BRATTLEBORO — In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, compost sales are growing at Windham Solid Waste Management District.
"We are selling more compost than ever," said Bob Spencer, the district's executive director. "There's a really increased demand right now."
Brattlegrow Compost, the district's product made of local food scraps, is sold to retailers buying 10 cubic yards or more. Spencer said a typical load is 15 to 20 cubic yards.
Looking at the last four months of revenue versus the same period last year, the district is up by more than $10,000. Spencer attributes most of the increase to compost sales in the last two months.
About 58 tons of compost were sold for about $1,653 in March and about 405 tons were sold for $13,570 in April. Last year, compost sales added up to $140 in March and $2,322 in April.
Customers are seeing an uptick in people using the product on their gardens and lawns while staying home during the pandemic, Spencer said.
"Compost is absolutely amazing for gardens because it maintains moisture and it also has nutrients," he said,
adding that academic research shows it helps with plant growth, drought resistance and disease resistance. "The crisis the world's been in has had some upsides in terms of folks focusing on their own gardens and food."
Spencer said the district almost sold out of Brattlegrow last month. Employees were paid overtime to keep up with demand for the product, which is sold to eight local distributors.
Janet Boyd of the Boyd Family Farm in Wilmington has noticed a larger number of customers wanting the compost. During the interview, she took a call from someone who wanted some.
Boyd said the farm has sold the district's compost for many years and uses it for a few different purposes.
"Everyone's happy with it; we've been happy with it," she said. "It's a nice consistency. There's a real attention to detail down there in terms of what they're putting out, which we appreciate."
Spencer said based on analyses of chemicals and nutrients, Brattlegrow has a higher quality than other products.
The Wilmington farm also is seeing a lot of orders for veggies and tomato plants. Boyd said she believes the pandemic has people wanting to be more "self sufficient."
The number of customers in the farm's community-supported agriculture program has approximately doubled over last year. Boyd said she thinks people like the convenience of buying local but also want to know where the food originated.
The farm is letting customers stop by, following social distancing protocol from the state and arranging curbside pickups via telephone orders.
"All of us are creating a new norm," said Boyd.
Her family was hard hit by the pandemic when her two brothers-in-law Cleon and Leon died last month from complications of the virus.
These days, Boyd often finds herself giving gardening tips over the phone.
"I hope they're all successful on some level," she said. "I would hate to think they would get discouraged or disillusioned."
Boyd advised one customer, "Don't treat your dirt like dirt. You've got to pay attention."
As state law has added more requirements around food scrap recycling, even more materials are anticipated to arrive at the district. A study will look at additional markets to tap into.
Spencer said the state used about 18,000 tons of soil on highway projects in 2018. He hired a soil specialist who recently recommended a mix that could be used for such projects.
The district donated compost to schools and community groups for gardens this spring and in the past. Spencer said most schools in Windham County have food waste composting sites in classrooms and kitchens.
"In Vernon, the kids are growing up with separating food scraps in their cafeteria," he said. "Guilford has done a great job and they have a great garden program."
International Compost Awareness Week started Sunday. The Composting Association of Vermont, of which Spencer serves as president, scheduled a series of webinars. Information can be found at compostingvermont.org/icaw-2020.
Traditionally, the association is hired by the state's Department of Environmental Conservation to host the Vermont Organics Recycling Summit. Due to the pandemic, the one-day event was cancelled and webinars were created.
"Maybe it's something that they'll continue to do," Spencer said.
He described the association as an industry trade group in which towns and solid waste districts are members. Members do not need to have compost facilities.
Athena Lee Bradley, programs manager at the district, is slated to speak in the Community Composting webinar at 1 p.m. Wednesday, which will focus on composting during the pandemic. Questions have come up about whether it is still safe to compost.
"We were concerned," he said. "Every day, we get food waste from Brattleboro and other places. We've spent quite a bit of time putting together safety protocols and implementing them. It is safe, but you have to do certain things."
Spencer said as an industry, composters must meet national and state requirements on pathogen-reduction procedures that also work in the age of COVID-19. That includes getting piles of food scraps warm enough and turning them to make sure all the materials get exposed to hot temperatures. Loader buckets on trucks are sanitized before giving compost to customers. And employees cannot touch the materials with their hands.
Spencer is set to speak in the Food Waste and Circular Economy webinar at 10 a.m. Wednesday, sharing information learned during a tour of biogas facilities he went on in Denmark in 2018.
"Denmark is well known as a world leader in its endeavors to create a circular and green economy," states an article written by Spencer and two other authors, which was published on biocycle.net. "The study tour demonstrated a significant national commitment to the development of biogas, as well as collaboration between private companies and universities. The state of biogas in Denmark has been driven by economies of scale, standardized designs, buy-in from farmers and, not least, strong, bipartisan policy support."
Around the time of the tour, the district received funding for a study that looked at hosting an anaerobic digester that would turn food scraps into energy. Spencer said the project was eventually deemed too risky financially to take on now.
"Victory gardens" are the subject of a webinar at 10 a.m. Thursday. The concept, promoted by the United States government during World War I and II, is looked at as a way to increase food security and decrease reliance on the industrial food system.
"During World War I, for example, a National War Garden Commission was created to encourage Americans to contribute to the war effort by planting, fertilizing, harvesting and storing their own fruits and vegetables," Roger Allbee, former secretary of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture and Markets and former CEO of Grace Cottage Family Healthcare and Hospital in Townshend, wrote in a recent editorial called "Bring back 'victory gardens'" published by VTDigger. "Individuals and communities were urged to use all idle land to include school yards, parks, backyards and vacant lots. The then Federal Bureau of Education even initiated 'a U.S. School Garden Army to mobilize children to enlist as soldiers of the soil.'"
Allbee said by the end of World War II, more than 20 million "victory gardens" were producing more than 40 percent of all the fresh fruit and vegetables consumed in the U.S. His writing inspired Spencer, who said the concept would be "great" for the association to highlight in a webinar.
Reach staff writer Chris Mays at email@example.com and at @CMaysBR on Twitter.