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July 03, 2012

Smilie School Garden Probable Casualty of Contaminated Compost

School_gardenSome home gardeners are reeling after learning they'll lose their vegetable patches to contaminated soil from Green Mountain Compost. That disappointment is particularly acute at Smilie Memorial School in Bolton, where the school used a $7300 grant from Fletcher-Allen Health Care to build their first-ever garden this spring.

The grant, aimed at improving kids' eating habits and combating obesity, enabled the school to hire a garden manager and build seven raised beds, which students filled with topsoil from GMC, as well as beans, tomatoes, pumpkins, squash and broccoli. Many of those plants had been started by Smilie's 80 pre-K and elementary school kids under grow lights, and were to be used in the lunch program.

"We're trying to get kids to eat more colors and fresh foods and provide the experience from seed-to-table," says school principal Mary Woodruff, who wrote for and received the grant, along with another from the Subaru Healthy Sprouts program. But once the starts were in the ground, garden manager Bronwyn McKeown noticed that something "wasn't quite right," according to Woodruff, as leaves curled and bush beans withered and died.

Once they learned about the contaminated soil, and the culprit was clear. "We were just heartbroken," says Woodruff, who says that most of the plants, including the new raspberry patch, will probably need to be pulled out and the soil replaced. "But then you just have to say, what are we going to do next? The plan is to get this [soil] out of there and get new soil in and salvage what we can."

It was just over a week ago when Green Mountain Compost, an extension of the Chittenden Solid Waste District, suspended sales after finding out that its bulk compost and soil — most of which arrives in the form of trimmings and scraps from CSWD — had likely been contaminated by a persistent herbicide, the type of potent, long-lasting weed killer sometimes used on farms.

The red flag was first raised by CSWD general manager Tom Moreau, who noticed his tomato plants were curling and wilting and suspected it could be the GMC compost he had used in his garden. By June 27, CSWD and GMC had zeroed in on bulk soil and compost sold between mid-April and late May, and warned customers that they should be wary of eating produce from gardens showing signs of contamination until an analysis of the affected soils is done by an Idaho lab.

"It has all of the marks of a persistent herbicide," says Clare Innes, CSWD marketing and communications coordinator. She says the company can't tackle remediation until getting back the report — expected this Thursday — as well as the state's response. "We don't want to have to destroy a garden or dispose of compost until we know the degree of contamination." 

Innes says that every batch of yard and food waste that arrives at CWSD is tested for potential contaminants such as nutrients, heavy metals, bacteria and pathogens. "This just came out of the blue."

GMC sales and production coordinator Jennifer Baer has been in contact with four schools so far, including Smilie. "They [the schools] are quite upset, and we totally understand. The students have worked very hard and have this expectation that their hard work will pay off," says Baer. "It's a devastating situation, and we're heartbroken for our customers. Vermonters in general, though, are fabulous. People have been wonderful and patient." 

As Woodruff and the Smilie School community also await the soil analysis before deciding what to do, Behr told her that schools will be the company's top priority GMC starts correcting the problem. "They are taking all of the responsibility for removing the soil and plants, they totally get that. They realize a school cannot afford to be serving their kiddos questionable food," says Woodruff.

Fortunately, Smilie still has some of the grant funds left over, as well as some seeds, and the staff hope to replant some root vegetables for a fall harvest. "I'm really hoping we can get something in there that will be there for the kids in the fall," she says. The students will return on August 29.

Those wanting to lend a hand in Smilie School's effort to replant can contact Mary Woodruff at [email protected]

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