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Sunday, 04 December 2005
Use Worms in a Hands-On Approach

9/16/2005

The Fresno Bee

By Dennis Pollock

Fresno farmer Cindy Xiong added some duties this week after attending workshops on sustainable farming conducted by a former professional basketball player who takes a hands-in-the-muck approach to growing things.

Now, she must attend to the worms.

Xiong and other participants in the day-and-a-half program presented by Will Allen, director of a nonprofit in Milwaukee called Growing Power, learned a bit about vermiculture, using worms for composting and for soil nutrition.

They created a compost pile and built boxes for the critters during the program on a Fresno farm. Xiong agreed to keep tabs on how the worms are doing, checking them daily and adding water as needed to cool them and fresh compost for them to consume.

"Maybe someday I will sell the compost tea," she said, referring to the highly concentrated microbial solution extracted from vermicompost. She also talked of selling castings, waste left by the worms.

That could be a good idea, said Blong Lee, business plan specialist with the Economic Opportunities Commission in Fresno, considering that a pound of worm castings can sell for $6 to $12, and a half-gallon of compost tea can cost $30.

Lee had attended a weeklong workshop at Allen's Milwaukee center, where he learned environmentally friendly organic farming methods. He brought Allen to Fresno to teach his low-cost, pesticide-free approach to farmers with small enterprises.

Allen, who played in the American Basketball Association and in Europe, shared other pointers with Valley farmers, including how to germinate and harvest microgreens, such as sunflower sprouts.

He also described how the heat from composting is used at his Milwaukee center to warm "hoop houses," such as those common in the Valley. Akin to greenhouses, the structures are fashioned from metal or PVC tubing covered with plastic.

When temperatures at his center drop to 19 degrees, Allen said, the composting arrangement warms a hoop house to 50 degrees. As the outside temperature drops below zero, the temperature inside may still be in the 30s.

That method of warming permits growers to continue to raise crops that include spinach and other greens.

Richard Molinar, a Fresno County farm adviser with the University of California, said the idea of heat-generating compost could be used in the Valley, which has considerably warmer winters than Wisconsin, to lengthen the harvest season for some vegetables.

Allen may be best known as a community activist whose organization teaches inner-city children and others about the rewards and science of farming. He has helped start more than 25 urban gardens, some in the poorest counties in the United States.

Half his work is with small farmers. He said the worms and compost can have a role for commercial growers, in addition to putting to use tons of waste that would otherwise end up in landfills.

As he showed a picture of someone using a wheelbarrow to tote materials for compost, he quipped that most farmers aren't partial to that sort of thing: "They can still do what farmers want to do, sit on a tractor and move things around with a loader."

The tea from the vermiculture process can be mixed with water and sprayed on crops and soil to nurture them.

Allen explained that his center draws on many area resources to get material for composting. "I drive through the countryside and see hay that is molded, and I look at it and say, 'How can I get that hay?' " he said.

The center gets 1,000 pounds per week of coffee grounds from a Milwaukee-area company. In all, it gets 20,000 pounds of food residue a week, all of it ultimately heaped into compost piles.

If vermiculture and composting systems are conducted properly, he said, the worm population will increase fourfold in eight weeks.

"You can never have too many worms," Allen said. "People ask me how many employees I have. I tell them 30 million."

Merrie Hathaway, who grows raspberries and boysenberries in Squaw Valley, asked what the key was to keeping the worms from getting too hot. Allen explained it was mostly a matter of adding water.

"I'm old-school," Allen said, sticking his hand into the mix where the worms squirmed in order to feel how warm it was.

"Just pretend you're a worm. How hot would you want it?"

Will Allen, a trainer for small farmers from Milwaukee, advises growers on sustainable farming with vermiculture -- the use of worms for composting and soil nutrition -- during a visit to Fresno on Thursday. Here, he presents a laptop slide show before giving a hands-on demonstration.

Worms were brought in to the vermiculture program to demonstrate how they create organic fertilizer.

 
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