Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Montpelier: Karl Hammer, Vermont Compost Co.

"First there was magma, then there was rock. The rest is soil history. Well, we are part of that, of course. In fact, it's not a metaphor to say that we are walking soil. We are...walking water, walking many things you could point out, but walking soil is it. So if you combust us; get rid of the carbon, get rid of the water, that ash, those components...those are rocks that were magma and dust.

"We used to say people were 'of' a soil, came from somewhere. That really mattered because they were 'of' those rocks. Now, are we eclectic and cosmopolitan! Turkish figs, California lettuce, wheat from the midwest...so, if I'm walking soil...talking soil...what are my special responsibilities to the rest of soil?"

We were fortunate to roll into Montpelier on May 2nd, arriving in Vermont's capitol at the tail end of the Parade of Species. The parade was over but we came across lots of fairies, some tigers, a dinosaur, and a man walking his goat on the capital green. We settled in with our gracious hosts, Schuyler and Aisling, and they introduced us to a delicious Vermont tradition, the maple creemee (soft serve ice cream with maple syrup flavoring). We returned to that sugar shack more than once while we stayed in Montpelier that week.

The next day we were able to meet Karl Hammer, founder and director of Vermont Compost Co. Karl is an expert at concocting customized compost, and works in the community to rescue food waste from restaurants and grocery stores that would otherwise be piling up in landfills.

Karl has about 400 chickens who eat some of the food scraps in the massive piles around the property and he collects the eggs to sell. The chickens aren't fed; they scavenge in the mounds and find their own food, while giving back their own pellets of nutrition and converting food waste into nitrogen to be mixed back into the piles.

Karl started out using mule power to run his farm, and he still does some work with mules, though he has mechanized his operation as well. The compost piles are now turned with back hoes and are shipped around the country in the form of commercial amendments and potting soil. He has run into a many difficulties because his compost operation and farm are on Main Street in Montpelier, mostly political. With the scale of the Vermont Compost Co. operation, there are bound to be occasional issues, not the least of which are general fears of sanitation and neighborhood contamination. Karl had plenty of arguments as to why these are unfounded and clearly laid out his methods and reasons behind his approaches, but will surely continue to deal with politics for some time.

The operation is on a hill, sloped downwards towards the street. He makes use of the slope as the piles migrate and likes to take his guests "to the top", up the hill to overlook the whole operation. We stood upon a solid mound that was once the topsoil of the property, rolled up and saved as part of the landscape. His reverence for soil, or at least his understanding of it, shows that he is passionate and dedicated to working with it and not mining it away.

"Vermont has been through this a cycle of this before; there was the sheep boom...first came the potash burners. They came and they burned everything and they shipped the ash for soap making and for fertilizer back to Western Mass. where they were starting to need fertilizer because they were, well, basically monocropping wheat and corn. Then came the Marino sheep boom; they brought those Spanish Marino sheep here and people got rich in the 1810's and '20's in the sheep boom. 95% of Vermont was open for sheep grazing and was overgrazed. And wool has a lot of silica; wool is a huge amount of rock...so the mineral wealth of the soil is shipped when you ship the wool. Then, just about the time the sheep boom collapsed with the cotton gin and the whole changeover to textiles that were cheaper than wool, the Erie Canal opened. And there was rail to Boston and Boston was a market for butter. And butter, when you sell butter, you're selling air. Fats have no minerals. Pure butter has almost no minerals; it's all synthesized from air. So if you keep the whey, the hair the bone, all that stuff in the community and ship butter you're enriching your soil, especially if you've got some subsidy. So we re-mineralized Vermont at that moment."

At the end of the interview, back at the bottom of the operation, past the barns and greenhouse and chicken building, Karl scrambled up to the top of one of the wood chip mountains and dug his hands into the bark, unearthing a handful that he held up to his face and deeply inhaled. We followed suit and were surprised to feel the warmth emanating off of the pile. It smelled like peppermint.

2 comments:

Dave said...

awesome work you guys. after having worked on some farms down here in South America, i really have taken a liking to that lifestyle and how connected one feels to their environment. i really like hearing about the different farms and the direct quotes from the people really help you feel like you are sitting and talking with them as well. be well on your journies and i will keep reading:)

Nurse from Upstate NY said...

Well...this IS the way we all need to get back to.....repopulating or reestablishing natural land fertility...this was introduced to me by Mr. Lawton's videos on permaculture, etc.

Fantastic story...

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