Compost ‘cooks’ on schedule
“This is my favorite place,” Lisa Ransom says.
Walking over to a huge boulder atop a grassy hill, she looks out on a fantasy realized.
In the field below sit 17 neat rows of compost, piled high with food scraps, sawdust, burlap coffee sacks and cow manure, each stretching about 20 feet long.
To the layperson, a pile of decomposing material may not seem like much, but to Ransom, 41, and her husband, Scott Baughman, 47, it’s the culmination of months of work.
“Our purpose … is to do the right thing for our community — we see this as closing the loop” on food consumption, Ransom says.
Last October, the couple opened Grow Compost LLC, a high-grade composting center facility on Route 2 in Moretown. The project is years in the making, but because of the time it takes to “cook” good compost — letting it decompose naturally for about a year before it can be used in gardening — Grow Compost won’t sell its first bag until September.
“We don’t have income for a whole year,” Ransom says.
The two are the company’s only employees, and their composting center is literally in their back yard — they live in a quaint farmhouse just over the hill.
Their equipment – a secondhand loader, a mammoth excavator and an old wood chipper — is flaking paint and collecting rust.
But it’s clear the couple is doing things the hard way by choice. The loader has been retrofitted by Baughman himself to run on environmentally friendly vegetable oil in the summer (the oil isn’t viscous enough to run through an engine in cold temperatures). Their uber-picky standards for what waste to accept (Ransom refuses to let supermarket stickers on pieces of old fruit make it into the mix) are designed to pump out the highest-grade compost possible.
Turning an unappealing pile of dead animal bones, potato peels and fruit into rich, garden-loving soil is surprisingly similar to cooking up a Sunday roast. It takes patience, precision and constant attention to craft a top-quality product.
“It’s very costly to make compost because the management of it is very precise,” Ransom says. “It’s an expensive process.”
Grow Compost’s “secret recipe,” as Ransom calls it, begins with compost material collected by the Central Vermont Solid Waste District. The material comes from everywhere: Food scraps from Stowe Mountain Resort and Sugarbush mingle with waste from restaurants and schools in the Mad River Valley, Stowe and Waterbury.
“The more diversity, the better,” Ransom says.
Burlap coffee bags and coffee chaff — a waste product of the roasting process — are donated by Green Mountain Coffee Roasters. Cow manure from nearby farms and old sawdust also make an appearance, along with a few surprises.
“Sometimes something like a big lobster will roll out,” Ransom says. “It’s always interesting to see what comes out.”
The secret to great compost is finding the right match between nitrogen produced by the decomposing waste and carbon from materials such as sawdust and hay, which stabilizes the mixture.
To keep things in check, Ransom and Baughman keep a close eye on the temperature inside the piles. The compost has to “cook” and get turned constantly to produce the desired result without giving off too much odor.
During the process, the couple has the compost lab-tested regularly to make sure contaminants — such as those fruit stickers — aren’t ruining the party. Letting the compost stray just a few degrees out of its ideal range can turn what is a surprisingly odorless facility, given all the old food around, into a smelly problem.
The piles are intentionally stretched into long rows, called windrows, that allow air to circulate through the material. Long stretches of grass, called swales, run in between the rows, collecting rainwater so the compost doesn’t get too wet.
Once the right conditions are in place, the couple lets nature do the hard work.
“We like to say we have a farm here, but it’s like a farm of tiny microbes” breaking down the material, she said.
The couple is building a barn to store equipment and materials, as well as a forced-air composting system, which will make compost that’s been aerated directly by a system of pipes.
In the future, they also hope to accept waste from individual people.
“So many people want to contribute,” Ransom says. The problem is getting residents to be as picky about what goes in as Grow Compost is — the fruit stickers again, for example).
Ransom and Baughman have lived in Vermont for 15 years. Ransom was born in Boulder, Colo.; Baughman grew up in Etna, N.H., where he worked with his father, selling peat moss.
They have a daughter, Maddie, 13, and two sons, Morgan, 10, and Chester, 8.
The couple has a non-microbial farm too, on the other side of their house where they raise sheep, goats, ducks and chickens.
It’s all part of a vision the two have about the cycle of life, “closing the loop” on a wasteful society and putting Mother Nature to work.
“At the heart of it, we’re environmentalists, but you have to be careful — they say you can’t make money if you’re an environmentalist,” Ransom says with a grin.