April Featured Vendor – Black Dirt Farm

To observe how a relatively small farm in a relatively small state can make an enormous impact, look no further than our featured vendor for April, Black Dirt Farm. Formerly Winchester Farm, primarily a small dairy through the 1960s, the land has been farmed and utilized in its current iteration since 2014.

In 2018, the farm’s network of businesses, schools, and restaurants recycled 11,466 totes of food scraps, diverted almost 2.5 million pounds of organic waste from the landfill, captured enough nitrogen to fertilize over 185 acres of mixed vegetable crops, and mitigated greenhouse gases equivalent to not burning 110,073 gallons of gasoline. We spoke with Black Dirt’s Office Manager, Doni Hoffman, to find out more about their variety of programs and the impact they have.

What does “diversified” mean in terms of Black Dirt Farm?

When we think of the term diversified, two sayings come to mind: “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket,” and “The sum is greater than its parts.” At Black Dirt Farm, we strive to take our cues from nature and create an integrated system of enterprises that overlap and support one another. The output of one enterprise is the fodder for the next. Our diversified, integrative farm system starts with food scrap collection, moves into laying hens, then compost, then worm castings, and finishes with crops.

Can you elaborate on what you mean by “regenerative agricultural practices”?

We manage Black Dirt Farm regeneratively, meaning we consider our interaction with the land carefully; we observe the natural systems already in place and anticipate how the actions we take today might affect the land and its ecological community for years and years to come. We strive to leave the land we cultivate, graze, and occupy healthier and more biologically robust than it was before we arrived. In short, we want the land to have the ecological capacity to regrow. To this end, we pursue our work with a sense of deep responsibility and a healthy dose of creativity.

You’ll hear us talk about “closing the loop” quite frequently. Natural systems are cyclical and that’s what we aim to replicate. In nature, an ending transitions into a new beginning. When a tree dies, it isn’t waste; it’s food for insects, fungi, and microbes, which turn into food for the next generation of that forest. The idea behind “close the loop” is to re-capture nutrients in our food scraps and return them to the land that grew them. When we leave the loop open, we create externalities like air and water pollutants.

How do those practices, and everything you do, contribute to a sustainable food system?

Going back to the idea of circular systems, and being conscious of inputs, outputs, and key players, we contribute to a sustainable food system in several ways. First, we divert food scraps from a system that treats them as waste (landfills) and insert them into a system where they are turned into a valuable resource (compost). Our compost and castings products improve soil health leading to production land that is able to retain more nutrients and sustain more biological life. More nutrients in our soils means fewer nutrients-which quickly become pollutants-in our waterways, meaning fewer dead zones in Lake Champlain and the Gulf of Mexico. Healthier soil also means we can grow more food right here in our own backyard, leading to fewer food miles and greater food security. VT Farm to Plate has done extensive work in this arena and has some great publications for anyone looking for more information. Finally, by utilizing local purchasing options, offering fair wages to our employees, and providing solidarity discounts within our community, we’re actively contributing to our local economy all while decreasing the production of greenhouse gasses. 

What, exactly, are worm castings?

Worm castings, or vermicompost, is another name for worm manure. As food scraps pass through the worm’s digestive system, the decomposing matter is colonized by beneficial microorganisms. The resulting manure, known as worm castings, naturally contains concentrated communities of valuable bacteria, fungi, protozoa, growth-promoting hormones, fulvic and humic acids, enzymes, and other bioactive substances known to improve germination and plant vigor while increasing available fertility. Specifically, castings are reputed for their auxin content, which stimulates flowering. The worms’ mucus secretions, their physical actions, and the lower temperature at which they compost food scraps result in a product with more nutritional and microbial diversity than most garden composts. We produce both garden compost and worm castings because the products have different applications.

What’s your method and philosophy behind how you raise your chickens? How do those things impact the quality of the poultry and eggs?

Our laying hens are raised on pasture and a compost forage that we blend. Their diet is supplemented with certified organic grains, oyster shells, and certified organic mineral mix. By feeding them in an active composting system, we can culture healthy bacteria and fungi for them to forage on year-round and provide a feeding system that mimics the hen’s natural habitat. Our chickens are raised without synthetic hormones or antibiotics.

How does your residential compost collection work?

We offer residential compost drop off for our neighbors and folks in the surrounding community right at the farm. We have a tote their compost can be emptied into and a spicket close by that can be used to rinse their containers after emptying. We also partner with regional transfer stations to provide community drop-off locations in Greensboro and Hardwick. 

How does commercial collection work?

Commercial collection usually begins with a phone call either from a business or from us. Vermont’s Act 148, passed in 2012, banned the disposal of organic materials in landfills by the year 2020. Businesses are aware of this and its often part of their thinking when inquiring about our composting services, but many businesses sign up for our services because they want to decrease their environmental footprint. After the initial call, we work with a business to determine a composting work-flow. We talk through their current waste management practices and look at where we can divert organic matter in a straightforward and repeatable way for their staff. 

We’re not just composting because the law says we need to or it’s going to save us a buck. We’re composting because we’re part of a greater network of systems and the seemingly simple act of composting can have tremendously positive effects on those systems. The employees and students at the businesses and schools that we service are the vanguards of our resource recovery system; we want them to recognize the critical role they play and know that their importance is not lost on us.

Each location is provided with 48-gallon totes in which they collect food scraps throughout the week. We accept all organic materials, food manufacturing wastes, and a limited number of paper products, including coffee filters, brown paper towels, napkins, cardboard egg cartons, and disposable dish-ware made from natural products. Once a week, we stop by their location and tip their bins. Our tipping process includes power washing each tote so the business is left with nice clean totes for the next week.

How is the collected compost used? Where does it go?

The food scraps from our collection route are brought to Black Dirt Farm in Stannard and tipped in our compost bin, where it’s layered with a dry carbon material and other inputs. Our hens are given the first pick. They forage on the fungi and grubs found in the compost pile. As the bin fills up, it is emptied and the remaining mix is formed into large windrows which heat up from all the microbial activity. This process is called thermophilic composting and it ensures that weed seeds and pathogens are inactive. At this point, some of this partially broken-down compost is diverted as feed for our red wiggler worms who make our high potency worm castings. The remainder is slowly broken down by communities of insects, bacteria, and fungi over the better part of a year. You can find our compost and worm castings on the shelves of most regional home and garden stores and coops. We also sell compost by the heaping tractor bucket at the farm and use our products to grow our own crops.