Grow Compost grows a business

Photo: Scott Baughman and Lisa Ransom, owners of Grow Compost, had planned on starting a small homestead farm in Moretown, but quickly turned their attention to composting instead. Photos by Erica Houskeeper.

From homestead to statewide, Lisa Ransom and Scott Baughman close the loop for Vermont’s food systems

by Kelly Notterman “How can we live in Vermont and not be able to find compost?” That question, posed by Lisa Ransom around the dinner table one evening in 2008 was, in hindsight, the start of Grow Compost. Lisa and her husband, Scott Baughman, had purchased 38 acres in Moretown intending to start a small homestead farm, but found the soil was lacking in important nutrients they needed to grow the fruits and vegetables they imagined.

“At the same time,” said Ransom, “we could see that everything we needed to amend the soil was within a 20 mile radius of our home.” There was a dairy farm, a lumber mill, and a handful of restaurants and grocery stores generating food scraps, yet there was no mechanism for collecting those nutrient-rich leftovers and returning them to the soil.

“We needed good compost,” said Ransom, “and we also wanted to model for our children how to use and reuse the resources around them. We had the land, the passion, and the skills—and the resources were all around us.”

They began talking with neighbors, farms, and businesses in the local community.

“We started with a lot of questions and curiosity,” said Ransom, “and the answers fell into place pretty quickly.”

Farmers and the local mill owner were more than happy to sell manure and wood scraps, as it provided another source of income, and neighbors enjoyed stopping by with their food scraps to chat around the compost bucket.

“We weren’t businesspeople,” said Ransom, “but we learned through conversation that others in the area also needed good compost for their own gardens, which eventually led to our first business plan.”

Photo: Lisa Ransom and Scott Baughman stand in front of a compost pile at Grow Compost in Moretown. Photos by Erica Houskeeper.

From composting to scrap hauling

For the next few years, the couple focused on making and selling compost. Then in 2012, Vermont passed the Universal Recycling Law, an “unexpected and very bold” piece of legislation according to Ransom, which among other things, banned tossing food and yard scraps into the trash.

“The state assumed that the business community would step up to meet the law,” she said, “and we were one of only a few facilities in the state with all the permits in place to compost at that scale. Our entire business model changed virtually overnight.”

The surge in interest around composting, however, was not only driven by compliance with the law.

Photo: In 2012, Vermont passed the Universal Recycling Law, which among other things, banned tossing food and yard scraps into the trash. Photos by Erica Houskeeper.

“The conversation was elevated on every level,” said Ransom. “There was a shift in thinking from ‘waste’ to ‘resources.’ We had school groups coming for field trips and businesses contacting us daily. People were realizing that an apple core isn’t trash, it’s part of the life force required to continue growing food.”

Things ramped up quickly for Lisa and her husband and business partner, Scott Baughman, who saw an opportunity to be part of a much larger movement aligned closely with their personal values.

Recognizing that businesses wanted to do the right thing, but needed a mechanism for collecting and transporting scraps, they added a fleet of box trucks and hired drivers to pick up scraps. Resorts, schools, office buildings, and grocery stores around Vermont signed on.

“We became a food-scrap diversion business,” said Ransom, “because that’s what was needed to divert all this rich, organic material from landfills and return it to the earth.”

Both the speed and scale of the opportunity posed challenges. “We went from a business focused on the soil, to hiring truck drivers,” said Ransom. “It was all integrated, but also very different and complicated, and we needed to add capacity.”

Lisa and Scott turned to Janice St Onge, president of the Flexible Capital Fund, who provided $250,000 in permanent working capital and connected them with business coaching through the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund. “Grow Compost plays an important role in closing the loop of the food cycle,” said St. Onge, “so we were willing to take a risk where others were not.”

The bigger picture

Many people don’t realize that Vermont only has one landfill for the entire state. Prior to the Universal Recycling Law, approximately 30 percent of the landfill was food waste, much from grocery stores and restaurants. In 2019, Grow Compost was able to divert 8.2 million pounds of food waste from Vermont landfills (a 3 million pound increase over 2018). They also diverted 480,305 gallons of brewing residuals to anaerobic digestion.

“The increased awareness around food waste was both wonderful and really depressing,” said Ransom. “Composting is part of the story, but it’s also about making sure food is donated instead of tossed in the garbage. A good portion of food that is thrown away is perfectly edible, it just isn’t saleable.”

Since the law was passed, the state has seen a big increase in food donations. Sending scraps to be composted comes with a fee, which can be reduced when the edible food is donated to food banks instead. In 2015, the Vermont Foodbank saw a 25 percent increase in food donations; by 2016 that had increased to 40 percent confirming that fresh fruits and vegetables, and frozen meats were making their way onto the plates of Vermonters, instead of the landfill.

The law also had environmental consequences, as farmers now have a financial incentive to compost manure, helping to keep methane out of the atmosphere and preventing runoff into rivers and streams.

As the multi-layered benefits of composting become more widely accepted, Lisa is optimistic that the partnerships born out of necessity in response to the law will continue to evolve, bringing continued innovation.

“We’re invigorated by the new anaerobic digesters coming online,” she said, “and by the greater understanding of the role of microbes in soil and human health.”

“If the pandemic has taught us anything,” said Ransom, “it’s how powerful things we can’t see, like viruses and microbes, can be. I’m hopeful that we’re going to be okay, and perhaps even better off, as we better understand the interdependence of all living things.”

The Flexible Capital Fund, L3C is a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) and impact investment fund that provides flexible risk capital in the form of subordinated debt, revenue based financing (also known as royalty financing) and alternative equity structures, to growth-stage companies in Vermont and the region’s food systems, forest products, and clean technology sectors.

Photo: Lisa Ransom and Scott Baughman stand in front of a compost pile at Grow Compost in Moretown. Photos by Erica Houskeeper.