What Ails Vermont?

Vermonters are understandably proud of their scenic, mostly rural and unspoiled state, so it may have been a little jarring to hear Gov. Peter Shumlin talk about a “full-blown heroin crisis” and a mounting “hopelessness that can help drive drug habits.” (1)

Jarring, but not exactly surprising. Even as just an occasional vacationer, for years I have heard about a swelling problem with heroin in the small city of Rutland, at the western foot of the Green Mountains. Overall, Shumlin said in his state of the state address, treatment for opiate use has increased nearly eightfold since 2000.

Which brings us directly to the question: What ails Vermont?

If we can tear our gaze away from those green hills, red barns, snowy ski slopes and brilliant fall colors, we might see a statistical picture of a state that is stagnating, like a retiree with too little to do. Bodies decay under such conditions, and spirits do too.

With an enviable unemployment rate of 4.4 percent for November, compared to the national 7 percent at that time, you might think Vermont’s economy is booming, much like that of equally rural, oil-fed North Dakota. But it isn’t. There were about 335,000 Vermonters (from a total statewide population of about 626,000) working that month, including the self-employed. In November 1999, the state counted 328,200 workers. That’s a pitiful net growth of fewer than 7,000 jobs in 14 years. By the way, North Dakota – with a population only slightly larger than that of Vermont – gained around 50,000 jobs in the same 14-year period.

The recession of 2008-2009 is not a big factor. After recovering many of the jobs lost in the downturn, Vermont actually lost some jobs during the past year. Unemployment fell during the same time, however, from 5 percent to 4.4 percent, as more people left the labor force than entered it.

Overall, Vermont lost a handful of residents last year – the first population downturn in three-quarters of a century, according to the Census Bureau. (2) From the 1960s through the 1980s, Vermont gained residents at double-digit percentages. The state responded with numerous measures to curb development, including a land-gains tax of up to 80 percent on property that is acquired and quickly subdivided, usually for new housing developments. From 1990 to 2000, the population increased only 8.2 percent. From 2000 to 2010, the net gain was a scant 2.8 percent. These are not annual percentages; these are percentages for the entire decade. From 2010 to now, the growth is barely above zero.

Similar trends are playing out nationally, but they are exaggerated in Vermont. The state is older and much whiter than average. The state’s percentage of Hispanics (1.5 percent) is the second-lowest in the country; the percentage of African-Americans (1 percent) is third-lowest. These demographic groups tend to have higher birth rates than non-Hispanic whites.

It is no surprise that Vermont’s population of school-age students is shrinking at an alarming rate. There were fewer than 90,000 school-age Vermonters in 2011-12, according to the state, compared to more than 106,000 in 1996-97. The school population fell in all 15 of those years.

As school enrollments fall, costs per student are rising. The state spent about $13,500 per elementary and secondary student this year, up about 30 percent from a decade earlier.

Vermonters seem to think their state is a great place to live, but it seems not too many folks from other places agree.

Vermont’s notably chilly weather must play a role, as does its remoteness. But New Hampshire is not tropical either, and it has attracted considerable growth and a thriving technology industry, especially the southern region close to Boston. The state’s population is more than double Vermont’s, and it grew by more than 6 percent between 2000 and 2010.

I think Vermont’s tax structure has a lot to do with the difference between its performance and its neighbor’s. Besides the aforementioned tax on relatively short-term gains from the sale of land, the state has a steep income tax, is among the minority that imposes an estate tax, has a significant sales tax, and also provides a property tax break to households with less than $90,000 of annual income, which shifts more of the burden to upper-income residents. New Hampshire has no land gains tax, no tax on wages, no estate tax and no sales tax.

Taxes are not the only factor, however. Egalitarian Vermont, which sent self-described socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders to Washington, has a complex and cumbersome property tax system in which wealthy communities directly subsidize schools for poorer locales. The system makes it complicated and expensive for such communities to raise money to spend locally on programs such as enriched extracurricular activities and advanced placement classes. Though Vermont’s schools are widely considered to be pretty good, they do not rank highly in the percentage of graduates who go on to four-year college degrees.

Likewise, the state’s varied restrictions on development discourage the creation of new industries and the jobs they might bring. There is a historical basis for Vermont’s anti-development bias. In the years before the Civil War, the state was nearly denuded of trees because of a boom in farming and raising livestock, especially sheep. The barren hillsides poured choking silt into the streams below. By the start of the 20th century, Vermont had to go so far as importing white-tailed deer from New York to restock its population.

Many of the state’s residents today prize the small-town culture. They treasure handmade crafts and artisanal, organic, locally grown foods. I have nothing against these things; I like many of Vermont’s products, including chocolate, wooden crafts and maple syrup. But you don’t attract many new jobs with these industries, and without jobs, you don’t attract many young workers and their children. You don’t create many opportunities for the young people who are already present, either.

The only reasons for Vermont to have an epidemic of drugs and hopelessness are man-made. When heroin is sold just around the corner from the farmer’s market, something must be wrong. I think I understand why Vermonters have adopted the policies that govern their state today. I do wonder, though, whether they are willing to change their policies if they don’t like the results.

Sources:

1) The Washington Post, “Vermont Session Preview: A budget gap and a heroin crisis”

2) Burlington Free Press, “Experts: Vermont population loss to challenge economic growth”

Vermicasting: A Solution to Zero Waste Management

Vermicasting also called vermicomposting, is the processing of organic wastes turn into organic fertilizers through earthworms. Vermicast nutrient content varies with earthworm feed type, but feeding waste to earthworms does cause nitrogen mineralization, followed by phosphorous and sulphur mineralization after egestion.

Vermicasting can be done on a small-scale by homeowners with household organic wastes, on a large-scale by farmers with manure or by the food industry using organic wastes such as fruit and vegetable cull materials. Through proper design, vermicasting is a method of waste handling that is clean, socially acceptable, with little to no odour, requires no energy input for aeration, reduces the mass of waste by 30%, produces a valuable vermicast byproduct and even generates worms as fishing bait.

The driving force toward zero waste management is a global perception of the need to recycle. Zero organic waste to rural areas coupled with prohibitive charges on dumping organic waste are the tools to turn the perception into a reality.

As organic coconut farmers, we target zero waste in our farms. That’s the reason why we are now into vermicasting or vermicmposing in which our main substrate is the coconut husk and the coconut pit. We also use the waste from the processing of Virgin Coconut Oil (VCO) as our substance that is acted upon by an enzyme or ferment.

On many organic farms, the basic composting ingredients are manure generated on the farm and bedding. Straw and sawdust are common bedding materials. But in our farm, we used coconut husk and coconut pit. The amount of manure on a livestock farm such as the goat and cow manures are often determined by cleaning schedules, land availability, and weather conditions.

Since compost is a key ingredient in organic farming, it simply requires making a heap of wetted organic matter like leaves, food waste and animal manure. Modern, method of composting is a closely monitored process with measured inputs of water, air, and carbon- and nitrogen-rich materials. The decomposition process is aided by shredding the plant matter, adding water and ensuring proper aeration by regularly turning the mixture. Worms and fungi further break up the material. Aerobic bacteria and fungi manage the chemical process by converting the inputs into heat, carbon dioxide and ammonium. The ammonium is the form of nitrogen (NH4) used by plants. When available ammonium is not used by plants it is further converted by bacteria into nirates (NO3) through the process of nitrification.

Compost can be rich in nutrients. It is used in gardens, landscaping, horticulture and agriculture. The compost itself is beneficial for the land in many ways, including as a soil conditioner. a fertilizer, addition of vital humus, and as a natural pesticide for soil.

Composting organisms require four equally important ingredients to work effectively:

  1. Carbon - for energy; the microbial oxidation of carbon produces the heat, if included at suggested levels. High carbon materials tend to be brown and dry.
  2. Nitrogen – to grow and reproduce more organisms to oxidize the carbon. High nitrogen materials tend to be green (or colorful, such as fruits and vegetables) and wet.
  3. Oxygen - for oxidizing the carbon, the decomposition process.
  4. Water – in the right amounts to maintain activity without causing anaerobic conditions.

Certain ratios of these materials will provide beneficial bacteria with the nutrients to work at a rate that will heat up the pile. In that process much water will be released as vapor and the oxygen will be quickly depleted, explaining the need to actively manage the pile.

Compost is generally recommended as an additive to soil supplying humus and nutrients. It provides a rich growing medium, or a porous, absorbent material that holds moisture and soluble minerals, providing the support and nutrients in which plants can flourish. Compost can be tilled directly into the soil or growing medium to boost the level of organic matter and the overall fertility of the soil. Compost that is ready to be used as an additive is dark brown or even black with an earthy smell.

Thus, vermicasting or vermicomposting is one of the solutions of zero waste management aside from recycling of nonbiodegradable materials.