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This Can of Worms is a Fertile Business E-mail
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Monday, 02 July 2007

This Can of Worms is a Fertile Business

By Alex Shebar

June 5, 2007

Geneseo man uses natural process to produce nutrient-rich fertilizer

Tom Herlihy is, and always has been, a western New York guy, all the way down to the dirt.

Born on a farm, Herlihy, 44, of Geneseo has returned to the soil after a career as a consulting engineer. He runs RT Solutions Inc., whose product is called Worm Power.

Herlihy takes excess cow manure and adds earthworms, millions of them, to break down the organic matter. This turns it into worm castings — excretions that double as a nutrient-rich, natural fertilizer.

"The worms are our workers. It's my job to keep them fat, dumb and happy," Herlihy said. "All I want them to do is mate and eat. As my daughter says, 'It's Club Med for worms.'"

The whole vermicomposting process ("vermi" means worm in Latin) is quite a feat, considering Herlihy basically runs everything himself. He set up shop in a four-building facility in Avon, using an engineer, a few hired hands and, recently, a marketer to help sell the product. But that's the point. Herlihy has created an automated process that not only allows him to work almost entirely independently, but also creates a continuously regulated product.

While vermicomposting is considered by many to be a pile of manure with worms sitting for a few months until it become a usable, albeit unstable and diseased, fertilizer, Herlihy created an assembly line that always produces grade-A soil food.

Worm casting "has enormous potential for the fertility of soil. It improves the structure and water holding capacity," said Clive Edwards, a professor of entomology at Ohio State University. "But it needs good management, people who could do it well, and Tom Herlihy is one of the few who is achieving that."

Herlihy used $591,000 in government and university research and development grants, and even more than that in investor funding, to get started. RT Solutions (a combination of the first names of Herlihy and Rich Lahey, the company's primary financial backer and Herlihy's brother-in-law) is in its second year of production, with revenue estimated at $500,000 this year.

Talking to Worm Power customers, it's hard to find anything they dislike about the product. When prodded, some comment on the earthy aroma but quickly add that it smells better than other fertilizers they have used. What they all like is the fact that it's an effective organic product.

"A vineyard, if it's healthy, will have pests that are controlled by other insects, other animals. When you put that other stuff (chemical fertilizers), it destroys that balance. We try to keep that balance," said Seth Thomas, manager of Shalestone Vineyards in Lodi, Seneca County, which began using Worm Power last year.

The biggest negative for Worm Power might be its cost. The process is more expensive than creating chemicals, which means a three-pound bucket of Worm Power is about $10, while a chemical fertilizer can run half of that. But when mixed with dirt, a small amount of Worm Power goes a long way.

The Worm Power facility is on Coyne Farm land, down the road from Coyne's 1,000-head dairy. This is where Herlihy collects all the manure to begin the process. For a reference point, an average milk cow will produce about 80 pounds of milk and 100 pounds of waste a day. Farms across the world, needing more cows yearly to survive, are currently running into problems of excess manure. There's only so much that can be spread across crops to help growth, and the rest usually goes into a pile or "manure lagoon," hurting the environment as it decomposes and releases gases.

Herlihy takes the manure and mixes it with different products to create a stable carbon ratio. It then is put into a compost bay for two weeks at extremely high temperatures to sterilize it, killing diseases like a pasteurization process.

Next, the pile is spread as the top layer on three giant tubs, 120 feet by eight feet, full of worms. Through a combination of the fresh material and automatic sprinkler systems that keep it moist, the worms move to the top to feed. Herlihy then harvests the bottom layer of the bed, which are almost entirely worm castings. This is dried for a day, put through a screen and containerized for sale.

With his thick glasses, nervous hand motions and fondness for using erudite phrases, Herlihy seems as if he would be more comfortable lecturing about vermicomposting than actually getting elbow deep in slithering worms. And while he likes to talk about excess manure decomposing and creating greenhouse gases, he's reluctant to comment about how his product might be environment-friendly.

Others, however, will speak to that point.

"All human life depends on good soil," said Allison Jack, 29, graduate student in plant pathology at Cornell University who has been studying vermicomposting. "For years, people focused on (the soil's) nutrients, but the living aspects, the micro organisms, have been forgotten but are now getting attention. Using vermicompost is a great way to increase soil organic matter."



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