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Paradise

by Organic Gardening staff

At the Intervale in Vermont, a community turns a forgotten wasteland into a thriving organic mecca.

Burlington is Vermont’s biggest city, perched prettily on the shores of Lake Champlain and ringed by the Green Mountains. Home to the University of Vermont, it is perhaps best known for its skiers, freethinkers, and trendy coffee shops. But to get to the real heart of this community, you need to travel past the gingerbread Victorian homes and cobblestone streets of downtown. You need to make your way through the city’s depressed north end, past a string of warehouses, and over the railroad tracks.There, on 700 acres of fertile floodplain once home to derelicts, thieves, and junked cars, you will find the Intervale. The moment you step out into the dewy gardens and fields, you know you have arrived at a special place with a special story to tell. It is a story of rejuvenation and hope. It is the story of a community-business leaders, politicians, farmers, and just plain folks-working to reclaim and heal a piece of once-pristine earth that had fallen into ruin.

A Living Experiment

INTERVALE FACTS
Intervale is an old New England term meaning lowland or bottomland.
The Intervale each year:

  • produces 280,000 pounds of organic vegetables
  • recycles 12,000 tons of waste
  • makes 6,000 tons of compost
For more information on the Intervale, visit www.intervale.org or contact
The Intervale, 128 Intervale Rd., Burlington, VT 05401; (802) 660-3508.

Today the intervale is home to two sprawling community gardens, several small market farms, a flower-growing operation, a small vineyard, a giant-and profitable-composting facility, a children’s garden, and the restored homestead of colonial pioneer Ethan Allen. The Cook’s Garden seed catalog has its demonstration trials here, and Gardener’s Supply Company, a direct-mail provider of earth-friendly gardening supplies, houses its retail store and headquarters here. Linking it all together are nature walks and bike trails-and the lazy Winooski River, whose once-a-century floods have kept this rich bottomland free from the developer’s bulldozer. All crops are grown to Northeast Organic Farming Association standards.

On a crisp summer day the place is alive with activity. Art students from a local community college dab at their canvases in the overflowing perennial beds of the Stray Cat Farm cut-flower gardens. Down the dirt road at the Intervale Community Farm, members of the cooperative arrive to pick up their weekly boxes of vegetables and flowers. Children dart among the cosmos and sunflowers. A local baker sells fresh bread. A poultry farmer hawks free-range chickens. Frequent volunteer Bonnie Acker and her daughter, Dia, 10, work on building a shed. “This place gives you goose bumps,” Acker says. “Dia loves it here. She’s grown up living in the city but also living on a farm.”

At The Cook’s Garden demonstration trials nearby, founder Shepherd Ogden fusses over beautiful beds of mixed mesclun greens and chard. When asked how he keeps his plants so robust, he replies, “It’s basically just compost and attention to the details. That’s all it takes.” As if in testament to those details, Ogden and his 16-year-old daughter, Molly, are later spotted in a distant field, hand-weeding open-pollinated tomato and pepper plants. When the fruits mature, he will handpick only the best specimens and sell their seeds through his catalog. “If I want certified-organic seed, especially of unusual varieties, this is the way I have to do it,” he says.In the vineyard behind Ogden’s beds, wine maker William O’Connor uncorks a bottle labeled “Intervale Red 1997” and shares a glass with a visitor. It is fruity, not too sweet, and surprisingly good.

At the end of the workday, local residents begin showing up to tend their personal patches. Bicyclists breeze past. A friendly neighborhood dog lolls down a pathway. A tanker truck filled with ice-cream residue from a Ben & Jerry’s manufacturing plant 20 minutes down the road in Saint Albans rumbles up and sprays what appears to be the world’s biggest chocolate milkshake onto the long piles of cooking compost. It’s the regular addition of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream (1 million gallons a year) that gives the Intervale compost its unique microbial life, adherents say.

A Story of Regeneration

The intervale wasn’t always so vibrant or pristine. Talk to any longtime city resident and you’ll hear the same story: For decades this was a place you wouldn’t feel safe going into after dark. As Ogden puts it, “This was a serious hobo jungle down here.” For years it served as the city garbage dump. After the dump was closed in the 1920s, locals still felt free to illegally drop off trash they needed to get rid of. Hundreds of junked cars rusted in weedy fields. The little bit of farming still taking place here was being done chemically, and the sandy soil allowed pesticides and fertilizers to leach directly into the water table.

“This was the unsavory part of town,” says Will Raap, founder of Gardener’s Supply Company and a guiding force behind the Intervale. “It was a barely-holding-on type of place.”

Shortly after founding Gardener’s Supply in an old carpet factory outside Burlington in 1983, Raap set out to change that. He looked at the forsaken bottomland area and saw more than trash piles and bankrupt soil. He saw a natural resource with a proud agrarian tradition dating back 5,000 years. The Abenaki tribe fished and grew maize there. Colonial settlers, Ethan Allen among them, raised vegetables, dairy herds, and hemp on the river’s rich silt deposits. What once was could be again, Raap figured, but it would require a community effort.

An urban planner by training, Raap was in the vanguard of the organic movement in the 1960s and ’70s and had long dreamed of finding a place where he could demonstrate locally the global principles of responsible, sustainable agriculture. This weedy, forgotten bottomland, it dawned on him, might just be that place. “You can think about it; you can write about it. But until you can show it, people can’t internalize it,” he says. He leased land in the Intervale from a local farmer and moved Gardener’s Supply there in 1985.

Others, including city leaders, gradually signed on to Raap’s dream, and in 1989, Intervale Community Farm, Vermont’s first Community Supported Agriculture farm, opened at the Intervale. The next year, the nonprofit The Intervale was formed. The goals were simple: recycle the city’s waste into compost; use that compost to heal the damaged soil; give fledgling organic farmers affordable leases for land and farm equipment to help them get started; and return fresh, healthful produce to the community.

Andy Jones, 31, manager of Intervale Community Farm, which provides organic produce and flowers to 400 subscription-paying households, is one of the young farmers who has benefited from the foundation’s incubator program. Without the affordable land leases and equipment rental, his thriving 21-acre farm might not have been possible. “That program has made a big difference for a lot of people,” he says.

The Intervale’s 700 acres were assembled through a patchwork of leases, purchases, and informal arrangements with a variety of private and public owners. Much of it is managed under the stewardship of the nonprofit foundation, with Raap as its chairman.

One of the first steps was to make a deal with city residents: Bring us your leaves in fall and we’ll give you coupons redeemable for free compost in spring. The arrangement became immensely popular. The foundation also arranged to haul food garbage from local restaurants and the city’s hospital to be composted. These businesses could then buy food grown by the foundation’s farmers, who used that compost to feed their crops.

The Intervale’s mission is to recycle 10 percent of Burlington’s waste and to supply 10 percent of its fresh foods. Today it’s well on its way to meeting those goals. It now reduces the amount of non recyclable solid waste the county receives by about 10 percent and provides 4 percent of its fresh foods.

At the entrance of the Intervale, Burlington’s wood-fired power plant converts the region’s abundant tree trimmings, lumber scraps, and other biomass into electricity. On the drawing board are plans to recycle waste steam from the power plant into free heat for 50,000 square feet of Intervale greenhouses. Those greenhouses will allow the year-round food production that will bring the Intervale closer to its goal of becoming the city’s breadbasket.

Another project, the Living Machine, is under way to perfect a system of raising tilapia (a gourmet fish) for market. Spent beer hops from a local micro brewery are used to feed worms, which in turn feed the fish. The nutrient-rich fish waste is used as plant food.

Burlington Mayor Peter Clavelle says the Intervale is a rediscovered treasure. “As our community has returned this land to its original fertility…we’re creating an invaluable legacy for our children and their children.”

“We changed the whole attitude of the city from looking at this as a dumping ground to looking at it as an agricultural and recreational resource,” says Raap, who describes himself as a reluctant capitalist.

The Intervale, he says, proves that a sustainable, organic circle of waste recycling and food production is not an idle dream. “It demonstrates on a citywide basis that there is a continuum, just like in your garden, between waste, compost, and food,” he says. “It demonstrates that we don’t need to be at the mercy of industrial agriculture. We are creating models here that we think are exportable.”

Reprinted with permission from Organic Gardening Magazine

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