Vt. farmer holds key to sustainable food system

Karl Hammer of the Vermont Compost Co. will speak at a Richmond-area event Friday.

His hens produce 15,000 dozen eggs a year, yet Karl Hammer spends not a dime on grain to feed them.

At a time when grain supplies are strained and prices are high, that’s not an insignificant feat. How? The chickens dine on leftovers thrown out by restaurants, school cafeterias and a culinary institute, producing not only eggs but also mountains of rich, organic compost at Hammer’s farm on the edge of Montpelier, Vt.

“Waste is a verb, not a noun,” Hammer said in a phone interview this week. “Once we take custody of food, it’s not waste anymore.”

Hammer and his chickens have built Vermont Compost Co. into a shining example — if you can attach “shining” to something involving table scraps, bugs and worms, and manure — of how to close the loop in the food system. Hammer will talk about how he has done it when he delivers the keynote speech Friday evening at the Virginia Biological Farming Conference at the Holiday Inn Koger Conference Center, off Midlothian Turnpike.

Raising chickens in urban settings has gained momentum in recent years, returning in a way to the days of the early 1900s when the U.S. Department of Agriculture encouraged Americans to keep chickens in the backyard. “Two hens … for each person in the house,” a 1918 poster read, “will keep a family in fresh eggs.”

Locally, backyard chickens have been in the news recently as the city of Richmond considers amending a zoning ordinance pertaining to city residents raising a limited number of hens. That issue is scheduled to come before the council this month.

In Vermont, Hammer employs chickens on a whole other — though related — level. He started out farming and got into the composting business in 1998 when a local restaurateur with a compost project behind his vegetarian restaurant ran afoul of health officials. He was told to get rid of the compost, so he called Hammer and asked if he could bring the restaurant’s discards to compost at his place.

Hammer said sure — and discovered his chickens loved the beans, rice and tofu. They ate and scratched, aerating and turning the pile, resulting in wonderful compost. He kept increasing his flock as more restaurants and schools came on board, and added hay, manure and mature compost to aid the decomposition and reduce the aroma, and, well, here we are: Vermont Compost has become an official part of Montpelier’s waste-disposal system, and Hammer and his chickens produce about 10,000 cubic yards of product each year.

Big-time organic farmers love the compost and so do smaller-scale growers, as do those who appreciate the point Hammer is making.

“I think it’s absolutely survival important; there are only about 2 inches of topsoil between humanity and starvation,” said Patricia Foreman of Buena Vista, noting the consequence of not replenishing the earth’s growing surface with materials such as that produced at Vermont Compost.

Foreman is author of “City Chicks: Keeping Micro-flocks of Chickens as Garden Helpers, Compost Makers, Bio-recyclers and Local Food Suppliers,” and a longtime friend of Hammer.

“He’s the only one I know who has pulled this off because of people’s fears about chickens and the stigma about food residuals and garbage,” said Foreman, who believes those fears are unfounded.

Foreman has visited the compost operation on hot summer days. “There was no garbage smell,” she said. “It just smelled like rich compost in the making.”

The compost company and adjoining farm are on the outskirts of the state capital and, with an address on Main Street, within the city limits. The occasional neighbor will complain for one reason or another, but generally the operation is well-received, and he is considered a hero among those who have serious concerns about the sustainability of our food system.

“He’s a real steward,” said Gwendolyn Hallsmith, director of Montpelier’s Department of Planning and Community Development. “He’s an important business in our community and has worked to address the concerns that have been raised. The work he does makes organic farming more feasible in Vermont.”

Hammer has followed an interesting path, with his feet in different worlds, having grown up in Manhattan and Vermont and attended both the Bronx High School of Science and high school in Vermont. He learned a lot about farming on sojourns to Spain, but also from his Vermont neighbors and their resourcefulness, flexibility and cheerfulness in the face of whatever punches they were dealt by Mother Nature or fate.

After his appearance in the Richmond area, Hammer will head to Lexington to visit the Virginia Horse Center, which is exploring the possibility of establishing a similar compost operation, said Katherine R. Truitt, the center’s executive director.

“We are discussing locations and costs at this time,” Truitt said, noting she has chickens working the compost at her farm. “They are biological wonders!”

Ah, the chickens. Unlike those at huge industrial operations, Hammer’s chickens are free to roam the compost mountains and nearby pasture. They could leave altogether if they really wanted to, maybe wander into New Hampshire or sneak into Canada, but with all the food they want, a shelter with windows, hay and their buddies the German shepherds to protect them from predators, why would they want to go anywhere?

wlohmann@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6639

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