Vermont Firm Improving Manure — and Environment

3/9/2013 7:00 AM
By Leon Thompson Vermont Correspondent

ST. ALBANS, Vt. — It looked like someone dropped a bomb filled with liquid, blue dish soap and thick, pea soup right onto quiet, quaint St. Albans Bay.

This wasn’t the Lake Champlain that Tim Camisa remembered. Growing up in northwestern Vermont, on St. Albans Bay, he had fished here all the time — on Hathaway Point, and off Black Bridge.

He had also built dams and bike jumps, and caught frogs with his friends, in bay-feeding Stevens Brook and Rugg Brook, which the state of Vermont has since deemed “impaired waterways.”

On this particular day, however, just a few weeks before 9/11, the toxic blue-green algae was so bad at Bob Camisa’s St. Albans Bay home, his son, Tim, couldn’t let his children swim in the water.

Flustered, Tim Camisa, who had studied math and physics at the University of Vermont, took a year to analyze 47 different Lake Champlain water quality studies that the state had commissioned over several years.

Of the 10,000-plus pages that Camisa read, one section stood out: the “Hegeman Report.” It said farm runoff caused 72 percent of nutrient pollution in Lake Champlain, due to phosphorous found in fertilizer to grow crops, which in turn becomes manure and runs off into nearby streams and brooks that feed into rivers and, eventually, Lake Champlain.

For the past several years, dairy farmers and Vermont’s government have partnered — and spent millions of dollars — on addressing agricultural runoff and other factors that affect water quality in Lake Champlain, an unfortunate victim of toxic blue-green algae blooms during hot summers.

To Camisa, the local problem had worldwide implications: Simply keep carbon in the ground, where it belongs, so that it doesn’t damage the water and air. After years of research, and quests for funding, Vermont Organics Reclamation (VOR) was born.

“We are creating a new era of organic recycling,” Camisa said at VOR, in St. Albans, while seated with Austin Sachs, community relations manager, and Sinclair Adam Jr., a famed nurseryman who tests VOR’s products in a 7,200-square-foot, wholesale greenhouse.

Camisa owns VOR with Mike Rooney, a friend since their time together in the mid-1980s at UVM, where Rooney earned a business degree; his business sense and Camisa’s scientific mind marry well for the company, Sachs said.

Through a manure management system, housed in a facility at the end of a mile-long dirt road off Main Street in St. Albans, VOR captures and recycles phosphorous and other excess nutrients in the manure to produce a line of soils and other organic products.

With the soils, the company can prevent dangerous runoff into lakes and streams by reducing 10 to 20 percent of phosphorous in manure from participating farms, Camisa said.

The soils also provide consumers with an environmentally friendly alternative to traditional potting soil, made from peat moss, which can release carbon — a major greenhouse gas — into the environment.

“For farmers, we’re helping to create new revenue streams, with no investment required,” Camisa said.

VOR is slated to purchase 2,000 yards of manure from St. Albans farmers David and Cathy Montagne in 2013, up from 500 too 600 yards each of the last two years. Camisa said 2,000 yards of manure equals about 1,000 pounds of phosphorous that will not enter the local watershed this year.

Camisa also designed his manure management system through trial and error on the Montagne farm from 2006 to 2008 — a venture that cost about $500,000, he said.

“Tim has a lot of good ideas about removing phosphorous from the manure,” said David Montagne, a lifelong dairy farmer who milks 650 head on his 1,100-acre operation. “Farmers are the best stewards of the land. They do all they can to protect the rivers, streams and waters of Lake Champlain.”

VOR has also started a burlap-recycling program with Green Mountain Coffee, headquartered in Waterbury, Vt. VOR turns the company’s coffee bean bags into bedding for farmers.

VOR has four products available in its local market and under distribution through L.D. Oliver Seed Co., a 40-year-old company in Milton, Vt.

“We have distributed many lines of soil products through this time, but none like this,” said Steve Hardy, Oliver Seed CEO and vice president. “I have had a lot of interest from our customers, so I hope this product does well.

“I believe in the product he has developed. I believe it is the right time for it, and it utilizes resources that are overlooked. He has developed a model that could be reproduced anywhere there is manure.”

Initial capital for VOR — more than $2 million — came from the Vermont agriculture department, a state and federal alternative manure management collaborative, and a private investor. Camisa researched and developed the project with Joe Aliotta, a Massachusetts nuclear physicist.

In 2009, Vermont Organics bought Dunvegan Nursery, in Pennsylvania, from Sinclair Adam and his wife, Kirsten, who were breeding and developing plants for beauty, function and ecology. Now St. Albans residents, they use VOR’s products on the wholesale flowers and plants that go to more than 80 nurseries in 16 Northeastern states.

VOR opened its St. Albans site in 2010. The company has a website and a Facebook page. Store and nursery sales totaled $274,000 in 2010, $491,000 in 2011, and $746,000 in 2012.

“We haven’t made a profit yet,” Camisa said. He and Rooney help support VOR with Vermont Organics, their two retail shops in the Burlington, Vt., area that specialize in an “802” brand of merchandise. (Vermont’s area code is 802).

“We are looking for more investors to help us push towards our goal of eliminating peat moss from potting media and reducing the importation of nutrients like phosphorus used for agriculture,” Camisa said. “Everything I do is about the environment.”

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