compost mixes, to design on-farm systems, and to educate and train the public in composting.

Gilbert sees composting as the beginning and end of the local food cycle, which runs from compost to soil to food to waste and back again. To him, it is the antithesis of the “fertilizer to landfill” model that has turned this country into an energy-gulping, waste-spewing Goliath. “It’s hard to separate composting from an organic, environmentally friendly culture,” says Gilbert, 31. “A linear model is not sustainable. The line has to become a circle.”

A circle, indeed. Everything alive dies at some point, and, whether it’s food scraps, manure of all sorts or even dead animals (the polite term is “animal mortality”), it all goes into the pile. Highfields’ demonstration site on a hill outside Hardwick is divided into sections — manure, food waste and dead animals — as well as compost-building carbons such as bark and straw. Through trial and error, Gilbert figures out how to mix and mingle all that to produce the best growing soils for various purposes.

More than a decade after its founding, the nonprofit serves a dozen farm clients in the state. In addition, Gilbert spends hours on the phone informally fielding questions. He consults on farmstead compost projects and designs municipal food-waste collection systems. His assistant, June Van Houten, runs educational workshops and training sessions for schools and businesses that want to join the effort.

“It’s amazing how eager people are to participate,” says Van Houten, who demonstrates simple tactics, such as separating plastic ware from food scraps, at institutions ranging from elementary schools to businesses. The goal is to make the compost pile as trash-free as possible. Young children get high marks for enthusiasm, while teenagers … “You have to convince them it’s cool,” says Gilbert with a sigh. “We have to work hard to get that message across.”

To hear devotees tell it, composting is the next best thing to cold fusion when it comes to salvaging the planet. (And it has the edge, since no one has yet made the latter work.) “Composting can affect global warming in a massive way,” Gilbert explains. “When you landfill food scraps, you release noxious gases. Composting can improve water quality by locking up nutrients in the soil, preventing leachate from running off into lakes and streams. It reduces the volume of phosphorus by half and, at the same time, creates a saleable product.”

We all know shit happens. It takes a special kind of mind to turn it into money.