Hardwick and the New Frontier of Food
When you think of Vermont–white church on the tidy green–you’re not actually thinking of Hardwick, which in its days as the “Building Granite Center of the World” used to boast a dirty-movie theater and a lot of bars. And those were the good times. In November 2005 an enormous fire wrecked the historic Bemis Block in the middle of town. (It has since been reconstructed.)
Likewise, when you think of “compost,” you may imagine a healthy-looking gardener spreading the loamy remains of his erstwhile vegetable soup on the raised beds where he’ll grow next year’s carrots. That’s not Tom Gilbert.
He’s healthy-looking enough, but he’s standing in a dusty parking lot high on West Hill Road, overlooking town. “You’re surrounded now by three decomposing carcasses,” he says, pointing proudly to a trio of brown mounds. Tom Gilbert runs the Highfields Center for Composting, which introduced “livestock mortality composting” to Vermont. On a dairy farm, 5 percent of the herd is likely to die each year, so knowing what to do with the remains is important.
“You don’t want to just haul it out to the field,” Gilbert explains. “That’s a lot of blood and bone that will go to waste,” when it could be improving the soil. So here’s one recipe: an 18-inch base of woodchips, a 6-inch layer of sawdust, a thin layer of fresh corn silage (or haylage, or horse manure), the animal, and then a cap of silage–24 inches of material on all sides of the carcass. Done correctly, with proper siting (away from surface and ground water) and air flow, the process inactivates pathogens and produces a rich compost.
“There’s a full-grown Holstein in there–I put him in two weeks ago,” says Gilbert, who sticks a 2-foot-long thermometer into the pile. “One hundred forty-five degrees. If you go in with a shovel, you’ll find nice clean bone. We’ll leave it a while, and the skull and the pelvis will still be there, but now they’ll be brittle enough that you’re not going to pop a tire if you drive the tractor over it.”
Gilbert composts more than cows; in fact, he’s pioneered a rural composting system that gathers up much of the food waste from the surrounding area, including schools, farms, and restaurants. The collection truck drives a 76-mile route; some of the stops are 15 miles apart, which reduces the economies of scale. Even so, once the workers have the garbage up on the piles, where they can roll it with a backhoe every few days, it doesn’t take long before it turns into fertilizer. “If you assume that every cubic yard of compost offsets an equivalent amount of synthetic nitrogen (chemical fertilizer), and accounting for mitigated landfill emissions,” Gilbert calculates, “our little operation here is offsetting greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to not burning some 26,000 gallons of gasoline a year.”
If you want to change the world, or even a corner of it, compost helps a lot. If Vermont as a whole recycled all of its food waste, it could compost 20,000 acres of vegetable fields. Together with good cover crop practices, that could be enough to grow most of the produce its citizens consume. And Vermont is a little place. Imagine New York City composting; it’s comparatively easy to collect food waste when there are more households in Manhattan alone than individuals in all of Vermont. The resulting fertilizer would be enough to make New Jersey the Garden State once more. “Soil is the frontier of where we need to be going,” Gilbert declares.
But forget New York–Hardwick is interesting enough on its own. And compost is just, literally, the beginning. Almost everything here is conspiring to produce a produce renaissance, a (soy) milky way toward the future. In fact, it may be the single most interesting agricultural experiment on the continent. In a lovely new book, The Town That Food Saved, journalist Ben Hewitt declares that its residents “are more able to sustain themselves on food grown by their neighbors than perhaps any other community in the U.S.” To understand why, follow the local food chain.