Doing the Dirty Work

By Emilee Lee
Spring 2006

Pedaling through traffic on my morning commute, I spin my path through city buses, mud puddles, Subarus and sleepy-eyed college kids. I zip past downtown Burlington and weave my way among the streets to the edge of the city. At the crest of a hill I get one last breathtaking glimpse of the Green Mountains before I cruise down to work. The largest city in Vermont disappears behind me, and I enter The Intervale, a 700-acre tract of farmland along the Winooski River.

Twenty years ago this was an urban wasteland, a forgotten place where burned-out cars blocked the fields and dead bodies might have turned up in the piles of trash lining the road. Today, the land is a thriving oasis of organic agriculture and a source of strength for our community. Programs at The Intervale vary in purpose, from enabling underserved youth to grow and market organic produce, to community gardens, to business training for farmers and the development of a cutting-edge methane digester.

I ride my bike past huge gardens of freshly tilled earth and a flock of free-range chickens before I arrive at the steamy mountains of compost where I’ll punch in. A cloud of diesel exhaust and thick dust welcomes me to the largest composting operation in Vermont, and the first grimy coat of the day lines my nostrils. I cast a wistful glance over my shoulder at some farmers peacefully planting tomatoe sprouts in their greenhouses while Bob Marley croons the baby plants to life. We’re both part of The Intervale Foundation, but their department of tender growing things seems a far cry from my world of loud, heavy machinery and the reek of decomposing cheese curd. Reporting to my duties at the dirt factory, I get psyched by reminding myself that we keep 20,000 tons of food waste out of our landfills every year. It’s good work.

Before we’re even open, trucks are rolling in to contribute leaves and yard trimmings to our massive compost piles. Eighteen-wheelers hit the scale first to weigh their precious cargoes of food waste, and a special truck from Ben & Jerry’s pumps a liquefied leftover ice cream topping onto the composting windrows. The phone is ringing off the hook as orders come in for deliveries, and a line of pickup trucks are waiting out back for a yard or two of black gold to make their gardens grow. The dust doesn’t get a chance to settle down with all this traffic, and neither do I. Careening around the yard at the controls of the Bobcat, I’m busy loading trucks with compost, filling the cranky old cement mixer with ingredients for special blends, and keeping the screening machinery fueled. In between those tasks, I’ll wrestle with the jerry-rigged bagging machine or get a workout trying to sift the lumps out of a load of potting soil.

At the end of the day, I’ll usually look like a coal miner who’s gotten in a mud fight, but hopping back on my bike I’ll feel a different sense of satisfaction from any other job I’ve had. These towering mountains of compost were made by modest contributions of leftovers from all over Burlington and handfuls of dry leaves off each person’s lawn. With each of our small efforts combined, we have not only been able to reduce our waste, we’ve turned it into valuable products that will nourish the earth. To witness schools, hospitals, stores, restaurants, farms, factories, landscapers, property managers and individuals working together for the health of our environment is more rewarding than any paycheck.

About the Author

Emilie Lee is a painter and illustrator specializing in climbing art. She has written and illustrated articles for Alpinist and She Sends. Her portfolio is online at portfolios.com/emilielee. To learn more about The Intervale Foundation, visit intervale.org.