by Sabine Rhyne
Vermont Compost founder Karl Hammer is one of those people who stick with you. Truly, five minutes into a conversation with him, and there you go, down the chutes of human history by way of Andean farming, jackasses (the furry kind with big ears), and soil biology. Along with the folks who started working with the land in Vermont in the 1970s, Karl began a lifelong experiment to explore the magic of life through soil. He started as a farmer in Vershire, and began working on the best possible recipes for manure compost mixes for his own business. Over time, he became more and more involved with understanding the complexity of soil health for various plant applications, and began focusing most of his energy on experimenting and improving his plant media. His goal is now to provide the best possible soils for certified organic farm production far and wide. Vermont Compost is, in fact, most widely used by farmers, specifically over 400 professional organic growers, with retail sales being a relatively small part of the business. This ensures that home gardeners like Brattleboro Food Co-op customers benefit from the care and attention that the Vermont Compost Company crew gives their mixes, care that those large farms count on.
“It’s a magical moment,” Karl says, “when that seed wakes up and begins to reach out. So many things are happening. And everything has to be right to encourage the successful germination.” Testimonials on the Vermont Compost website vouch for the success rate of these media. Farm customers come from all over, even Angelic Organics near Chicago (of The Real Dirt on Farmer John fame) and the Vermont Valley Community Farm, which is confusingly located in the Driftless region near Madison, WI. Other more familiar users include Harlow Farm and Zach Woods Herb Farm here in Vermont. This stuff must be good, right?
Growing media need to mimic all the complex bio-diversity in nature. So, this compost begins with a high rate of manures from cows, horses, donkeys, mules, chickens, and worms. Then, a magical mixture involving specific percentages of inputs like bedding hay, particular types of barks, oxidized silage, and mature compost gets mixed with food wastes in hoop houses, where chickens busily work the piles. It gets stirred and moved through the hoop houses, breaking down all the while. Thermometers stick out of the piles for quick checks on the progress. It is further nurtured on soil surfaces behind and up the hill from the Vermont Compost barns. Large earth-moving machines fueled by biodiesel turn, sift, and mix the mysterious media, and everything, from basalt to water, is used to enhance and refine them. In the end, the mixtures are fine, dark, moist, and odor free.
Composting is a science and an art that has been used for hundreds of years. Ollantaytambo, an “Inca Trail” site not too far from Cusco, Peru, includes a staggering number of intricate terraced agricultural “alleys,” all of which were intentionally built up using compost, up to 12 feet deep. These enabled the early Incas and the Wari before them to farm otherwise unusable land, and also to nurture crops at different altitudes.
Though Karl’s inspiration is historical and international, Vermont Compost was officially founded in 1993 on Main Street in Montpelier, and employs 14 people. One of the guiding ideals of the company is to provide a living wage, with a goal of having wages up to about $15 within two years of employment. And since the compost business is almost year-round (“our busiest week is the week before the winter solstice”), these folks stay on and provide good business continuity. Almost everyone on staff is a grower, so the passion for making the best possible medium for plants is a personal one. On the complex site, you will find several large flocks of chickens, several handsome jackasses, and a long-haired German Shepherd who keeps the bears off the property, among other things. Minutes from downtown Montpelier, Karl and his crew continue to experiment with enhancements. There is a greenhouse that is heated by compost heat, in which plant trials happen, as well as peach trees. But still Karl laments, “If only we can figure out how better to use all the BTUs that just get lost into the air!” If it can be done sustainably on an active hillside in central Vermont, bet on Karl Hammer to pioneer it. He’s that curious.
Meet Jennifer from Vermont Compost on May 15 from 3-5:15pm! Includes
Kids' Event from 3-4! See calendar for details.