Phosphorus Challenge Kicks Off - St. Albans Messenger

                                      State Looking To Recover, Sell Nutrient

By MICHELLE MONROE

St. Albans Messenger Staff Writer

Gov. Phil Scott announces the start of his Vermont Phosphorous Innovation Challenge (VPIC) during a visit to the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery on Friday.

ST. ALBANS — While in town to kick off the Vermont Maple Festival on Friday, Gov. Phil Scott and three members of his cabinet stopped by the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery to announce the first part of the administration’s Vermont Phosphorous Innovation Challenge.

The purpose of the challenge is to get entrepreneurs looking at possible to export phosphorous out of vulnerable watersheds.

Phosphorous is an essential nutrient, but in excess quantities it fuels the growth of cyanobacteria, better known as blue-green algae, which impairs the quality of lakes and streams. In Lake Champlain the state has been charged with stopping the flow of 216 metric tons within 20 years by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Citing a University of Vermont (UVM) study, Scott said the state is importing more phosphorous into vulnerable watersheds than it is exporting. The purpose of the challenge is to turn some of that excess phosphorous into products which can be sold both in and out of state.

This approach, he noted, has the added possibility of generating revenue and creating jobs.

“We’re looking for engineers, innovators and entrepreneurs,” said Scott. “It was important to me to work on a solution that both preserves farming and clean water.”

Possible approaches include the making of compost, fertilizers and bio-char, said Secretary of Natural Resources Julie Moore.

Secretary of Commerce Michael Schirling said the state will be accepting applications for proof of concept and requests for seed money for the next two months.

The state has $250,000 available for grants, said Moore, and expects to award funding to between five and eight projects.

Scientists and business people from outside the government will assist in the selection.

Moore pointed out that phosphorous is “essential for plant growth, human health and animal health.”

Nutrient cycling is a part of every ecosystem with plants pulling nutrients from the ground, animals consuming the plants and/or other animals which have eaten plants, and then the animals defecating, returning some of the nutrients to the ground. The rest are returned when the animals die and the nutrients from their decaying bodies are returned to the soil.

Ideally, that cycle is a closed loop with the total amount of nutrients in the system remaining relatively stable over the long term.

“We don’t have a closed loop,” said Moore. “Vermont imports phosphorous.” That phosphorous comes in the form of both fertilizers and animal feed.

According to the UVM study, Vermont is importing an excess 1,500 tons of phosphorous each year, noted Moore.

Most of that phosphorous doesn’t end up in waterways, but a fraction does, according to Moore.

“Vermont’s waterways are very sensitive to even these small amounts,” she said.

That phosphorous is a valuable commodity, noted Schirling, with a finite amount remaining in the handful of mines around the world. When that phosphorous runs into the oceans, as it does when it gets into rivers that empty directly into the ocean such as the Connecticut River, it becomes unavailable, Schirling pointed out.

The state hopes to begin the process of recovering that phosphorous, which Florida is also trying to do in the Everglades.

“We don’t want to run out of it, because it’s essential for life,” said Schirling.

Recovering phosphorous in a form more portable than manure may also help to reduce the need to import chemical fertilizers, added Moore.

Swanton farmer Marie Audet is already making fertilizers on her farm. “We’re continually closing up that loop,” she said.

Farmers, Audet said, are doing everything they can to keep phosphorous on their fields. Adopting management practices intended to protect water has also improved soil.

“We are seeing improvements in our soil,” she said. “It’s becoming more spongy.”

That sponginess, Audet added, is crucial to reducing runoff because it enables the soil to absorb more water even as climate change brings more precipitation to the area.

Audet’s family makes compost which they share with neighbors as well as contributing to the making of Magic Dirt.

On her farm, they are already using a digester to create energy, bedding, solids used in compost and liquid which is applied to fields.

She wants to add equipment which will extract more phosphorous from the manure.

“We want to make another value-added product,” she said. “We’re working every single day to insure we have clean water,” said Audet. Farmers, she added, “are passionate about our families and our communities.”

The state has invested $100 million in clean water over the last two years, Scott noted saying, “I understand and share the urgency.”

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