The garden: Black gold

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Author: JAY BLAIR
Date: Sept. 2001
From: Countryside & Small Stock Journal(Vol. 85, Issue 5)
Publisher: Countryside Publications Ltd.
Document Type: Article
Length: 2,709 words

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Vermiculture on the modern homestead

Some call it "worm ranching," others call it "a vermicompost system, our son calls it "worm poop, GROSS!". Any name you call it, vermiculture is an important and often overlooked subject on many modern homesteads. Earthworms recycle Wastes, provide high nutrient fertilizer, enrich and till the soils and are a potential homestead income source. This article will show you how to economically start your own homestead worm composting system that can easily be turned into a profitable enterprise for under $15.

Getting started

Many advertisments and web sites offer "complete vermicomposting systems with hybrid composting worms" for sometimes as much as $400 or more. There is no reason to spend this kind of money. All you need is a 20-gallon solid plastic tote with locking lid, two cups of fishing bait worms, a newspaper, three pieces of 2 x 4 lumber, a pie tin and a drill with two bits to build your own composting system or worm ranch start up.

The plastic tote can be purchased at many department or discount stores such as Big Lots, KMart or WalMart for $6 or less. Since there is no documented "hybrid" worms known to exist, a couple of bait cups of "red wigglers," available at most bait shops for $2 a cup, will do nicely for composting. Avoid nightcrawler type of worms as they do not adapt well to the warmer temperature required for effective vermicomposting and are generally not active enough to quickly produce casting humus.

Bin modifications

Using a 1/4" and 1/32" (#2) bit, complete the following drill patterns. Turn

the bin over and centered along one of the shorter sides at the edge drill three holes spaced about two inches apart to allow drainage of overmoisture into the pie tin. This is all the drilling to be done with this bit, all other patterns will use the 1/32" bit. On all sides of the bin drill a pattern of air louvres approximately one inch from the bottom, equally spaced around the circumference of the bin. Also drill air louvre patterns in the top, preferably spaced in an "X" spacing formation. The 1/32" bit air louvres can be as simple as 1-1/2" diameter groupings of 15 or 20 holes or as detailed as tintype panels on Grandma's pie safe as long as they provide adequate air flow and keep the worms in. Lay the 2 x 4 lumber in a "U" formation so that the side pieces provide a sloping base to set the bin on and allow space for the catch pan.

Bin location

Vermicomposting has greatly surpassed the times of having a wormbed behind the barn and fiddling up a few worms (and possibly a snake or two) before a fishing trip. While you could place your bin outdoors, the technique described here is for indoor bin placement. The reasons for indoor placement are ease of maintenance, environmental temperature control and elimination of predator threat (raccoons and other animals consider worms to be a gourmet feast). Your bin should be placed in an area out of traffic and direct sunlight where temperature can be maintained in the 68 [degrees] to 75 [degrees] F. range.

Close to a water heater in the basement is ideal, however other areas are also suitable. Keep in mind that it should be convenient to the kitchen area to reduce travel time with food scraps. I have seen bins under kitchen sinks and in living rooms where they were draped with fabric to disguise them as end tables. I learned that it helps to have an understanding spouse if considering a living room based compost system.

Bedding

Bedding for the worms needs to provide cover from light, retain moisture, be adequately ventilated and be consumable as a food source. Grass, leaves, straw, peatmoss, composted manure, newspaper, even bulk vegetable scraps can provide bedding. I avoid using manure and bulk scraps as they are more susceptible to anerobic decomposition which can be deadly to the wormstock.

To prepare a newspaper bedding, shred the paper in 1/4 inch strips and loosely place in the bin to a depth of eight to 12 inches. Add six to eight handfuls of peat moss, three or four handfuls of composted manure, one handful of sand for nutritional grit and two or three handfuls of leaf mold. Try to keep the measurements of the bedding components close to those listed as this will help control odors. Mix the contents of the bin.

Saturate the bedding with water so that it is completely moistened, though not to the point of being waterlogged. Worms have been known to exist as long as a year in overly damp environments with as much as 95% moisture, however, the ideal conditions are about a 75% water to bedding ratio. Adding one pint of water to one pound of bedding will generally satisfy the worm's moisture needs.

Your bin is now ready for the introduction of your wormstock. Empty the bait cups on the surface of the bedding and place the lid in place and allow the worms to burrow into their new home.

Feeding, watering and bin maintenance

A healthy earthworm will eat close to its body weight in a 24-hour period. This should be kept in mind while the herd cultivation is under way. Excessive food, while not affecting the herd directly, can cause problems if anerobic decomposition begins prior to the available wormstock feeding on the scraps. It is advisable to start your bin by feeding raw vegetable scraps only until the worms begin multiplying. After the worm population is established they will be capable of consuming most any decomposable organic matter. This includes grass, leaves, composted livestock manures, ground grains and meals and practically all kitchen and table scraps. You will also be able to add meat scraps to increase nitrogen levels after the bin populations increase/ I have even used old bread, dog food and salvaged fish food flakes as feed supplements. The main thing to keep in mind is to not allow the pH of the medium to go too acidic or too alkaline. Try to keep the bin in the pH range of 5 to 9. I try to maintain a level of pH 7 to maintain activity and reproductivity.

As stated earlier, the water moisture should be maintained at approximately 75%. It is possible to achieve this while at the same time speeding up the composting of the bin. Prepare the feed scraps in a blender, pureeing them into a liquid slurry to be poured over the bedding and turned under. This slurry technique of feeding not only breaks the feed down to the first stage of compost, it also provides the moisture requirements and allows the worms to be more sedentary and reproductive. The other means of feeding is to finely chop the scraps and bury them within the bedding.

Wormstock cultivation

Wormstock cultivation is the "high maintenance" bin management technique. It consists of daily turning of the bedding and monitoring of the moisture levels. During herd cultivation I prefer using a little less bedding volume to provide better ventilation and make it easier to turn and loosen the mix without disturbing the breeding stock. It is also advised to early harvest the stock from the bedding mix prior to complete consumption to avoid toxin concentration that can inhibit reproduction. After moving your wormstock, hatchlings and any cocoons to fresh bedding, the old bedding can be added to a conventional anerobic compost pile. After your herd has grown you will be able to achieve full composting, migrating the stock to fresh bedding when neccessary.

Harvesting the worms and castings

When the wormstock has consumed all the feed and bedding and turned it into high nutrient castings, it's time to get your Black Gold! While many ways can be used, this article will cover the "separation count" and "migration harvest" techniques. Separation count will ensure maximum worm and cocoon quantities and migration harvest is one of the easiest techniques.

To separate worms from the castings lay a tarp in the sun or under a bright light and pour the contents of the bin on it. As you brush the castings from the top of the pile the worms will move deeper to avoid the light. Use care to also separate the cocoons, which are approximately the size of a grain of rice and glossy yellow-brown in color and include them with the worms in the new bedding mix. You can also get an accurate count of your herd this way.

Migration harvest is by far the easiest method as the worms do it all for you. Push all finished castings and worms to one side of the bin and refill the empty side with fresh bedding. Feed and water the fresh bedding only and place the bin cover over it to retain moisture. As food and moisture are eliminated from the castings and the toxicity of the completed side increases the worms will migrate to the new bedding. While being easier, this technique can take up to a week to complete. During that time maintain only the fresh side avoiding any action with the castings except to remove the top layer to speed up drying and migration. However, depending on the size of your bin and the amount of castings to be harvested it may be neccessary to loosen up the finished castings during harvesting to better maintain the migration activity and ensure the health of your worms.

Potential health hazards associated with vermicompost systems

Even though vermicomposting is a natural "green" form of waste disposal and recycling, it does rely on microorganism activity to assist in decomposition and produces manure byproducts so there are some health hazards to be taken into consideration. Tetanus, salmonella, staphylococus, toxoplasmosis, and many allergy causing molds and any other filth or dirt borne disease can possibly be harbored in the vermicompost setup.

Most health concerns can be addressed by keeping the compost material within the confines of the bin, using tools and latex gloves when working the medium and exercising proper personal health hygiene to properly clean and disinfect your hands when done working with the bin contents.

Toxoplasmosis is caused by cats using the bin as a litterbox and passing the bacteria Toxoplasma gondii through their feces. The tiny cysts of this protozoan can be inhaled by humans where it will live in the body tissues. Frequently, no outward symptoms will be visible in an infected person, however a pregnant woman could be at risk of transmitting this potentally brain damaging infection to her unborn fetus. Proper containment of the bin with the lid secured to keep cats out of the medium should be adequate to control this health hazard potential.

As leaf mold is used as a component of the system, people with mold allergies may find it inappropriate to utilize a vermicompost system. They could maintain it in an outdoor configuration and have others work the compost.

Be sure to consider any health concerns that can have the potential to affect you and your family.

An indoor vermicompost setup should not be considered if serious health conditions have the possibility of being aggravated.

Progressing to an income-producing homestead business

Turning this system into an income producing business is low cost because you can use the growing system to finance the expansion to a small commercial operation. As regulations vary from area to area, check with your local agriculture office or university to be sure of the steps you will need to cover to legally market your product. The worms will handle the herd increase through cultivation. All you will need to do is expand the bin quantity. An easy way to do this is to sell small quantities of castings to individual gardeners to cover the cost of bin additions. You can easily sell a five-pound bag of finished worm castings for $5 to $10 in most market areas. Bait worms can fetch $2 to $4 retail per 30 count container.

As the production potentials of the vermicompost system increase towards a full blown worm ranch, feeding requirements will increase beyond the capabilities of household waste and some quality control measures will need to be implemented to gain commercial customers such as nurseries and bait shops. Also, due to the increased volumes and required maintenance, an electric paper shredder is a valuable addition to the operation to easily produce the required bedding for the bins.

Increased feed requirements can be met by either contracting with a local grocer to dispose of expired shelf life produce or planting extra vegetable crops to accommodate your bins. If you choose to approach a grocery to dispose of expired produce, attempt to discretely find out what they are currently being charged for disposal. Even though the refuse is required for your business, the grocer will be quite happy if you are able to save him 40% to 60% of his current disposal costs and you have the potential of being paid to haul off what you need anyway. Growing extra produce on your homestead, while lacking the added disposal income, requires less travel and can be better regulated for steady production. Home producing also eliminates the requirement of dedicated pick-up scheduling which can afford you more flexibility in your operation.

The quality controls that are required of a commercial grade production of castings are content grading, pasteurization, proper weighing and packaging. Castings can be graded as to chemical content by use of certified soil test kits that can detect pH and nutrient composition. A solar oven can be built to satisfy most commercial pasteurization requirements. Product weighing must be accomplished through use of a registered and certified retail scale. Packaging can be done with plain poly commercial grade bags with a content and production data sheet attached. When producing a commercial product, it is advisable to maintain bin status sheets that document feeding schedule, bin content consumption, worm conditions and finished product characteristics for use on the package label and for future reference.

When running a commercial grade worm ranch always keep a portion of the bins in herd cultivation status. This will ensure that you have adequate replacement stock available for composting and worms for bait sales. Maintaining a few extra bins that are not part of your normal operations will also provide you with a product cushion if you have a customer with an urgent supply request. Many times you can charge a higher percentage for this type of special service as it is not a normal order, however most operations simply figure an occasional special order fulfillment as good customer relations.

When operating a business it is always advisable to do market and competition research. An easy approach to this is to use a portion of your profits to contact and order from competitors and see how they treat you as a customer. You could even go as far as ordering equipment they offer, evaluate it and return it per their return policies. Even order worm packs from them so that you can evaluate their stock, then throw 'em in your bins. The information you gather will usually be useful and all expenses are overhead paid from profits.

As always when starting a business, be sure to check with local authorities regarding zoning regulations, permit and license requirements and applicable health and operation procedures and regulations.

Other sources of information

A few books, publications and web sites for information on vermicomposting and worms are:

Worms Eat My Garbage, by Mary Appelhof; www.wormwoman.com. A compehensive study on the in-home application of vermicomposting.

Harnessing The Earthworm, by Thomas J. Barret. Originally published in 1947 and still an informative reference.

Profitable Earthworm Farming, by Charlie Morgan. A foremost reference on worm farming first published in 1957 and revised in 1975.

The Earthworm Book, by Jerry Minnich. An informative reference on earthworms in their natural environment and uses in agriculture.

Worm Digest, www.wormdigest.org. A quarterly newspaper that reports about worms and vermicomposting around the world.

COUNTRYSIDE Magazine Forum, www.countrysidemag.com. The bulletin board sponsored by COUNTRYSIDE & SMALL STOCK JOURNAL.

The Vermicomposting Forum; www.oldgrowth.org/compost/ forum_vermi/index.html.

ATTRA, www.attra.org. An information site maintained by Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas.

JAY BLAIR
P. O. Box 946
HARTSELLE, AL 35640
JAYBLAIR678@YAHOO.COM

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A77607660