DUMMERSTON, Vt. — The Walker Farm is draped in folds of wind-blown snow, the greenhouse blowers silent, the front of the spacious vegetable store boarded up. Only the occasional truck or car on Route 5, passing within a few feet of the farmhouse, disturbs the stillness.
But inside the 223-year-old wood-frame house, Jack Mannix and his wife, Karen, are busier than they would normally be in winter. The computer hums and the phone rings at a desk in the dining room near a hot wood stove. Buttons, bumper stickers and newsletters clutter a shelf.
Rather than figuring out what new types of tomatoes they will plant in the spring, the Mannixes are waging a campaign to keep a landfill from opening next to their organic farm in this southeast corner of Vermont. They have raised over $10,000 from supporters, hired an engineer, enlisted an attorney and are now at what Mannix said is "move 10 of a 64-move chess game."
Nearly the whole town of 1,800 residents has joined them, voting by a 10-1 margin in a recent advisory referendum to keep the landfill away from the Walker Farm and out of Dummerston.
"We're worried about the dust, the odor, the noise, the birds and the traffic," Mannix said. "And what about the perceived risk? How do people feel about buying food grown next to a landfill, especially organic food?"
The fight over landfills, once the bane of suburbanites, is moving to the country, with farmers in Upstate New York, Vermont and other rural areas realizing that they have become targets of municipal demand for garbage space. The landfill now serving Dummerston and 14 other Vermont towns is five miles south in Brattleboro. It also takes trash from Bennington, on the other side of the state, and, until recently, from towns in northeastern Massachusetts.
The state has ordered the landfill closed by October, 1995, because it does not have a plastic liner to prevent rainwater from filtering through the garbage and polluting the ground water. With such unlined landfills being phased out nationwide, waste officials here began looking for a new landfill location three years ago. Last summer, they settled on the spot next to the Walker Farm as the best of about 45 sites in the 350-square-mile Windham Solid Waste Management District.
The waste district, which has only 14 employees and is hidden in a small office next to an aging shoe factory in Brattleboro, once enjoyed the anonymity of an efficient back-room bureaucracy. But the glare of publicity over the landfill changed all that. A few weeks ago, charges of mismanagement and violations of state rules brought to light by the anti-landfill effort led to the resignation of the district's executive director.
Part of the waste district's undoing has been that it chose a site near the Walker Farm. The 65-acre enterprise has a loyal clientele for its produce and is also a supplier of greenhouse-grown bedding plants to dozens of area organic farmers every spring. In the seven months the farm is open, Mannix said, he sells about $250,000 in produce and plants to more than 30,000 customers.
And in Mannix, the district did not take on a naive rustic. Now 44, he grew up in Connecticut, as did his wife, whom he met while attending Boston University.
Their introduction to Vermont agriculture was a visit to Jack's grandfather at the farm in the summer of 1973. After two weeks of work, he and Karen decided to learn farming and stayed.
For the waste district, the Walker Farm location at first appeared to be a dream come true. Most of the region is mountains and outcrops of bedrock, but the 15-acre Walker parcel is nearly flat bottom land with a deep clay subsoil along the Connecticut River.
Chris Ballou, chairman of the agency's siting committee, said it intends to press forward with studies of the site to determine what might be necessary to mitigate possible harm to Walker Farm, an adjacent campground and a nearby elementary school. He said the goal all along has been to keep the trash in the district.
"Our feeling is that since we produce the trash, we ought to take care of it and not dump it in someone else's back yard," he said.
Mannix and his supporters don't dispute that notion, but they argue that there's room for a lined landfill next to the existing dump. He said the old landfill could be dug up and the material recycled in a process of reclamation and cleanup. He has hired engineers and consultants to study the issue and challenge the whole notion of a new landfill.
"If they're serious about being responsible for waste, they should clean up what they have," Mannix said. "We've backed away from saying they should put it in other areas of the county because from what we've learned, we don't want to wish this on anybody else."