NEW HAVEN — Little did John Palmer realize in the early ’80s that his daughter’s 4-H project, raising 20 turkeys from the basement of the family’s Monkton home, would grow into one of the state’s leading poultry operations.
After more than two and a half decades of expansion, Palmer and his partner at Misty Knoll Farms, Rob Litch, are taking steps designed to control the environmental impact of that growth with a new waste management system, which aims to prevent animal waste generated by their thousands of birds from entering Vermont’s waterways.
At the heart of this system is a two-acre compost pad, situated on the east side of their barns at Route 7 and Town Hill Road in New Haven. Created to handle a year’s worth of waste from chicken and turkey barns — mainly litter and manure layered on top of each other — the pad will facilitate the production of a massive compost pile to feed Misty Knoll’s fields and those of eager customers.
In recent years, Vermont agriculture has been blamed for polluting the state’s lakes, rivers and streams. So for these lifelong Vermonters who graduated from local elementary schools — New Haven’s Beeman for Palmer and Middlebury’s Mary Hogan for Litch — this new compost pad is as much about adding value to waste as it is about being a good neighbor.
“One of the reasons we built this pad is so that we can remain true to our ideal, which is to be a good member of the community, and that means controlling your waste,” said Litch. “We didn’t build it to have a big white space, we built it to protect Vermont’s waterways.”
Designed by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and built chiefly by Palmer’s son Andre, the compost pad directs runoff into a recently dug pond. A ditch surrounding the perimeter of the pad helps channel the runoff toward a culvert, which also leads to the pond, and another ditch further outside the pad protects the compost from external agents like gasoline spills from cars.
In addition to quarantining Misty Knoll’s waste runoff, the pond also serves another purpose.
“You’ll notice up on the hill we’re growing some Christmas trees,” said Litch. “We’re going to use that (compost run-off pond) to water the Christmas trees.”
Throughout the next year, Palmer and Litch will experiment with different compost methods to create a product they can apply to their fields and sell to customers.
“You buy all of the nutrients on the way in, you should be able to capture them on the way out,” said Litch. “A lot of the bedding we use for turkeys we can actually grow ourselves and we can use the nutrients that we capture from composting to put back on the soil so that we can continue the cycle.”
This cycle, Litch explained, is at the root of Misty Knoll’s Route 7 farm, which was salvaged for agriculture when the previous dairy farm folded.
“We took a defunct dairy operation and reused the (property) for agriculture, and we think that’s important,” said Litch.
MISTY KNOLL’S EVOLUTION
“We grew 20 turkeys one year and the next year we grew 200 and then 500 and then 800 and then 1,000 and then we continued to grow from there,” said Palmer about Misty Knoll’s swift beginnings.
In 1984, Palmer moved his turkey operation to the company’s present headquarters on New Haven’s Main Street. While Palmer continued working at IBM, his turkey flock continued to grow. In 1992, Palmer decided to get more serious about poultry farming. He left his IBM job, added chickens to the mix and joined forces with Litch, a young and eager University of Vermont grad.
“I was given the opportunity to join a fledgling company and see what we could do with it,” said Litch. “The same year John left IBM, I graduated from UVM … so it was a unique opportunity that presented itself — we started working Misty Knoll full-time. You need to understand that up until then (Palmer) was managing 3,500 turkeys plus a full-time job, so this (operation) has just been a progression from there.”
The company’s growth has continued with the addition of a second new barn at the Route 7/Town Hill Road property earlier this year. Misty Knoll boasts 20 employees, including family members, Litch said.
He wouldn’t comment on exactly how many chickens Misty Knoll now raises, but he indicated that the company has boasted steady growth. According to the website for Whole Foods Market — the nationwide natural foods store chain — the company stocks Misty Knoll’s poultry at its stores in western Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine. Nonetheless, Litch said most of Misty Knoll’s birds are still sold close to home.
“The majority of what we grow stays right here in Vermont,” he said. “We’ve certainly been growing and that’s a direct result of the support that we get from our community.”
One of Palmer and Litch’s tenets is that they don’t use antibiotics on their birds, which is why Litch said he couldn’t let a recent visitor into their poultry barns.
“We’ve become more bio-security minded,” he said. “We don’t know where people have been, we don’t know what they’ve stepped in and we don’t know what diseases they could potentially bring onto our premise. And (not allowing people into our barn) has a lot to do with the fact that we choose not to use antibiotics.
“Rather than relying on the crutch of an antibiotic, we use cleanliness as a preventative measure.”
Such safety precautions, Litch pointed out, will lead to pure compost, healthy land and wholesome poultry.
“Our goal is to maintain the land and agriculture because we’re farmers,” he said.
And with that, Litch and Palmer got back to work.
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected]