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Sustainability Is More Than a Buzzword for This Vermont Dairy

Heather Foster-Provencher has a very concise way of describing her job.

“I sell cow manure,” she says.

Don’t be fooled by her succinctness. Selling cow manure is big business for her family’s Vermont dairy farm. And, as she and her father, Bob Foster, can attest, what’s good for their business is good for the planet and good for the dairy industry.

Heather of Foster Bros. in Vermont

The dairy, Foster Brothers Farms in Middlebury, not only finds a sustainable purpose for the manure produced by its 600-plus cows, it also is a landing spot for digested manure from neighboring dairies and a chicken farm. The farm even collects 80 to 100 tractor trailer loads of manure from an annual horse show and accepts food waste from grocery retailers.

All of it is fed into three methane digesters located within a 20-mile radius of the dairy that create a clean-burning methane gas that powers those farms. Leftover power is sold to a utility.

The digesters produce a valuable byproduct that the Fosters purchase and use as ingredients in their company, Vermont Natural Ag Products Inc. (VNAP). The company produces compost, mulch and top soil that is popular with gardeners and landscapers.

“We’ve grown this business by word of mouth,” Foster says. “We made a number of mistakes along the way, but we hopefully have learned from them and continue to provide a high-quality product for customers.” 

The business sells about 750,000 bags annually of its signature “Moo” line that is approved for organic use (product motto: “We Doo Moo”). This and other products are available at mom-and-pop gardening centers throughout New England and New York and they also sell it in bulk.

Sustainability is a buzzword among consumers who seek reasons to feel good about the products they purchase. The Fosters say they and many other U.S. dairy farmers were sustainable long before it became a thing.

“We were raised to think about the environment and how it affected those around you,” Foster-Provencher said. “My father always talked about how important it was that we were being sustainable and helping future generations by trying to make the world a better place to live in.

“I didn’t really have an awareness that what we were doing was something different until I left the farm,” she added.

“We’ve been doing things to protect the environment for a long time,” Foster said. “Most agriculturists aren’t out waving the flag about what they are doing. We’re getting the job done and there is a lot of satisfaction knowing you are providing the consumer with things they can use, whether it’s milk, cheese, compost or other products. I’m glad there is an interest in sustainability. We need to seize the opportunity to share what we are doing.”

Photos courtesy of Cabot Creamery Co-op