With most of the snow melted, and gardeners' thoughts turning to prepping planting beds for summer, there is a crisis of confidence in the state's compost industry. What began last summer as isolated concerns about herbicides in the products of Williston-based Green Mountain Compost has spread to composters across the region and the country.
The House Agriculture committee got an earful Wednesday on potential impacts.
"You have people sitting here today whose operations are very, very much at risk-- their livelihoods, their investments. And not only are they at risk, the entire food system bears a similar level of risk," said Tom Gilbert of Highfields Center for Composting.
In the Green Mountain Compost case, Vermont Agriculture officials traced the problems to a handful of hormone-based persistent herbicides, often used for controlling weeds on horse pasture and other turf. They go by such brand names as Milestone, Forefront and Confront. The resulting horse manure and grass clippings made their way into the compost product stream with devastating impact.
"What we're facing is an unintended consequence and I joke with my staff, we're the flea on the tail of the dog being wagged. I mean we're just nothing. Compost is a nothing industry compared to the multibillion ag industry. We understand that," said Tom Moreau of the Chittenden Solid Waste District.
This new class of herbicides was developed by Dow Chemicals in the last decade and has been widely embraced by the Environmental Protection Agency, in part because they have no discernible impact on humans or animals. They are currently regulated by the state, but observers say there are loopholes.
"Go to eBay. It's full of it. Google 'Aminopyralid' or 'Milestone' when you get home tonight. You can put it in your cart and it'll have this little warning saying some states may restrict this, yeah right," Moreau said.
Ag officials say considering the nationwide scope of the problem, banning the products may be counterproductive. And that what's needed is better enforcement of the chain of custody after it's applied on fields.
"With product registration comes product stewardship and the companies that produce these products have been very gracious with helping us with our trace back investigation," said Cary Giguere of the Vt. Agency of Agriculture.
Part of the challenge of monitoring the herbicide is that it is so widespread.
"We could ban it in the state and the composters are still going to have this issue because of the grains. The grains are coming in from out of state. The hay, there's a lot of hay coming in from Canada and the Midwest," Giguere said.
Not all composters say they have seen problems show up, but have none-the-less beefed up quality control.
"I wake up every morning worried about this," said Karl Hammer of Vermont Compost Company.
From gardeners to farmers, there's still plenty of compost on the market, just no guarantee of all the ingredients.
Chittenden Solid Waste District runs Green Mountain Compost. It says it's hopeful there will be no lingering effects this summer in gardens where their compost was applied. The district spent upward of $1 million last year on refunds, testing and lost sales.
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