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Waste Not? 

Published March 27, 2002 at 4:00 a.m.

The shit almost hit the land last week at Burlington’s Intervale. That is, until its board got wind of a potential controversy and pulled the plug on plans to take nearly 3.6 million pounds of chicken manure per year from the Vermont Egg Farm in Highgate. After getting an earful from small-farm advocates, environmentalists and its own growers, board member Will Raap announced late last week the Intervale was officially pulling out of its manure contract with the egg farm.

The Vermont Egg Farm has been mired in contention since Governor Howard Dean and the Vermont Department of Agriculture first welcomed it to the state in 1996. Owned and operated by a corporation directed by Canadian Lucien Breton, the farm currently has 100,000 laying hens, with plans for up to 700,000. Complaints of flies, odors, truck traffic, compromised quality of life for neighbors and the chickens — and, yes, manure — have resulted in a slew of bad press.

The Intervale Compost Program’s contract with the Vermont Egg Farm was part of the farm’s expansion permit filed with the ag department. The farm is seeking to more than double its number of laying hens to 235,000. In 1998, a similar request by the farm was denied when Agriculture Commissioner Leon Graves ruled it did not have an adequate manure management plan. This time, the expansion was tied to the potential Intervale “rescue” plan to take the waste created by the new birds.

Farm advocates and environmentalists were struck by the irony of the unholy alliance: Burlington’s chief proponents of sustainable farming had jumped into bed with an operation that has come to symbolize the introduction of industrial farming techniques in Vermont. Last Wednesday, a broad coalition of groups spearheaded by Rural Vermont gathered for a press conference at the Statehouse to denounce the egg farm and the Intervale’s role in what they called “enabling” its expansion.

Intervale officials were getting heat from the inside, too. Only hours after the press conference, all 15 participating farmers unanimously passed a resolution urging the Intervale Compost Project to withdraw from its egg farm contract. The board complied.

Despite the pull-out, Intervale executive director Dave Lane remained committed to the original reasoning behind the deal. “We know it looked bad,” he said. “But we felt — and still feel — we could have taken a bad situation and made it better. At the same time, we saw the bad press coming and we didn’t want to hurt the Intervale or any of its farmers.”

Lane points out that other composting companies in the region are willing to take the egg farm’s manure. The Middlebury-based Vermont Natural Ag Products, makers of “Moo Doo,” was also listed on the egg farm’s expansion contract for its willingness to haul away 2.2 million pounds of manure per year.

While the fight over manure between the former allies might be over, the bigger question is about Vermont’s role in regulating industrial ag operations like the Vermont Egg Farm. And it’s here that the Intervale and Rural Vermont see eye to eye.

Cramming 230,000 birds into cramped cages is a long way from the small farming ideal that the Vermont ag department likes to promote. You sure won’t see that image on any of the department’s promotional materials. Nor will you see these “local” eggs in your neighborhood grocery store. Ironically, not one of the millions laid in the Green Mountain State will be sold here, and the profits don’t stick around for long, either. Because the farm is a Canadian corporation, the profits from this “Vermont” venture slip over the border.

“Vermont is left with the manure, pesticides, flies, lower property values, and an unsightly metal building in what was once a cornfield,” said Rural Vermont’s Roberts.

Where does that leave the controversial ova operation? Commissioner Graves has until April 21 to make his ruling. “They’re still going to have to show us that they can get rid of all their manure before we sign their expansion permit,” said ag department spokesman Phil Benedict.

It’s no secret, however, that Graves has been highly supportive of the Vermont Egg Farm. In fact, shortly after its expansion proposal was submitted, the commissioner appeared on television declaring, “the Vermont Egg Farm is good for Vermont’s economy.”

Because of the way the Vermont Legislature set up the regulations for large-farm operations, Graves is wielding all the power on this one — he alone gets to decide if the permit should be granted. No one, not even the egg farm’s closest neighbors, have a legal standing in the process. Under the state’s “Right to Farm” statutes, farms and farm operations are exempt from the kind of development rules spelled out in Act 250 that other industrial operations must adhere to.

Rural and small-farm advocates are concerned that if large-farm regulations aren’t changed, and Graves keeps rolling out the red carpet for operations like the Vermont Egg Farm, the state may end up hosting other industrial farming projects.

Roberts points to initiatives in Nebraska and South Dakota that prohibit corporate ownership of agricultural operations — an effort to differentiate these entities from family farms. In those states, a corporate farm is defined as one that is owned by people not actively involved in its day-to-day operations. In other words, if you don’t live there, you can’t farm there.

“Vermont’s Department of Agriculture needs to be putting its time, energy and resources into strengthening our family farms,” declares Roberts. “Vermont Egg Farm is not a farm. It’s an industrial production facility that happens to use live birds as a means of production.” m

Michael Colby is a writer from Montpelier and the editor of the monthly newsletter, Wild Matters. His column will appear here biweekly on issues relating to ecology, culture and politics. You can reach him at mcolby@adelphia.net.

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