Digging Deeper:
Black Dirt Farm Reconsiders Agriculture From the Ground Up

From his 128-acre Black Dirt Farm in Stannard, farmer, composter and activist Tom Gilbert digs deep. He’s devoted decades to exploring sustainable agriculture, food systems and soil health, as he re-thinks farming from the ground up.

“We need to understand that it’s a closed loop system,” Tom says emphatically. “It’s a system we need to be self-replenishing, that manages a sustainable flow of carbon through a healthy ecosystem,” he explains. It’s

how he’s organized his own regenerative operations in the Northeast Kingdom.

Born and raised in the urban environs of Brooklyn, New York, Tom nevertheless developed a taste for farming early on. “I worked on my uncle’s wheat farm in Kansas when I was fourteen. He supplied wheat to King Arthur Flour,” Tom recalls. He’s worked for (VCLF borrower!) Vermont Compost Company, and served as Executive Director of the Highlands Center for Composting. He’s testified before the Vermont State Legislature on soil health, and agriculture and the economy, and helped draft Vermont’s Universal Recycling Law banning food scraps from landfills.

He brought all of that, along with his wife Molly and daughters Kai and Thea, to the former dairy farm in Stannard they purchased in 2017.

Today, the farm provides food scrap collection services, plus production of eggs, chicken, compost, worm castings, soil mix, produce and hay. If it sounds like a lot, it is. “Black Dirt Farm is basically five separate businesses,” Tom explains, with each of the businesses supporting and driving the next.

Tom breaks it down: Black Dirt’s food scrap collection operation gathers compostable waste from commercial and institutional food producers. The fermenting scraps then provide protein-rich feed for their laying hens, which produce eggs to be sold at retail outlets. Uneaten food scraps are mixed with manure, wood chips, hay and bedding to make compost (here Tom declines to fully reveal his “secret recipe,” except to say that it entails “eleven or twelve ingredients and at least seven different energy/carbon sources”). Processing compost generates heat for the farm’s greenhouses, which extends the season for crop production without additional fuel costs. Compost not eaten by the chickens is further farmed by worms, which leave worm castings – a high-value soil amendment for organic farmers who use it to grow more food.

Sales of eggs, roughly 32,000 dozen per year, chickens for stew meat, compost and worm castings and food scrap collection services all contribute to the financial mix. That diversification helps explain how Tom and
his team pushed through the pandemic.

While Black Dirt’s compost sales climbed in 2020 “because everyone and their sister started gardening during COVID” Tom posits, other on-farm enterprises took a hit.

“Our food scrap collection operations fell off by over 50%” Tom tells, which he attributes to unintended loopholes in Vermont’s new universal composting law that inadvertently advantaged large haulers.

At the same time, shortage of materials and labor during the pandemic cut into Black Dirt’s production and profits. With some segments of the ‘closed loop’ under-performing, Black Dirt’s system couldn’t function
optimally.

As Tom looked for solutions, he considered VCLF’s mission and goals, and reached out. “I’ve known about VCLF’s work for a long time,” he says.

With help from VCLF, Tom launched a multi-pronged effort to improve operations. “We upped our game with our laying hens to overcome chronic inefficiencies,” he says, thanks in part to a new washing system for the eggs. There was also a hook lift trailer “to handle the dumpsters;” a small box truck for residential curbside collection, and more.

The upgrades are already positively impacting different aspects of Black Dirt Farm’s varied business operations. Expanding the egg operation, for example, has increased their capacity to handle regional food
scraps, thereby increasing the region’s capacity to recycle its organic materials.

Tom credits the Loan Fund for making this possible, providing flexible terms and rates. He also stresses the importance of the Loan Fund as a resource for Vermont’s farms and agricultural enterprises. “In prioritizing a vibrant Vermont food system, VCLF fills an important niche in the financing landscape, because it is uniquely mission-driven, and has developed an approach to farm financing that is more responsive to and supportive of farmers,” he says. “And it’s important for communities who seek change and improvement to be able to financially support that vision; VCLF makes that possible too."



Digging Deeper:
Black Dirt Farm Reconsiders Agriculture From the Ground Up

From his 128-acre Black Dirt Farm in Stannard, farmer, composter and activist Tom Gilbert digs deep. He’s devoted decades to exploring sustainable agriculture, food systems and soil health, as he re-thinks farming from the ground up.

“We need to understand that it’s a closed loop system,” Tom says emphatically. “It’s a system we need to be self-replenishing, that manages a sustainable flow of carbon through a healthy ecosystem,” he explains. It’s

how he’s organized his own regenerative operations in the Northeast Kingdom.

Born and raised in the urban environs of Brooklyn, New York, Tom nevertheless developed a taste for farming early on. “I worked on my uncle’s wheat farm in Kansas when I was fourteen. He supplied wheat to King Arthur Flour,” Tom recalls. He’s worked for (VCLF borrower!) Vermont Compost Company, and served as Executive Director of the Highlands Center for Composting. He’s testified before the Vermont State Legislature on soil health, and agriculture and the economy, and helped draft Vermont’s Universal Recycling Law banning food scraps from landfills.

He brought all of that, along with his wife Molly and daughters Kai and Thea, to the former dairy farm in Stannard they purchased in 2017.

Today, the farm provides food scrap collection services, plus production of eggs, chicken, compost, worm castings, soil mix, produce and hay. If it sounds like a lot, it is. “Black Dirt Farm is basically five separate businesses,” Tom explains, with each of the businesses supporting and driving the next.

Tom breaks it down: Black Dirt’s food scrap collection operation gathers compostable waste from commercial and institutional food producers. The fermenting scraps then provide protein-rich feed for their laying hens, which produce eggs to be sold at retail outlets. Uneaten food scraps are mixed with manure, wood chips, hay and bedding to make compost (here Tom declines to fully reveal his “secret recipe,” except to say that it entails “eleven or twelve ingredients and at least seven different energy/carbon sources”). Processing compost generates heat for the farm’s greenhouses, which extends the season for crop production without additional fuel costs. Compost not eaten by the chickens is further farmed by worms, which leave worm castings – a high-value soil amendment for organic farmers who use it to grow more food.

Sales of eggs, roughly 32,000 dozen per year, chickens for stew meat, compost and worm castings and food scrap collection services all contribute to the financial mix. That diversification helps explain how Tom and
his team pushed through the pandemic.

While Black Dirt’s compost sales climbed in 2020 “because everyone and their sister started gardening during COVID” Tom posits, other on-farm enterprises took a hit.

“Our food scrap collection operations fell off by over 50%” Tom tells, which he attributes to unintended loopholes in Vermont’s new universal composting law that inadvertently advantaged large haulers.

At the same time, shortage of materials and labor during the pandemic cut into Black Dirt’s production and profits. With some segments of the ‘closed loop’ under-performing, Black Dirt’s system couldn’t function
optimally.

As Tom looked for solutions, he considered VCLF’s mission and goals, and reached out. “I’ve known about VCLF’s work for a long time,” he says.

With help from VCLF, Tom launched a multi-pronged effort to improve operations. “We upped our game with our laying hens to overcome chronic inefficiencies,” he says, thanks in part to a new washing system for the eggs. There was also a hook lift trailer “to handle the dumpsters;” a small box truck for residential curbside collection, and more.

The upgrades are already positively impacting different aspects of Black Dirt Farm’s varied business operations. Expanding the egg operation, for example, has increased their capacity to handle regional food
scraps, thereby increasing the region’s capacity to recycle its organic materials.

Tom credits the Loan Fund for making this possible, providing flexible terms and rates. He also stresses the importance of the Loan Fund as a resource for Vermont’s farms and agricultural enterprises. “In prioritizing a vibrant Vermont food system, VCLF fills an important niche in the financing landscape, because it is uniquely mission-driven, and has developed an approach to farm financing that is more responsive to and supportive of farmers,” he says. “And it’s important for communities who seek change and improvement to be able to financially support that vision; VCLF makes that possible too."



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