In Their Own Words Edited by Peter Bogdanov Interviews With Vermiculture Experts
In Their Own Words
Edited by Peter Bogdanov
Interviews With Vermiculture Experts
Copyright © 2000 by Peter Bogdanov All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the Publisher. Published by: Petros Publishing Co. Merlin, Oregon 97532 The publisher does not assume and hereby disclaims any liability to any party for any loss or damage caused by errors or omissions in In Their Own Words whether such errors or omission result from negligence, accident or any other cause. Printed in the United States of America Library in Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
In their own words : interviews with vermiculture experts/ edited by Peter Bogdanov.
p.cm. ISBN 0-9657039-1-6
1. Vermiculturists—Interviews. 2. Earthworm culture. 3. Vermicomposting. 4. Earthworm culture—United States. 5. Vermicomposting—United States. I.Bogdanov, Peter, 1951-
SF597.E3 15 2000 639’.75—dc21 00-065247
In Their Own Words
Edited by Peter Bogdanov
Interviews With Vermiculture Experts
Petros Publishing CompanyMerlin, Oregon U.S.A.
Introduction: What Do We Learn from Interviews? Chapter 1: Mary Appelhof
Chapter 2: Jack Chambers Sonoma Valley Worm Farm
Chapter 3: Barry Meijer Pacific Southwest Farms
Chapter 4: Jim Jensen Yelm Earthworm and Castings Farm
Chapter 5: Al Eggen Original Vermitech Systems, Ltd.
Chapter 6: Larry Martin Vermitechnology Unlimited, Inc.
Chapter 7: Al Cardoza Rainbow Worm Farm
Chapter 8: Ed Berry U.S. Department of Agriculture
Chapter 9: Mario Travalini American Resource Recovery
Chapter 10: Dr. Clive Edwards Ohio State University
Chapter 11: Dr. Scott Subler Pacific Garden Company
Chapter 12: Bruce R. Eastman Orange County Florida Environmental Protection
Table of Contents
nderstanding how we learn and how information may be transferred are subjects of perennial discussion. We seek and obtain information visually and audibly
as well as experientially. In the quest to promote greater understanding of vermiculture, our company has published straightforward written information (in the form of books, a manual and newsletters) and produced videocassettes. But we have found that the interview format provides a different approach to picking up information. Our culture is actually quite absorbed with interviews. It seems we all yearn to discover more about personalities in the news. Television leads the way. Early morning network news/talk programs feature guests who are interviewed by TV show hosts. Afternoon talk shows and late night talk shows are emceed by some of the best-paid and most famous television personalities in the US. Some, such as Rosie and Oprah are known merely by their first names. And their format? The interview. From a Barbara Walters Special, to a Mike Wallace interview on 60 Minutes, producers and advertisers know that a significant percentage of the Nielson audience will tune in and watch. There’s just something about a one-on-one interview that will seize a viewer’s attention and hold him or her captive. Whether this curiosity comes from the cult of hero worship or attraction to tabloid gossip, there is something that draws us to know more about our own kind. Our fascination with the interview stems from wanting to know more than merely what an author or narrator might
Introduction: What Do We Learn From Interviews?
In Their Own Words
choose to say about a given subject. The interview can be more spontaneous, more informal and perhaps more revealing than reading an author’s carefully chosen words. While the interviews presented here, quizzing experts in the area of vermiculture, are not so self-revealing that one might learn intimate personal details, there is ample opportunity here to read between the lines and examine motivations that may not be revealed elsewhere. The human side, or better, more of our humanness is allowed to come across through the medium of an interview than other means of written expression. Another benefit to this format is that an interviewer may ask the same sort of question that someone else has longed to ask. Or, the interviewer may ask a question that the interviewee has not considered or developed or commented upon previously. In short, the interviewer introduces the subject material rather than the person being interviewed. Again, this difference in format may bring to life what an author or expert might not have been able to express elsewhere. The subjects interviewed here consist of experienced worm workers representing a variety of special interests. World-renowned researchers such as Dr. Clive Edwards and Dr. Scott Subler have published their findings in scholarly journals, as has Dr. Edward Berry who worked for over 30 years with the USDA. These researchers have spoken to groups all over the world and have committed their lives’ work to the exciting frontier of soil ecology. Operators of worm farms such as Al Cardoza (Rainbow Worm Farm), Jack Chambers (Sonoma Valley Worm Farm), and Jim Jensen (Yelm Earthworm & Castings Farm) bring a perspective that comes from being a sole proprietor. Their small businesses provide excellent models for future entrepreneurs. Two of the largest vermicomposting operations in North America, Pacific Southwest Farms and American Resource Recovery, are
represented here by Barry Meijer and Mario Travalini, individuals whose facilities process tons of organic residues with acres of earthworms in arid California climates. Here we learn more about the opportunities and pitfalls of large-scale vermicomposting with a waste management focus. The incentive of collecting a tip fee (or gate fee) for processing waste in a capital-intensive operation provides new challenges and potentially greater rewards. Al Eggen’s Original Vermitech Systems have been installed in over a dozen institutional facilities and Larry Martin of Vermitechnology Unlimited has consulted on a wide variety of projects in the US and abroad. Bruce Eastman, a Florida-based environmental regulator is leading the way in demonstrating that earthworms can transform potentially harmful biosolids (wastewater residuals) into a pathogen-free product that has useful properties as a soil amendment. And others, such as author/educator Mary Appelhof, contribute still another perspective about the value of including earthworms in educational programs geared for people of all ages. These interviews first appeared in Casting Call, a bi-monthly newsletter published by VermiCo that features reports on vermiculture, composting, soil fertility and issues concerning organic residues. Interviews published here were conducted over a three-year period, from February 1997 to February 2000. If there is a Vermiculture Industry, it is made up of the individuals interviewed here and others like them. It includes people who make their living through some kind of association with earthworms that now has a soil ecology and environmental focus more than the worms-as-fishing-bait emphasis of years ago. Strangely, however, even though
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words such as industry and association are used here, there is, as of this date, no American organization for those involved in vermiculture or vermicomposting. Yet, even without a uniform or cohesive mission, the individuals you will hear from in the following pages seem to share a similar worldview, at least about earthworms. If nothing more, they would at least agree with Charles Darwin’s famous words:
It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world as have these
lowly organized creatures.
The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms. 1881
Mary Appelhof is popularly known as “The Worm Woman” from Kalamazoo, Michigan. In 1981 she compiled the Proceedings from the Workshop on the Role of Earthworms in the Stabilization of Organic Residues, from a conference she helped organize at Western
Michigan University. This precedent-setting event featured academic scientists who met with entrepreneurs in vermiculture as well as members of the public sector. Her 1982 publication, Worms Eat My Garbage, explained home vermicomposting as a means of reducing kitchen waste while producing a valuable soil amendment for houseplants and gardens. Newsweek magazine (“Kitchen Help: Wrigglers Under the Sink,” Feb 12, 1996), gave national attention to Mary and her book sales. In 1993 she published Worms Eat Our Garbage: Classroom Activities for a Better Environment, a curriculum guide and activities book for educators co-authored by Appelhof. In 1995 she released Wormania! a 26- minute video featuring “Worm Woman” Mary along with songwriter/entertainer Billy Brennan and his kids who explored the world of worms. This production features a number of songs as well as close-up footage of worms at work, including a worm hatching from its cocoon. As president of Flowerfield Enterprises, Mary markets educational materials, “Worm-a-way” worm bins, earthworms and a variety of vermicomposting incentive items. Mary is a frequent contributor to Worm Digest, typically reporting about
In Their Own Words
her visits to vermicomposting sites abroad, such as Australia, New Zealand and Belarus. She has been a featured speaker at conferences around the US and throughout the world. In September 2000, Mary organized The Vermillennium, a week-long conference of scientists and worm workers in Kalamazoo, commemorating the 20th anniversary of her 1980 Workshop. She holds master’s degrees in education and biological sciences and is also known to be a skilled photographer. This interview appeared in the February 1997 issue of Casting Call newsletter. Casting Call: Let’s talk first about the success of your books and educational materials. Can you tell us something about their reception worldwide? Mary Appelhof: I’m not sure when, but fairly soon on we had books [Worms Eat My Garbage] in each of the 50 states. My guess is that there are at least 50 or 60 countries that have a least one copy of my book. We seem to get more people from different countries that are corresponding with us such as a recent letter from Lima, Peru. Just yesterday I heard from a woman in China whose work is in family planning. She uses worms for medical purposes as an agglutinating agent for sperm with is used as a contraceptive. Also, I’ve just gotten a letter from Russia. People are inquiring about translating the book. In fact, the book as been translated into Russian. But I don’t know what the current status is of that. CC: Several notable vermiculturists have credited you with being a pioneer in the field. How does the “worm climate” today differ from the days in which you were first starting out? MA: When I first started out 25 years ago, people would cut me off after 4 or 5 minutes. They’d laugh at me. They’d say
“You’re out of your mind, you’re never going to get people to do this. Worms? In your house? You’re weird, Appelhof!” [Laughter] And now, I give three and four hour seminars and readily talk on the phone to people with them paying the bill for a half hour or 45 minutes (if you can get me on the phone). The fact that there are nearly 100,000 copies of Worms Eat My Garbage out there is to me an incredible thing. The interest now is just growing—more and more people are doing it. It’s definitely changed, not only in my life, but now there are large-scale projects. I used to think in terms of tons of worms—once I know that a pound of worms could eat about a pound of garbage a day—I envisioned tons of worms eating tons of garbage. I envisioned large-scale projects and literally thought of huge piles of stuff and huge masses of worms. But I didn’t have the wherewithal to make that all happen. At the time that I started I don’t believe there was an industry. I believe there is a developing industry now. The thing that I’m grateful for, what I’m seeing is that there is a fairly good nucleus of reputable, credible people who are in the industry. And I couldn’t have said that in the mid ‘70s when there was very little credible stuff going. Now in the late ‘90s I feel we’re on the verge of developing this potential for large-scale vermicomposting. CC: As an educator and publisher of educational materials, your work has influenced thousands of teachers and children. What has motivated you to focus upon reaching school-age children? MA: Well, for one thing, remember that I come from an education background. I am in education. I was teaching high school biology for a number of years. When I write I believe that the function of communication is to communicate. In other words, I’ve never been comfortable with the academic type of jargon, where you just use big
In Their Own Words
words and complex sentences and obfuscate information. I wrote my book in a way that I could communicate with people. I wrote it with simple sentences and anecdotes and stories and illustrations and tried to get technical information across to people in a way that they could understand it. I didn’t intentionally go after school-age audiences, but because my book was so accessible to people, I would have many teachers who were calling me up saying, “This would be great to have in the classroom. Can you give us some more ideas on what we can do with worms in the classroom?” It wasn’t really an intentional decision or focus or steering. It was a response to a need that I saw was out there. So I realized that as an educator and as a person who can interact with the scientists, I can take technical information and put it into more understandable terms for teachers or for kids. That’s a gift that I have. Publishing, writing, and speaking are tools I use as well as the visual arts found in the video Wormania! CC: Take us on a brief, whirlwind tour of where you have been and what has impressed you most through your travels. MA: I coordinated the conference in Kalamazoo  and what we were trying to do was to get the worm growers to talk to the scientists at that conference. Since then there have been a number of international conferences and I have been very privileged to participate in several of these. The first one was a Darwin Centenary, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms, and that was in Cumbria, England. At Kalamazoo I was able to meet scientists and establish relationships in the scientific community and now I see them on a regular basis going to these international worm conferences. There was another international conference in Avignon, France. This past summer I went to Ireland. I went to the Philippines in1983.
At that time there was considerable interest in worms. But I have no idea what’s happening there today. In the U.S. I’ve been out to the Pacific Northwest and done some work in New York. But travel is very demanding. What I’m viewing more as my role in what I need to be doing is that I need to limit my travel to 2 or 3 times out in the course of a year and produce these materials so that other people can make use of them. CC: You must have several “irons in the fire.” Can you tell us about any upcoming projects? MA: The biggest one right now is doing a revision of Worms Eat My Garbage. I’m wanting to update it and so I’m including information about plastic worms bins. I’ll have more on different worm species, so there are some things I definitely need to address in this revised edition. Hopefully it will be available this spring. It won’t be a greatly expanded version, but there are some areas that have grown. At the time that I was starting there was not such thing as a plastic worm bin. So I’ll be addressing that as well as some other things. CC: Your understanding of the role of earthworms in waste management goes back some 25 years. Clearly, much as happened over this time period. How do you assess the current state-of-affairs in this area? Do you foresee large-scale vermi-conversion sites processing organic waste to be a growth industry or could it just be a temporary phenomenon? MA: No, I don’t see it as temporary. There are large-scale sites that are going and they’re processing large amounts of material. They’re producing an end product which has value, and it seems to have enough value that it’s paying for some of the infrastructure to get there. With the number of states that are mandating that organic waste be kept out of landfills,
In Their Own Words
vermicomposting is going to be a part of the composting mix. I think in most cases the majority of the materials will be processed by larger-scale composting projects. But I think that vermicomposting has its place and I think it’s going to have a bigger and bigger place than it is now. There are some fine people working out there. They are making real contributions. CC: You have an abiding interest in soil fertility due to the association of vermicompost and the activity of earthworker-type worms with horticulture. What data, wither anecdotal or scientific, do you have in support of organic practices in agriculture/horticulture versus the prevailing dependence upon synthetic fertilizers? MA: When I talk to people about worms, it’s important for me to try to get across that there are earthworkers and there are composters—that there is more than one type of worm. You’ve got to use the right kind of worm to perform certain functions. For years I’ve tried to discourage people from buying a pound of worms to put into their garden. The other side of the coin is, although we’re sympathetic with their wanting to save money on buying worms—“Can’t I just go out and dig ‘em?”—the worms they dig from the garden are not the kind they can use in a worm bin. I’ve become more knowledgeable out worms and soil fertility through my association with John Buckerfield in Australia who has been working with CSIRO on earthworms and soil fertility. I’m very interested in [Uday] Bhawalkar’s work. His idea of taking organic waste and putting it directly on the soil. His worms, Pheretima elongata, work as bio-managers. I want to find out more about that, about the role of worms working in the root zone, encouraging the growth of bacteria that are more favorable for that plant to grow. The influence of rock dust, containing many, many trace elements, which may have
been removed through our contemporary agricultural practices. These are very exciting concepts, and I’d like to see more work done that can be scientifically validated along these lines. I’m very much interested in this movement call “Remineralize the Earth,” using rock dust. CC: There has been some concern expressed by those inside our industry as well as outside, that there might be a handful of folks engaging in questionable, if not dishonest business practices in selling worms and making misrepresentations. Please comment on your perception of this. Is it a significant enough problem that must be remedied soon? MA: One problem starts with the idea that the average number of worms hatching out of a cocoon could be two to twenty. I’ve read enough scientific papers now that I don’t believe there’s ever been a cocoon that’s had 20 worms hatch out of it. Normally, the average seems to be 2.7 to 3. If one assumes you have 10 worms hatch out of a cocoon, and builds projections based on that, it leads to an erroneous conclusion because the initial assumption is wrong. And so I have a quarrel with that. But what nobody every mentions is that if you are going to have say, 128 beds that are 3’x8’, nobody spells out that you also have to have a back that can handle the material for sorting through the processing through that material. That is just glossed over. It’s misleading just by the very serious omissions. I believe greed must be there. So, what-----‘s promotions stuff does is to key into people who are also greedy. I’m glad there are reputable people out there. There’s another thing I don’t like, this tendency to come up with your own trademarked name for a worm. To me, that just grates against me. How can we know what we’re talking about if we’re not talking about the same thing? I also don’t give the hybrid any degree of credibility in the worm business. The species are genetically isolated. Hybrid is a
In Their Own Words
tern in popular literature, but there certainly aren’t any that exist as far as I’m concerned. When people think that they can’t get a certain kind of worm from someone else, it can lead to an inflated price. CC: What do you hope to see happen by the end of this century and into the next millennium? MA: More worms processing more garbage, both at an individual level and at a larger scale. We also need definition of a scale. What is large, scale, mid-scale, small scale and micro scale in vermicomposting? I suggested to Dr. Clive Edwards for the forthcoming project on worms to be published by BioCycle that someone work on defining these terms.
Sonoma Valley Worm Farm
Jack Chambers, a commercial airline pilot, received national attention with the publication of the article, "The Business of Vermicomposting," in the September 1996 issue of BioCycle, The Journal of Composting and Recycling. In 1992 he purchased a five-
acre farm from Earl Schmidt who had taken over a chicken farm and began using chicken manure to grow worms. Chambers bought the property and expanded the operation by adding more windrows, obtaining dairy manure, hiring an employee, installing an irrigation system, and purchasing equipment such as a tractor and worm harvester. Both worms and vermicompost are sold at retail and wholesale prices. Vermicompost is sold at $40 per cubic yard (retail) and $30 wholesale. A five-gallon bucket of screened material is sold for $5.00. Worms are most commonly sold in 1, 2, 5 and 10 pound increments, but larger amounts have been sold to bait dealers. Chambers has experimented with feedstocks such as alfalfa and has discovered variations in worm activity according to the amount of moisture applied to the worm beds. A few months before this interview, robins had been removing earthworms from some of the windrows that left Chambers searching for a solution to remedy the theft problem. To facilitate harvesting, Chambers covers a three-foot section on one end of a windrow with sheet metal (thereby withholding food and water) which encourages worms to move laterally in search of feedstock. The cover is
In Their Own Words
removed several days later to harvest the vermicompost. This interview was published in the April 1997 issue of Casting Call newsletter. Casting Call: When you purchased the property on which you now have your vermiculture operation, it had been converted from a poultry operation to a worm-growing facility. What attracted you to this site and to vermiculture? Jack Chambers: There was a combination of factors which led us here. The principal reason was to grow worms but we wanted some land and my wife is an artist so there is a place here she uses as a studio. Just coming out here and learning from Earl was a big incentive. I had read an article in the January 1992 issue of Organic Gardening in which Mary Appelhof had done an article on a worm bin. That really intrigued me. Then in the summer of '92 I came out here and bought some worms and put them in the compost pile at my other house. I began to like what I was seeing, both in the compost pile and with what Earl was doing here. CC: Earl served as a kind of "mentor" for you initially. How have you retained or modified his instruction? Who else has been instrumental in your development? JC: We still do things pretty much the way he had done it. We put in a little more sophisticated drip irrigation system that is on a timer and watered the beds a little more evenly. We still harvest the beds the way he used to and we're on a six-week rotation like he used. Whenever I get an idea I'll run it by him because he's been involved his entire life with worms and he's a wonderful observer. He always has good input on what we can do. As far as others who have been influential, I went back to the ISEE 5 [International Symposium on Earthworm Ecology] the World Worm
Conference in Ohio in 1994. I met Clive Edwards and bought some of his material. And then I talked to Mary Appelhof and began reading as much as I could. But just being here and doing it--you can see what works and what doesn't work. It's kind of a combination of actual experience, talking to people (with Earl especially), and then reading about what other people are doing. CC: You've had some success with municipal sales through distribution of worm bins and coupons or certificates that could be redeemed to purchase worms from you. What effect has that had on your business? JC: It's had a really good effect. We don't sell that much in the way of worm bins. We have a nice recycled wood bin that we get from the Master Gardeners. But the certificate program has been probably one of the biggest successes we've come up with. My wife actually came up with the idea. We make a certificate available to an organization like S.L.U.G. (the San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners). The City of San Jose was one we did last year and sold about 2,000 pounds of worms--almost half of the amount of worms we sold for the entire year. Most of it was one and two-pound orders, but the city itself bought about 400 pounds which they had us distribute. After these worms were given out, people could get a coupon with a worm bin. When the people were ready to order worms, they would send us the coupon--which gave them 10% off--and their check, and we'd ship them their worms. The nice thing for the city was that they didn't have to be involved in the worm distribution. It was a win-win situation all around--the city was happy, the consumers got a discount, and it was a good program for us. The distributor of the worm bins continues to refer people to us and city residents who bought worms have told their friends. It's still a little early for repeat business. Sometimes people want to get
In Their Own Words
their worm bins going a little faster and will buy another pound, but it's still early in the cycle. CC: Your region and climate are well known for the prolific viticulture industry in Sonoma and Napa counties. And you have arranged your worm beds so that some are covered while other windrows are fully exposed. How do the two systems differ?
JC: The big difference is that the covered beds do better in the winter and summer months. In the spring and the fall, like right now for example, before it gets too hot, we're doing more with the
outside beds. As far as feeding goes, we feed the exposed beds heavily with alfalfa in the winter. This helps shed the water because it forms a kind of crust, and it's also a good nitrogen source for the worms (but the alfalfa makes harvesting more difficult later on; it clogs the worm harvester.) But the alfalfa is almost all gone now. Now we're applying manure. As for the covered beds, we stay pretty much just with manure. This was the first year we were able to stay in business year-round. We had a voucher program with the schools of Alameda County which pretty much kept us going in January and February. Usually there's a pretty distinct bell-curve over the year. This winter was unusual (because it was busy). The phone starts ringing in late March and fairly steadily in April. Things really go until about the Fourth of July when there's a little dip, then they start soaring
up again to the top of the bell-curve until about October, and that's when it starts to cool down. That's seems to fit along with the weather pattern here. People get interested in their gardens in March and April and then putting things to bed around Thanksgiving. CC: Your advertising has been principally through the yellow pages. Few, if any, competitors seem to be using this medium, at least in your area. How has it worked for you and what plans do you have for advertising/marketing? JC: That's pretty much all we have done. It's worked well for us. We have an 800 number that's in the yellow pages all throughout the Bay Area. I know in some counties we are the only listing under worms--right after "word processing" where there's hundreds of listings. A number of people have told me that the reason they called is because we have an 800 number. The other thing we have done to expand our marketing is to associate ourselves with the local Master Gardeners and Master Composters. They'll help us by distributing coupons through their classes. It gives them a source they can send people to that they feel good about. People have called from all over (like Colorado and southern California) because they haven't been able to find where to get worms. CC: In constructing your worm beds, you begin by laying down a layer of straw or hay, then applying cow manure as a feedstock (to a total of about 12-18" in height). The drip irrigation system is mounted over the rows supported by posts. Are you content with this system? How does this affect harvesting? Are there any modifications planned? JC: We're pretty content with the way we do things. We recycle everything. After harvesting, the smaller worms go back out to the new beds as well as the larger material from
In Their Own Words
the screened vermicompost. The drip irrigation system works well and we're going to install a sprinkler system as well so the entire bed gets watered. We think we'll increase our worm population this way. So we'll go to a hybrid system, using both drip irrigation and sprinkler irrigation. CC: You've used shredded paper on top of the worm beds to increase cocoon production, particularly in spring. How did this idea come about and what have you seen as a result? JC: In one of the articles found in Clive Edwards' Earthworms in Waste and Environmental Management, there was something about paper and manure. Earl told me that he used to shred up newspaper and then put manure on that. A few years ago we bought 2,000 lbs. of shredded paper from a recycling facility and then laid it on the beds. Nobody seems to know why, but Earl's supposition is that the paper provides a way for the worms to slip the cocoons off, providing an edge or something hard or crusty. I used to find that there were just tons of cocoons along the edge of some redwood bins I had made, because the wood fibers helped them slip off their cocoons. Unfortunately, I found that in the recycled shredded paper we bought, there was also some shredded microfilm from the police department. So mixed in with the paper were all these bits of plastic film which was a big nuisance. We've gone to alfalfa now to give us similar results and provide extra nitrogen as well. The only down side is that it costs us more. CC: Tell us about the production of worms versus vermicompost. Last year you sold about 4,000 pounds of worms. About two years ago you sold about 200 cubic yards of vermicompost, but only 75 yards the following year. Do these fluctuations depend upon the market demand, or is it a matter of your own emphasis.
JC: Well, the market demand is there. With the coupon program we were just swamped. With my other job, I'm limited at times. You want to put out the flames where the fire is, and last year the worms were that fire, so that's what we concentrated upon. There wasn't an easy way to sell the castings. It wasn't convenient. This year we've made an arrangement with someone who brings us a 15-20 yard container that we fill up every week. We're selling this in bulk every week, perhaps 70-80 yards a month. We may sell 600 cubic yards of vermicompost this year.
CC: One large composting facility in a nearby county has contacted you about purchasing your vermicompost. And another
composting operation in your own county is looking into doing a
joint venture with your worms and their feedstock. These seem like two exciting developments. Do you see this kind of thing happening with greater frequency in the future as commercial composting facilities see value in vermicomposting as well? JC: I think the future is really very good. One of the things that I saw when I went to a composting workshop in '93 is that the composting business can be a real "cut-throat" business. But I see vermicomposting as a kind of "gourmet" end of the market--a little higher priced but a better material. The people who get into it know that they can get a better price for it than
In Their Own Words
for compost. There's increasing interest in organic gardening too. We're a small to medium-size worm farm. There's room for that and other kinds of operations. I'd like to see a worm farm in every town. You could be a neighborhood worm grower all the way to an international exporter. CC: You serve as an example of an individual who may have a chosen career, yet may opt for a wholly different pursuit later in life (although you are still an airline pilot). What tips or suggestions could you give to the person who is looking into commercial vermiculture, yet has some anxiety about how to proceed? JC: If you could go work for somebody or [find] a mentoring program or an intern program, or if you can't do that, just think about starting a small worm farm in your back yard and see if you like it. You could make a raised bed. Start out that way and see if that's fun. Then try a couple. I guess my major recommendation would be to start out small and see if you like it. When you think of selling worms for $10 or $12 per pound, that's more than steak and I think people mistakenly get the idea that they're going to be rich. There's a lot reflected in the price--it's not inflated. It reflects the cost of what goes into it, from the trucks to go get the manure, to a tractor to harvest, to lay the manure down, to harvest the worms, to package them up--it's an amazing process that requires a lot of steps. I would discourage people from getting into it when they think they're going to get rich quickly. People should take a longer term view. One of the best things about this business is the people. There's just a lot of really good people who are trying to do the right thing. They're enjoying it and genuinely enjoyable to be around.
Pacific Southwest Farms, Ontario, CA
Barry Meijer operates Pacific Southwest Farms (PSF), a 54-acre vermicomposting facility in Ontario, (San Bernardino County) California. Beginning in 1994 with earthworms transported from the Worm Concern in Simi Valley, California, Meijer has steadily built his site into what may be the largest operation of its kind. Three Orange County Municipal Recovery Facilities (MRFs), send the biodegradable fraction of collected waste ("green material" as defined by California's compost regulations) to PSF which charges a tip fee. Worm-stocked
windrows measuring eight feet in width by 100 feet in length are fed at the rate of four tons of material per row per week. Situated east of Los Angeles in an arid climate, PSF's water usage amounts to 120,000 gallons per day. Sources for water include
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residential sprinkler runoff and barn water from local dairies. More than 100 tons of worms can be found in the 360 windrows. Finished vermicompost is currently being marketed to agricultural users. Due to the mixed quality of feedstocks which contain a significant portion of inert material (glass, metal, rocks, plastic, etc.), the final product must be screened to 1/8" to remove these residuals
Meijer has been a consistent proponent of maintaining the agricultural exemption for vermiculture under California's Food and Agriculture Act. Over the past several months he has been involved in defending his operation against county suits intending to close down PSF. On November 26, 1996, the San Bernardino County Local Enforcement Agency (LEA) issued a Notice and Order to PSF requiring PSF to obtain a solid waste facilities permit as a transfer/processing station. It also stated that "any on-site processing of any green material prior to vermiculture bed application after March 30, 1997, is strictly forbidden and considered in violation of this order." This effectively shut down PSF. The operation, it was told, could not "process" any of its incoming feedstock. Processing would include either blending with manure or pre-composting the incoming feedstock. PSF appealed the Notice and Order. On February 26, 1997 the San Bernardino County Independent Hearing Panel issued a decision regarding the Notice and Order which specified that the worm bed activity was excluded from regulation by the CIWMB's compost regulations and that the handling of the 1-1/4" material did not require PSF to obtain a solid waste facilities permit. At the public hearing, San Bernardino County stipulated that the Hearing Panel decision was not intended to, and did not, restrict PSF's processing of the 1-1/4" material on-site, or similar material that might be brought to the site in the future. PSF, it said, may continue to process this material, including screening and composting, without obtaining a transfer/processing solid waste facilities permit.
San Bernardino County, attempting to close down PSF because of its location in a dairy zone, ruled that PSF may be operated only by virtue of a conditional use permit and that it does not possess such a permit. Pacific Southwest Farms filed an appeal of this ruling. On April 28, 1997, in the Court of Appeal, State of California, Fourth Appellate District, the following decision was issued: "The court has determined that petitioner [Pacific Southwest Farms] has shown a viable chance of prevailing on appeal and that the balance of hardships lies in his favor. Under Food & Agriculture Code Section 23.7, vermiculture is an "agricultural use." Very arguably it also qualifies as an agricultural use under the County's own ordinances, as petitioner's establishment [PSF] is operated for the purpose of producing an "animal product." As such, the vermiculture operation would not need a conditional use permit but could legally operate in the Agricultural Preserve. In this context, we have noted with interest that County appears to concede that the Preserve is not formally limited to dairies, and its argument that the Preserve is de facto limited to dairies and therefore should be legally so limited as well is not certain to prevail. Accordingly, the petition is granted. Pending resolution of the appeal or further order of this court, respondent [San Bernardino County] shall not attempt to shut down the vermiculture facility...." This interview was published in the June 1997 issue of Casting Call.
Casting Call: You're obviously very pleased with the decisions rendered in your favor by the Appellate Court and CIWMB. Before we discuss some of these recent rulings, let's talk a little about PSF's operation first. Are you the only vermicomposting facility using green material from a MRF as a feedstock? Barry Meijer: Some of our material comes from what's called a "dirty MRF." Originally, the MRF screened all the commingled material it received and sent us all the fines under four inches.
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This material is approximately 95% organic. Our problem was, it contained a certain amount of plastic which began to blow around once we started processing the material. We went back to our waste haulers and asked them to please reduce the size of the material. We found that 1-1/4" was the perfect size. It didn't contain much plastic at all. The other product we receive is ground paper which has come into contact with food material or other green waste. What we feed our worms is really "green material" as it has been defined by the CIWMB: "'Green Material' means any plant material that is either separated at the point of generation, or separated at a centralized facility [a MRF] that employs methods to minimize contamination. Green material includes, but is not limited to, manure, untreated wood wastes, paper products, and natural fiber products. Green material does not include treated wood waste, mixed demolition or mixed construction debris." I am definitely the only person using this product to feed worms. There is an agricultural concern in Temecula that is currently plowing this material into the ground and using it as a soil amendment, but we are the only vermiculture site using it as feedstock.
CC: The size of your operation has grown tremendously over the past three years. Can you tell us about the stages of its growth--initial worm inventory, TPD [tons per day] of incoming material, initial number of windrows, staff growth, increase of water usage, etc? Do you have plans for expansion; obtaining other sites?
BM: Initially, from Simi Valley we brought about eleven tons of worms. The problem we had at first, when we signed contracts with waste haulers, was that they were giving us more material than we could consume. Consequently we went through a "catch-up" phase where we were trying to breed worms as fast as we could. We ended up with kind of a stockpile. Last July that turned around. We really had achieved the ability to handle
more than we were taking in. It was extremely hard to deal with. You can't really go and get a contract and say, "I'm only going to take a portion of the material you're sending me." So initially we obtained contracts and couldn't really use all that we had. But that really turned around last year. And it was really unfortunate that once we had turned things around, that the problems with the county developed. So initially we were taking in about 75 tons per day (now we're up to 100 tpd). If we were now where we would like to be, we would be receiving about 300 tons per day. We started with 11 rows of worms with the staff from my landscape company spending a couple days a week out here. Really, this facility, to handle 300 tpd., requires approximately 23 employees. Interestingly enough, we cannot use all the water that is running down the street. It's all free water. Our biggest expense is pumping it. Our plans for expansion include a 120-acre site in Bakersfield and two other 50-acre sites.
CC: Other than the problems you've had to face with the LEA, what kinds of operational challenges have you had to face, with regard to incoming feedstocks and marketability of a product with inerts?
BM: One of the major problems we initially had with our incoming feedstocks was the problem with plastic bags. During the afternoon winds, these would just blow all over the place. Any kind of film plastic in the feedstocks sent from the MRF created a problem. The MRF has recently installed a vacuum system across the [conveyor] belts that removes the plastic a lot better. Lower tip fees from Orange County landfills also pose a problem. We'd like to take material from San Bernardino County, but none of the cities around us has a clean-waste program. There is an enormous amount of manure here. The Chino Valley basin has approximately 300,000 tons of manure a year that they need to dispose of. The problem is, there is no tipping fee available. As far as dealing with the inerts in our
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material, initially we were going to install several air knives to clean the material and that process actually works reasonably well. Last July and August we were going on trips looking at people separating peanuts from the shells, and it was absolutely fascinating to see how this was done. We felt that a system like that would work extremely well for us. But unfortunately we got into this situation with the county and it has put a lot of those innovative programs on hold. In the interim here, we are screening down to 1/8 inch. Our market will continue to be the bulk market, but the retail market is there.
CC: How has the media treated PSF in its coverage of what you're trying to do and the litigation prompted by the San Bernardino LEA?
BM: We haven't really had that much media coverage. We've had some coverage of the hearing, but none of the media has covered the court ruling or anything like that. We've really not pursued the media. I would really like to have peace with the county and it has not been my intent to inflame the situation. The waste problem in California is really limited to people that are involved in the industry, in my opinion. The population is, as yet, not up-in-arms about us putting our waste in a landfill. I think [the interest] is not this generation, but the children who are much more aware of recycling than their parents.
CC: On one visit to PSF, I saw a truckload of spent tea leaves being brought in from a company which had used the material to brew iced tea. Other than material delivered from the MRFs, what kinds of feedstocks have you handled?
BM: We get tea, a couple times a week, and the worms really do enjoy it. Unfortunately, we just don't get enough tea. We mix in manure from the local dairies. The worms, just like any animal, really need a mixed diet. I think where we are really lacking is in
knowledge of what is the optimum diet for worms. I don't think there has been enough study of that. Obviously worms on cow manure do well, worms on green waste do well, but somehow what we have to be able to do is blend it. My personal worm bin, which is a Can-O-Worms bin, is one that I just feed food waste in, and I find the worms do extremely well on that. Especially if you take the food waste and run it through your blender before you put it in there.
CC: What kinds of things do you monitor in your worm beds? Moisture? Salinity? C:N ratio? pH levels? Particle size? Worm count? What height do the windrows achieve before they are altered (for harvesting, splitting)?
BM: What we do every month is take samples from any castings that will leave the door, and what we do in that casting test is test for heavy materials and things of that sort. We check for Salmonella and for coliform. We do the testing as if it's regular compost. In the worm beds what we do is blend the material to a nice texture that we like the look of, and then we feed that to the worms. As far as salinity is concerned, we don't actually check for that. The worm beds really tell us if they're happy or unhappy. I had an instance where I had received some particle-board material from a speaker factory. I put it on the worm beds, it was all very, very fine. And I thought, "Gee, the nitrogen level has got to be high because of the glue from formaldehyde, you've got to be able to feed this to the worms." I put it on the worm beds and five minutes later the worms were crawling out of their beds at noon! I immediately raked off the material and picked up worms, watered them down, got them settled. But it really scared the heck out of me. So those are the kinds of things you have to watch in our feedstocks. When we are only going to split beds we do so when they're full of worms; that's not a height determination But in the case of where we're actually harvesting the castings, we allow them to get about 3 feet high. The problem
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with doing that is that we lose nitrogen content because we're watering all the time. Our material is actually testing with about 1/2% nitrogen. I don't know if that's good or bad. I don't believe that it's the nitrogen content that makes the worm castings as good as they are. It is in fact, the bacteria content. NPK measurements are the traditional ways of measuring fertilizer.
CC: What kinds of things have been triggering the attention of CIWMB and LEAs with regard to vermicomposting activities in California? Are there some facilities trying to avoid the permitting requirements for handling solid waste by using the agricultural exclusion for vermiculture as a smokescreen? Are there some in the composting industry who might be trying to "blow the whistle" on vermicomposting in order to subject it to the same regulations faced by compost facilities?
BM: I'm including my own facility with this. This facility has approximately 125,000 tons of material on site. That is an enormous amount of material. The mass balance for this facility, meaning the point at which the material equals the material going in and out, and everything sort of works, is realistically at about 110,000 tons. The real heartburn that we've been causing the CIWMB and the LEAs has been the storage of material. With the storage of material, comes fires and vectors and all kinds of other problems that they have serious concerns about. If one looks at our facility, we have at any given time approximately 6 months of feedstock on site. We never turn the compost before we feed it to the worm beds. We just let it sit and become anaerobic. Just the fact that it's killed all the weed seeds is good enough for me. That is really all I'm trying to accomplish. Also the bacterial count is relatively high, so that when it goes on the beds the worms go through it extremely rapidly. Now what has happened is, there are facilities with very few worms beds that have enormous piles of material, and I think that causes a real concern. But I also want to say that I have a certain amount of
empathy for people in the business, because they have to initially get started and, you know, what comes first, the chicken or the egg? I think the big concern of the composting facilities [wanting vermicomposting to be similarly regulated] is that they have spent a lot of money on getting solid waste permits. In Northern California, more than in Southern California, urban areas are able to take most of their green waste to farmers and have them use it as mulch without taking it to a permitted solid waste facility for composting. There's competition for feedstocks at a price. That's really what this is about. In my opinion the vermiculture facility has to receive a tipping fee that is at least as high as a regular composting facility, or you won't be able to make money at the facility. Things will change when more and more castings are used. In 1995, our sale of castings amounted to about 45% of our total income.
CC: The legal battles you've been waging have been very costly ($212,000). You hope to recover most of this by virtue of prevailing in the recent decisions. Now that you have paved the way for vermicomposting to continue in California with minimal hindrance, what do you see as the future of vermicomposting in the state? How do you assess the viability of vermicomposting in other areas of the country that may not enjoy southern California's enviable climate?
BM: It needs to be understood that vermiculture cannot be the end-all and the be-all to recycling. It's a small part of recycling. The state of California is the major producer of just about every agricultural product in the country. We cannot continue to grow crops without some return of organic material to the soil. I feel that compost as well as castings can meet this demand. As farmers become more aware of the importance of the livelihood of the soil itself, I think that there will be a greater demand for organic products. That, coupled with the mandated [50%] diversion, means there is a great opportunity for vermiculture on
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an economic scale in California. I definitely think that in the arid, or southern states, you are going to have some vermiculture. The problem, of course, in the northern states is that you have to be indoors and you have basically a downtime in the winter.
CC: Perhaps the most frequent question asked by those who are looking at the economic aspects of vermiculture is, Where are the markets? Since you really don't sell worms, your principal end-product is worm castings. What is the marketplace like today and where is it headed?
BM: We've been fortunate in that trucks coming from central California to deliver feed to the dairies here have been able to take worm castings back to the agriculture area they started from. We've been selling a great deal of our product to organic farmers who have been getting tremendous results. I believe the market for worm castings will get stronger in the days to come.
CC: What does the vermiculture industry need most at this time in order to assure its continued success?
BM: I think a Best Management Practices Manual for vermiculture needs to be produced in conjunction with the CIWMB. As for a stronger industry voice, we don't have a strong industry association now because there aren't enough vermicomposting sites. Perhaps we could be a sub-organization under the CRRA [California Resource Recovery Association]. We're [PSF] a part of the CCQC [California Compost Quality Council]. We've talked about the few who are out there selling worms and making exaggerated claims that are a blight to this industry, but unfortunately, you're going to find them in any industry.
Yelm Earthworm and Castings Farm
Jim Jensen, a consultant with Seattle based Sound Resource Management, has recently added a new duty to his job description: Worm Wrangler for the Yelm Earthworm & Castings Farm in Yelm, WA. Nestled in Smith prairie southwest of Mt. Rainer, the farm
is located approximately 20 miles east of Olympia, WA. and qualifies as one of the largest vermiculture operations on the West Coast.
Jim is no stranger to vermicomposting. With Sound Resource Management Group, Jim provided planning, development and implementation for the Food Lifeline Waste Reduction Demonstration Project sponsored by the King County Solid Waste Division from the project proposal date of October, 1991 to the Final Report issued in January, 1994. During the 18 months of actual vermicomposting, from start-up of the bins through the end of the demonstration project, the total amount of waste diverted was estimated to be 27.5 tons of food scraps and 20.2 tons of bedding, mostly derived from on-site leaves and brush. Based on data collected during the steady-state period, the worm system demonstrated that as much as 60 pounds of food waste, plus a minimum of 30 pounds of yard waste or paper waste, can be composted in a pallet-box worm bin each week. Food Lifeline is an organization that distributes food to many of the food banks and meal programs in King County and Western Washington. It receives, evaluates, and recovers foodstuffs from
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food processing companies, warehouses, and supermarkets. During the time Jensen and SRM were involved with the vermicomposting project, Food Lifeline kept track of and distributed approximately 825,000 pounds of food to people in need each month. While the highest quality food is distributed to the public through its many programs, food that is not suitable for human consumption must be disposed. During 1991, the agency's dumpsters contributed as much as 42,000 pounds of unsalvageable food (spoiled produce and canned and packaged food) to the nonresidential waste stream of King County each month. Some of these residuals were sent to pig farms. Vermicomposting offered an alternative to disposing unwanted food at the landfill. In addition, vermicompost generated from the worm bins was used in a nearby community garden that grew food for Food Lifeline's programs.
The Yelm Earthworm & Casting Farm was, at one time, site of a mushroom farm. About six years ago it was converted to a worm farm and came under the ownership of Resource Conversion Corporation (RCC) of San Diego, CA. RCC's Canyon Recycling composting and vermicomposting site brought worms from the Fallbrook Sanitary District where wastewater sludge was fed to worms (see "Vermicomposting in a Rural Community," The BioCycle Guide to the Art & Science of Composting (1991), 143-145). RCC also brought in worms from its Yelm farm in Washington. While worms raised in Yelm were fed cow manure, the San Diego site used manure from zoos and Del Mar racetrack as well as composted yard trimmings. Under the "VermiGro" label, vermicompost was blended with composted yard trimmings and sold in bags and in bulk. Now the Yelm Earthworm & Casting Farm has come under the ownership of SRM and the guidance of Jensen. As its name proclaims, both worms and castings are the products sold. This product "Earthworm All Purpose Potting Soil; Natural Castings and Bedding," contains the following description: "This all-
purpose soil enhancer provides the look and feel of peat, plus the added benefits of earthworm castings--the rich, all-natural source of organic matter, nutrient- and moisture-holding capacity, slow release nutrients and trace minerals. A little goes a long way!"
The Yelm operation uses two systems to convert cow manure to vermicompost. One system utilizes 4'x6' wooden trays formerly used for mushroom production. These trays have legs at the four corners and can be stacked on top of each other. They are fairly shallow having 6" sides. Periodically, perhaps every two months, half the contents of the trays (worms, castings and manure) are removed and used to start a new tray or bin. Up to 200 of these trays can be placed in a room, maximizing the usefulness of the indoor operation by stacking the trays four high. The second system in use is the windrow design. These are found both indoors and outdoors at the facility. Typically, rows are fed until about 30 cubic yards of material is ready to be harvested. Jim estimates each row contains about 1500 lbs. of worms (50 lbs. of worms to the cubic yard). Overall, he figures his operation currently has about 38,000 lbs. of worms. This interview appeared in the August 1997 issue of Casting Call.
Casting Call: Even though you've had prior experience with vermicomposting through your work with the Food Lifeline project and for years you have been associated with many others in the vermiculture industry, there must have been a tremendous shift in your role as "coat-and-tie" consultant to the additional role of managing the Yelm Farm. What have your new duties taught you?
Jim Jensen: You know that saying, "Where the rubber meets the road?" That's what this feels like. Where the rubber meets the road--it's really hot and it can be really stressful, but it can be really exhilarating. The work as a suit-and-tie consultant is a lot of theorizing and reporting what other people do. A lot of it is
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projecting out what you think should happen. And now this is a real life situation where the projections sometimes match, sometimes don't, sometimes they exceed your expectations. You always hope it's more of the latter. But it's definitely very, very exciting--trying to do what you've been thinking about or what you've been suggesting for years.
CC: You have put together a two-page Literature Search on Earthworm Castings, drawing together a series of quotes from leading researchers around the world. Additionally, through sales of your product, you've undoubtedly heard reports about its performance. What do you tell folks about the value of worm castings?
JJ: I try to encourage people who are looking at castings to think about it as an additive to other organic products that they're using. That's why we say "a little goes a long way" on our bag of product. I'd love to have people do their whole landscape with castings, but it's really not cost-effective to use them that way. If what you're looking for is organic matter, there are a lot of other cheaper sources. But castings are valued for their health-giving properties. And using them in combination with other products gives you more than just the sum of those two. The combination of those provides you with much greater value than either one by itself. CC: Taking over a worm farm that has been in operation for six years must have meant that you acquired a turn-key operation. What modifications have you made or do you plan to make in the future?
JJ: I don't know that I'd exactly call it "turn-key." Certainly there was some equipment there and a worm population we started with. What we're doing is moving deliberately. We're trying to hold on to what works really well. The first few months
were involved with cleaning up and getting a sense of the operation. The people who were there before are still there. I have a lot of respect for what they know and what they do. We'll be looking at some equipment possibilities and how we'll be positioned in the market. Certainly worms are big part of this--this is really a traditional vermiculture operation, a worm farm,
but we'll be trying to do something with castings along the way too, trying to get connected to a network of businesses that are involved in soil improvement and restoration--that's really where the focus of this is, in
soil improvement. We'll probably look at some sort of bagging operation and using the facility to be a source for bagging for other operations as well. We're looking into a strategic alliance with a company that's involved in organic gardening and farm supplies. We might include working with other worm growers as well.
CC: You have surveyed some of the worm industry's producers, taking note of the prices being asked for worms and castings. How do you feel your price position stands? What are the factors that account for differences?
JJ: From what I've been able to gather, we're one of the biggest farms in the western U.S. There are not a lot that operate at this scale. I know that in terms of providing worms for the home or for bigger vermicultural projects, I'm certain that we're very competitive and maybe even setting even the low end of the price, relative to what others are doing. I think with castings, we're very competitive. We find a lot of interest from the locals. We're gearing up for next spring and the next soil push that
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comes around. We're looking forward to that. The biggest challenge we face is distance. The Puget Sound region offers a lot of opportunity. But we're about 30 minutes from the main interstate corridor. That's a pretty good distance. Price is one thing, but getting it to one place from another can add 20-30% of a person's cost. But I think people will pay for quality.
CC: Dr. Clive Edwards' forthcoming Manual on Vermicomposting will contain a chapter on the Commercial Potential and Economics of Vermicomposting that he has asked you to write. Have your experiences at the Yelm Farm influenced your conclusions?
JJ: Having a few months of hands-on experience has opened my eyes to a lot of what's out there and a lot of opportunities. There's the traditional worm farm, which is what this is--it's a vermicultural operation. There are a lot of people working in resource recovery doing vermicomposting, and I don't really see us doing that on a large scale. There are some compost operations doing large-scale organics recovery. I think we'll do a little bit of that on a small scale to provide a service for local people. And then there's a lot of interest in home vermicomposting--providing worms and supplies and books--I don't see us being involved in that so much. I think more than anything I've become more aware of the seasonality of this business. The worms go through their seasonal times. I think there's a lot of opportunity for technological development. But I think that's got to come from where's the value going to be. The market for castings most likely is where the technological development is going to happen.
CC: You've been experimenting with shipping small quantities of worms in breathable plastic bags. What have you discovered? What other ways do you ship worms?
JJ: Wax-coated boxes are still a great idea and are probably the best practice for shipping. But I've been thinking about all the packaging that's used: What's the most efficient, most effective, most cost-effective but the least impacting kind of package to use? I've been thinking of some other ways to make the packaging lighter weight and more recyclable. We've had some good success with the bags but wax boxes are still great and we'll continue to use those. I want to do lots of bulk sales--that's really what we're set up to do. We've got something in the works there. But I'm also looking at the packaging for the soil products too. I just hate the idea of all these plastic bags. We're still researching what other alternatives there might be that might work effectively. Imagine people buying 20 or 30 bags of soil amendments and having all this plastic around at the end—it seems so self-defeating.
CC: Tell us about the dairy manure used for feedstock. How is it prepared, delivered and applied? What are the results? JJ: We're paying for delivery of dairy manure that has been separated after sitting in a lagoon. The solids are removed from the bottom and then the manure goes through a heating process to dry it. We think this may have some value in reducing pathogens. It has very consistent properties. It's better than the wet manure that was brought in before.
CC: Your operation has approximately 33,000 square feet (almost 3/4 acre) under cover. Currently, it looks like about 95% or more of the material being worked by worms is under cover with just a couple of outdoor windrows. Yet you still have a lot of acreage which is not in use. Do you have plans for this area?
JJ: We hope to grow! There's nearly 10 acres total here. We are interested in receiving leaf material this fall, and maybe wood chips. I think the leaves could make a nice addition to the dairy
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manure. I'd like to get our castings looking a little darker, or maybe offer two kinds of castings. I see potential for moving windrows outdoors with floating row covers over them. I see potential for using the indoor space for product development, packaging and warehousing. And we're interested in looking at technology development too. You know I've worked with Dan [Holcombe] over the years on his system. There's the potential of adding something like that into the building or trying some of the other technologies that have been developed. Maybe we could be a testing ground for things like that—a place where people can come and see different technologies in operation.
CC: What kinds of things would you like to see happen in order for the vermiculture industry in general, and your business in particular, to achieve greater growth? JJ: I think it would be helpful if more of the opinion-makers had more knowledge about the capabilities of vermicomposting. It's interesting that people who are depended on for information about nutrient and soil management don't know a lot about composting and they know very little about vermicomposting. I think there's a lot that could be learned and could be shared about the value of castings. In the same way that compost has received a lot of research dollars, I think worm castings need that same kind of emphasis. We suspect and our customers believe that there are growth enhancing properties there that aren't necessarily found in compost--that the worm itself adds something to this that is vital--that's why they're on the earth--they add value to soil. We should know more about what that value is and the economic value of it. We also need to show people that we're about serious business, the serious business of improving soil. I think research dollars would help--R&D in sustainable agriculture.
CC: Where do you see vermiculture headed in the coming years? What obstacles lie ahead?
JJ: What I see is a lot more of the same. I still think there are a lot of possibilities for the small and medium scale. There are some big resource recovery operations in California. I think you're going to see a good size scale of one of these new technologies, something like the continuous flow reactor or some other beast, that's engineered for doing worms and I think you'll see that on a big scale. I think it'll come from the private sector or a maybe a public-private partnership, but I don't think the municipalities will do it on their own. There's some natural advantages working with worms--their ability to control odors. Obstacles are financial. A continuing obstacle is the lack of information in the market about the added value of worm castings. We're trying to set up field trials where we can. I still think the agriculture market has huge potential. I think you're going to see continual improvements made in technology like automatic feeding and automatic harvesting.
Al Eggen Original Vermitech Systems, Ltd.
Albert Briggs Eggen was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi. He spent his early years in San Jose, CA, attending San Jose State, DeAnza and Foothills colleges. He graduated with a degree in Aeronautics, with a minor in technical and performing arts. He also pursued a course of study in speech and
voice at the Royal Conservatory of Music, Ontario, Canada. Al served in the United States Army Officers School (OCS), and was a U.S. Army paratrooper in Asia. He has also been an airline pilot. Albert holds three international patents. These include the self-harvesting Vermi-Organic Digester, a paper and food waste processor, and the Original Vermicomposter, an indoor home/school vermicomposter. He is also the co-author of three books on vermicomposting, two of which are college course manuals. A fourth, "The Canadian Vermicomposting Guide," is scheduled for publication. In 1990, Al founded Original Vermitech Systems, Ltd. (OVS) of Toronto, Canada. While at one time the bulk of company sales came from the manufacture of small, household worm bins, Eggen's larger in-vessel systems, capable of handling from 50 to 850 pounds of organics per day are now the company's chief focus.
In 1992 OVS began marketing vermicomposting units capable of processing 50 to 100 lbs. of organics per day from restaurants, schools and institutions with food waste. In 1993, the Brockville Psychiatric Hospital in Ontario, Canada installed an OVS unit with 600 lbs./day capacity. The system was equipped with heat panels and temperature sensors to maintain the proper climate for the earthworms. ("New Horizons for Commercial Vermiculture,” BioCycle, October, 1994, 58-59.) In March 1996 an OVS unit known as the Vermi-Organic Digester was installed at Metro Hall in Toronto. Metro Hall is the head office of the Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto, a 28-story, 953,500 square foot building located in the heart of downtown Toronto. It houses two thousand employees and has a 325-seat cafeteria with an additional 200-seat patio. It produces almost 14 metric tons of food waste and almost 30 metric tons of paper towel waste annually. (Casting Call, Feb. 1997). Eggen believes his Vermi-Organic Digesters will appeal particularly to military bases and hotels. Recently, proposals have been submitted to Arnold Air Force Base (Tennessee), to Camp Lejeune Marine Base (North Carolina), and to the Royal York Hotel in Toronto, one of the Canadian Pacific hotels. Pre-consumer vegetative food waste (source separated) provides an optimum feedstock along with shredded paper, most often available from discarded paper hand towels. Somewhere between his early years in California and his subsequent migration to Canada in order to pursue a career in acting, Al developed an interest in earthworms which he has maintained for over 25 years. By 1990, leaving his acting career behind, Eggen was ready to launch into vermiculture
In Their Own Words
full tilt. He estimates he has visited over 200 worm operations over the course of his years in the industry and he continues to maintain contact with many in the field. This interview appeared in the October 1997 issue of Casting Call. Casting Call: You've had a wide variety of experiences during your lifetime: paratrooper, actor, inventor, vermiculturist. But this interest in earthworms has persisted for over 25 years. What attracted you initially and what continues to maintain your interest in vermiculture? Al Eggen: Initially, I became aware of earthworms while building some ski chalets. In building those chalets I never noticed any earthworms whatsoever while doing excavation work. On completion, I went fishing and needed to find some worms. Near an old miner's cabin where refuse had been discarded I found all kinds of worms, some of which I brought back to the ski chalet I had built. I put some near a septic tank, thinking that the heat from the septic tank would keep them alive over the winter. That winter, the temperature went down to 44 degrees below zero. In the spring, I kicked around the septic tank and found a prolific growth of worms. I began to build worm boxes on the third story of the deck of my ski chalet, 18 inches high, and two feet wide. I built many boxes feeding the worms horse manure, hay, paper, and food waste. I also started growing things up there. It was absolutely mind-boggling to see the growth rate of plants. The flowers grew so fast that the stems got weak. The vegetable plants became big and bushy. The next thing I saw was an operation in Alberta and I have never been able to go back and see them again. They were using an airplane hangar bringing in semi-trucks [of waste] and doing heat pasteurization. They said they were using a worm from China. It may have been an African nightcrawler. Although it caught my interest and made an impact on me, I didn't get involved with them, turning to an
acting career instead. Later, through the Recycling Council in Canada, I got involved with building worm bins. It was a lot
of work and cost some money. But it was something I enjoyed. But I was working in other areas too. Then, in about 1989, I began looking at a waste site in Toronto, finding
tons of worms. That's when I saw that we could do this in a big way. After that I put together the Original Vermicomposter. What continues to maintain my interest is the worldwide problem we have with waste and problems with erosion and poor soil. Getting rid of garbage and creating a soil product (castings) are extraordinarily important. CC: There seem to be three levels, or tiers, of interest in vermicomposting: home vermicomposting, schools (educational systems), and large-scale commercial vermicomposting. There may be a fourth tier, an institutional level, consisting of hotels, hospitals, prisons, restaurants, and the like, which have an abundance of food waste to dispose. You've tried to impact all these markets. Can you assess where these levels of interest are heading? AE: In Ontario, Canada, we've pretty much exhausted the box system, because of the lack of government subsidies and saturation in the market. Because of that I think the future is in larger systems. In the educational field, we have to develop
In Their Own Words
workbooks along with a system that coordinates with that--not just to teach the biology of it, but the whole program including business projects selling castings. This is what we tried to do in Pennsylvania. The next level is on-site composting, because it saves money by reducing hauling. These go up to a certain size, 1,000 lbs. or a ton per day. If we can take care of that, we've got a market we can't even begin to fulfill in my lifetime. What happens is you get into a square footage situation. I figured one time, that if you're doing 3,000 lbs. per day you'd need 10,000 square feet of working area. That's the next area for someone to conquer. The Christenberry's (Vermicycle Organics, North Carolina) are getting very close to that. CC: Your manual, Worms Go To School, is a teacher's guide for vermicomposting. You've tried to show teachers how involvement in a Vermi-Lab can have an impact on the arts, language, mathematics, science, technology, and social studies. That's a pretty tall order. What has been the response? AE: We really haven't gotten the book out there to a lot of people yet I'm hoping that's going to change. I've got about 5 different models of my Vermi-Lab. It's been a cost thing for marketing. I have an order for about 300 of the teacher's guides for Nova Scotia. A number of local teachers in Toronto reviewed the book and liked it very well, saying it's a well-structured book. Generally, from all the professionals as far as the worm people, they've all pretty well liked it, and I'd asked them to pick it apart as far as the technical end of it. CC: The Vermi-Organic Digester can handle a wide range of organic waste volumes, from 50 to over 850 lbs. per day. The key to the system's effectiveness seems to be in attaining a consistent particle size and proper mixture proportions so that
the digesting ability of the worms can be optimized. How do you ensure this?
AE: The biggest difficulty, initially, was coming up with a shredder that works. We've gone through a number of shredders. The first couple I did cost over $10,000 apiece. They were a different type, and were very powerful. They were high torque/low rev. They crunched a lot of things up but we couldn't get the particle size we needed. In order to get that we had to get a higher speed motor that would chop it up more to give us the smaller particle size. The shredder has been one of the main keys to this whole process. Without the right particle size the material doesn't disappear fast enough in order for the worms to keep up with all the material being put in. The moisture and temperature are also factors we have to control, monitoring with a thermostat and offering an optional misting system. The more items you tack on, the higher the cost. CC: Without mentioning names, you have said that you have visited a number of vermicomposting sites, or know about them, and have learned that some of these sites have serious problems. What are the problems that these folks are experiencing and what are your recommendations?
In Their Own Words
AE: The reason I've gone to this automatic system with all the controls on it is that for years and years everyone has been doing the "box system," i.e. a container you could raise worms in. The problem with that is that you can only put so much into it. The problems occurring are that the system either heats up or goes anaerobic. When you get into larger systems you see these problems, and if too much food is put in and it heats up, you can have a worm kill. A box means that the worms have nowhere to go and it acts like an oven. These were the problems I've had and I've seen it in other systems that others have used. Other problems some have had have been with rodents and odors in open systems. CC: Canada does not seem to be a likely place to establish a business in vermiculture. Here's a chance to disabuse us of our false perceptions. What exactly is happening in Canada with respect to vermiculture? AE: Through the Recycling Council of Canada, I've received a lot of support and probably wouldn't have gotten here without that support. My first project was funded for the Harbor Front area, a city-owned project down by the waterfront. Some smaller ones came along for schools, and then I did a project at the University of Ottawa, and then Brockville [Psychiatric Hospital]. Then the Toronto Metro project came along. Government funding for the small worm boxes got me started in 1990. Interest has been spurred largely by the government. In Nova Scotia, a year from November, there will be a ban on landfills and thermophilic composting. They're either going to ship all this stuff out or there will have to be an alternative for handling waste on site. The government will fund, through a works program, 50% of a program to create jobs and handle waste. We've been working with a large steel corporation to do manufacturing, and a consulting company to build Vermi-Digesters. Pilot
projects are proposed for a college and another Canadian Pacific Hotel in Halifax. The proposal speaks of a $12 million market manufacturing approximately 275 Vermi-Digesters at a cost of $43,000 each. The target is to process 16,500 tons of material which represents about 10% of the organic waste stream. We're looking at starting this in about 6 months or less. CC: You've got a terrific system for converting organic waste into a usable soil amendment. It is relatively odor-free, is much faster than composting, uses little energy, reduces collection, hauling, and landfill costs, and, with the sales of vermicompost, not only offsets the cost of operation, but can become a profitable venture once the system has been paid for. Is this too good to be true? What are the drawbacks or potential pitfalls? Is the system trouble-free? AE: On a smaller system, it really isn't going to pay a lot (our V-200 or V-300). But when you start getting above that capacity, you start getting into a break-even situation or even making some money. On a 550 lbs. per day system, one pay-off projected is three and a half to 4 years. Using another way to calculate from sales of castings, the pay-off is between 2 and 3 years. It depends on the volume of material being processed. Up to this date, the main pitfalls have concerned moisture. We've taken care of problems with heat build-up, so now we're trying to take care of dehydration. An automatic misting system will take care of that. The very biggest pitfall is operator attention--not monitoring conditions in the system. CC: Launching a venture such as this entails a great deal of thought, organization and, of course, money. There may be skepticism to overcome, and proof required that the systems you've created actually work. In all, there seem to be a number of challenges you must deal with before your systems
In Their Own Words
of vermicomposting will become widely accepted. How are you planning to face these challenges and possible objections? AE: We've built a system that we've operated for almost a year and a half now. It's still being maintained by people other than us and is doing very well. So we've proven that it works. Anybody can call up Chris Fernandez at Metro and get a straight answer from them. Then some other people came up to look at the system--from Arnold Air Force Base--and now want a larger system than they originally planned. That's what you have to do. Whoever is building a system has to let it operate for at least a year and go through the cycles where other people take care of it and you don't have a problem. We have plans to do a 1,000 lbs. per day system at a Food Bank in Pittsburg. These people came up to see it. Just about every sale we've done so far has been as a result of seeing it. CC: What has caused you the most discouragement during the course of your involvement in vermiculture? What experience has brought the most elation? AE: Money. It's the old entrepreneurial thing. I've gone long periods not being able to do anything because I have no money. That's the frustrating part, that I know what to do, but I have no money to do it. The other part of it is the same thing in reverse--to be able to see it and know that it's going to work. Until you actually see it working, so that you can know that you can walk away from it and somebody else operates it, then you know it works. Knowing and seeing that the thing works, that's what's brought me the greatest elation. CC: Tell us about your vision for the future, not only with respect to the success of your own business, but for the direction of vermiculture as a whole.
AE: Unfortunately, in our society today, you've got to go to a machine-oriented unit with all the bells and whistles so that people will believe this thing works. It almost has to be a hands-off situation, where you go in and press a couple buttons and do the proper maintenance. Then the big people, the money people will take a look at this thing and say, "OK, this thing really works. We believe in worms." I think once that happens, the rest of the vision can go on. The machines are going to help. But the real essence of this worm composting, as I see it, is that let's say in third world countries with a handful of worms and the right conditions, worms will propagate. If we can get to the point where we can solve a lot of problems for people to compost and create topsoil: That's my vision, that vermiculture and vermicomposting can create topsoil and help feed all mankind. CC: Is there anything you'd like to add that we haven't talked about? AE: I guess I'm the same as a lot of people in this particular field. I get really upset with people trying to make money doing a quick scam operation with worms. It's been the history of the worm field--this whole worm-scam thing, whether it's a pyramid or people saying you can make millions in a short time. At some point in time here, I think there's going to have to be some real exposure of these people.
Larry Martin Vermitechnology Unlimited Inc.
Larry D. Martin heads up Vermitechnology Unlimited, Inc., in Orange Lake, Florida. For over twenty years, he has been both a student of earthworm ecology and leader in the field of vermicomposting.
Martin grew up on a Midwestern farm and witnessed how worms produced healthy soil. In 1974 he purchased two pounds of redworms from Ron Gaddie's Southern California operation, put them in a patio planter box, and began feeding them kitchen scraps. Within a year, Larry constructed about 80 feet of worm beds, thus beginning his career in vermiculture. From that time to the present, Martin continued to expand his worm inventory without buying additional worms. In 1990 he moved his West Coast operation, Solano Worm Farm, t