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by Slow Food USA intern Sara Hoffman

The State of Vermont is going to court against a compost pile.

The Vermont Compost Company (VCC), started to meet the needs of farmers and amateur gardeners for high quality composts and soil mixes, has been served an $18,000 fine by the state. The Natural Resources Board says that owner Karl Hammer violated Vermont’s land use development law, ACT 250 by commencing development without a land-use permit. The development in question was the composting operation, which the state considers to be a manufacturing and not an agricultural business. On July 7th, Karl Hammer was ordered to cease operations, remove all compost from his farm, and pay up.

Composting is not always pleasant, as I experienced my freshman year of college dragging the dorm hall’s compost bin down two flights of stairs, but it’s a necessary part of a sustainable organic food cycle. Its smell and appearance can be unsettling, and there has been some tension between neighbors of the VCC about food waste and chickens (or rats) migrating onto their property. Still, the site of fermenting trash is more than compensated for by its benefits. Compost provides the healthy soils necessary for any expansion of local agriculture and closes the circle of production from farming to waste.

Karl Hammer has been working his Montpelier property for 14 years and diverting food remains from the waste stream into agricultural potential with 9 other employees. He also raises free-range chickens, which forage in the compost pile, and he sells thousands of eggs locally, earning him farming status from the Vermont Agency of Agriculture.
Closing down a major compost supplier like the VCC means big trouble for the organic farmers and business who depend upon a reliably high-quality supply of living soil for growing. VCC’s products aren’t just used in the Northeast but also as far away as farms in Illinois and Wisconsin. Shutting down such a large scale-composting agency will hurt the local foods movement beyond Vermont.

Obviously, ACT 250 needs to be modified to acknowledge that composting is an integral part of agriculture so that future farmers don’t run into the same trouble as the VCC or Burlington’s Intervale. An appeal is now pending with Vermont’s Environmental Court. Another example of how well-meaning state and national regulations often hinder and hurt farmers and lead to absurdities like fining the VCC for performing a public service.

To read an article on the issue in the Vermont Times-Argus, click here.

To take action visit the Northeast Organic Farming Farming Association of Vermont.