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Worm Waste Making its Mark to Market E-mail
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Saturday, 01 October 2005
Worm Waste Making its Mark to Market

June 2005

The News-Gazette (Champaign-Urbana, Illinois)

By Christine Des Garennes

Julie Hughes lined the bottom of a shoebox-size plastic container with some crinkled old leaves, followed by shredded wet newspaper, a sprinkling of sand, some cantaloupe rind, crushed egg shells and a handful of worms mixed with compost.

She repeated the steps. Then topped it off with a layer of wet paper towels.

"It's like baking a cake, kids," she told a tour group with the University of Illinois Extension's Vermilion County office.   "Or lasagna," someone offered.

The crowd had gathered around Hughes, a Master Gardener and former grade school teacher, to learn about vermiculture, or vermicomposting.

Here's how it works. Red worms, called Eisenia Fetida, will munch on the waste, digest it and, well, dispose of it.

The waste product is called castings. In other words, worm poop.

"It's like nothing else," Hughes said.

Near Hughes' demonstration table, a large bucketlike container with a blender and aerator brewed compost tea. (Imagine water and molasses mixing with a bag of worm castings.) The result will be a potion she'll spray on her plants and flowers. As for the castings, she'll mix those with her potting soil. Both will help build soil fertility and keep pests away, she said.

"The castings are the most nutrient-rich soil amendment on the planet. They can be worked into the soil to help rebuild it," said Brett Ivers, educator with the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity's bureau of energy and recycling. The department sponsors a vermiculture conference every year in Springfield. As part of the Illinois Sustainable Education Project, she sends educational packages to teachers who incorporate worm composting into their classrooms.

"It's the ideal fertilizer. The worms digest organic matter, pass this product out, producing a balance of nutrients and microorganisms. You want something that's as perfect as nature can make it," said Dave Bishop, who runs Prairie Earth Farms, a 300-acre organic farm in Atlanta, Ill.

Hughes uses the castings for gardening projects, but if brewed with dechlorinated water, they can be sprayed on a much larger scale, say, a few hundred acres, Ivers said.

Most worm castings and compost are sold in specialty gardening catalogs and some nurseries. Strawberry Fields in Urbana sells worm compost and Illini FS Farmtown in Urbana is considering it.

"As more people come in asking for organic gardening products, it's something we'll need to learn more about," said Joe Kirkpatrick, Farmtown's store manager.

Some businesses and institutions have already gotten in on the action.

Working with New Horizons Organics in Bunker Hill, Ill., the furniture store IKEA in Schaumburg feeds 100 pounds of food scraps to red worms every day. The scraps are generated while employees prepare food dishes for the store's cafeteria, Ivers said.

A similar project will occur at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, where a minimum of 1,200 pounds of food waste will be fed to red worms. Eventually the castings will be used as fertilizer for the school's landscaping, Ivers said.

Ivers and Hughes said there is potential for people to get involved in worm castings on a gardening scale or commercial scale and that the industry is poised for growth.

But they may meet a few skeptics out there. Even the worm industry is not free from potential business fraud.

A few years ago, the Oklahoma Department of Securities sued and shut down a company called B&B Worm Farms. (In addition, several state attorneys general ordered the companies to stop doing business in their states.)

"The company wanted people to grow worms, and they guaranteed people that for all the worms they grew they would pay $10 a pound. It was a pyramid scheme. They were selling worms to people to grow worms to sell worms," Ivers said.

When the company ran into financial trouble, a lot of people lost money and were stuck with worms.

The difference is "there's a finite market for worms. The market for castings is infinite," Ivers said.

Copyright (c) 2005, The News-Gazette, Champaign-Urbana, Ill.

Last Updated ( Saturday, 01 October 2005 )
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