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Trevor Mance gestures to a compost pile Wednesday in Bennington. (Peter Crabtree)
Trevor Mance gestures to a compost pile Wednesday in Bennington. (Peter Crabtree)
Trevor Mance gestures to a compost pile Wednesday in Bennington. (Peter Crabtree)

BENNINGTON -- Matthew Proft digs his hand into a pile of what at first glance looks like dirt, but is actually a careful mixture of food scraps, manure, sawdust, and plant material. Steam is coming out of the hole he has made, and if he puts his hand in any farther than a few inches and leaves it too long, he could get burned.

Proft is the organics coordinator for TAM Organics, a compost company that began operating in the past few weeks behind the Bennington Transfer Station on Houghton Lane. Proft said he has 30 years of experience with compost, mainly from his work on Someday Farm in East Dorset.

Microbes living in the waste material break it down and turn it into compost, he said. By touch, he can tell if the conditions are right.

"The heat is coming from the microbial activity within the pile," said Proft. "The way we make it hot is we make the microbes happy. We need to make a mix that's suitable for them to thrive. We take temperatures to help us see how good a job we're doing," he said.

The ideal temperature is between 130 and 160 degrees. Too cold and harmful pathogens will not be killed. Too hot and the good microbes will die, he said.

Before the composting begins, the material has to be mixed. Proft said the trick is getting the right balance of carbon and nitrogen, which means knowing how much of what kind of manure to mix with food scraps or plant material.

Trevor Mance, owner of TAM Organics, said his company is taking in about four tons of material per week. He said some of it is food scraps from local restaurants such as Pangea, Allegro, Burger King, and Kevin's Restaurant and Pub, as well as large institutions like the Vermont Veterans Home and Bennington College. He said he is working to take food waste from Southwestern Vermont Medical Center as well.

"At this point were are suffering from a lack of material, not an excess," Mance said.

He said he is not taking animal matter from slaughter houses or animal carcasses from farms.

Mance, who owns TAM Waste Management in Shaftsbury, said being a waste hauler by trade made opening a compost operation easier than it would have been otherwise. Managing a facility requires one to have relationships with diverse industries such as restaurants, dairy farmers, horse farmers, wood pellet manufacturers, and more. He said Proft juggles all of this and knows how to mix the materials.

Mance hopes to be selling compost by next year. He said his Act 250 permit allows him to have up to 24,000 yards of material on site, which leaves plenty of room for the operation to expand. Mance said a number of permits were required to open the facility and state inspectors review data he collects on a regular basis.

In 2011, Mance was proposing to build the facility in his home town of Shaftsbury, off Route 7A. He had applied for a town permit as well as some state permits, however the Select Board, at the behest of the project's opponents, passed a six-month moratorium on all composting facilities to give the Planning Commission time to draft bylaws that would address the public's concerns.

Mance withdrew his applications and approached Bennington, which agreed to lease the land behind the transfer station to Mance for five years with an option to renew for another five.

Shaftsbury residents were concerned about possible odors, fire, water runoff, and pests. Mance said one has to be standing fairly close to a pile to smell it, and the internal heat from the composting process makes the material less than ideal for wildlife. Still, he and Proft keep an eye on it and plan to address any pest issues that may crop up. As for fire, he said the material is carefully managed to keep it within a certain temperature range.

The facility itself is little more than a flat patch of ground with a concrete "mixing station." Proft said once the compost is ready it will be sifted to remove things like clam shells, wood, and non-organic material, then it gets "cured" in a separate part of the facility. After that it is bagged and sold. 

Proft said he and the rest of the compost industry is keenly aware of persistent herbicides found last year in material from the Chittenden Solid Waste District. He said TAM plans to be diligent in monitoring what materials come in to its facility, and by law it has to have materials tested before going out.

Mance said he began laying plans for the facility three years ago, and since then the state has passed a law with the goal of requiring all food waste to be diverted to compost by 2020. Bennington County is the last county to have a compost facility, he said. TAM will take food waste from large producers, but sending a truck to private homes does not make economic or environmental sense. Mance said even if there was no law creating a need for compost facilities, as a waste hauler he is recouping some of his losses incurred from trucking compostable material to another hauler or landfill.

Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at kwhitcomb@benningtonbanner.com or follow him on Twitter @KWhitcombjr.