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What’s with the squeeze on organic compost producers?

By Gaelan Brown

With costly legal battles in the past few years between the state of Vermont and several of our most abundant compost producers and more conflicts coming up recently, one has to wonder what is going on. It took me awhile to get my head around the situation, because on its surface this just doesn't make sense.

Organic compost producers have been facing the choice of closing down or fighting costly legal battles regarding Act 250 (which farms are fortunately exempt from). And now the state is trying to collect back sales taxes from Vermont Compost, suddenly claiming compost is no longer an agricultural product which has previously made it exempt from sales tax.

The first and most obvious question with all of these conflicts is this: Is compost an agricultural product or not? If yes, that means compost producers have the same exemptions on Act 250 regulatory schemes and sales taxes as food producers (aka farmers).

Let's see: Organic compost is made primarily from food waste and manure, sometimes blended with wood chips. Where do all of those materials come from, if not from agricultural sources? Is there a food waste open-pit mine out west that produces all this? Does it come from some chemical refinery in New Jersey? Or does this material come from the land we live on through the work done by people in the "agriculture" sector to grow and harvest these products?

Apparently this is a really difficult question for all the experts in Montpelier. Maybe I'll go ask a farmer and see what they think.

First let me ask you: What is the difference between a farmer who transforms grass and water into food and manure (through a cow) and a compost producer who transforms that same exact food and manure into compost which is then used to grow more food?

Farms can spread raw liquid manure on fields and fill the air with odors for miles (yes, farming and a working landscape involves things like odors that we should all be glad to tolerate). But if a neighbor of a compost producer smells a hint of odor and calls the VT Agency of Natural Resources, the state regulators will ride in within an hour and threaten to shut them down if the odor is not fixed.

Food and manure are not taxed when a farmer sells them commercially, because farmers are "agricultural" and, therefore, exempt from state sales tax. But if a compost producer next door to the farmer uses that same food and manure to make high-value organic compost, which enables organic agriculture to flourish, they have to pay sales tax. Huh?

Vermont wants to encourage a "working landscape" and "sustainable agriculture" by removing regulatory/tax burdens from farms. But compost producers are placed in the same category as Walmart.

All of these major challenges are being thrown at Vermont's compost producers, despite the big new emphasis from the state via Act 148 which aims to encourage composting and to divert organic waste from landfills.

And now, we have the latest drama in Moretown at Grow Compost where apparently neighbors are complaining about compost odors through ANR and causing significant financial and emotional stress on this young family business. Grow just happens to be right next to the landfill, which has had its own odor issues. Now Grow Compost has to lawyer up just to stay in business. How progressive.

I find it beyond ironic that most of the odors from the landfill are caused by compostable materials in the trash, which would not be an issue if those materials were composted by operations such as Grow Compost.

I can smell a win-win solution here; anyone else?

Vermont's organic compost producers are perhaps our most important agricultural resource in terms of diversifying our agriculture away from subsidy-dependent commodity dairy while effectively dealing with our waterway pollution and solid waste challenges. In many cases Vermont's compost innovators are capturing large amounts of combustion-free heat from the composting process itself, like at Jasper Hill Creamery and Magnan Custom Heifers.

It's time for Vermont to remove obstacles to commercial composting so these innovations can blossom for everyone's benefit.

Brown is the founder CompostPower.org and lives in Fayston.

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