UPDATE: I will be presenting at the 2018 NCSU Vermiculture Conference! If you're interested in going, please see the official conference webpage.
It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.
Legendary UCLA Basketball Coach
I had an idea that the 2015 NCSU Vermiculture Conference would actually show me how little I actually knew about the world of vermiculture and vermicomposting. I just had no idea how right I would be.
After two days in Raleigh, I probably tripled my knowledge but realized just how far I have yet to go to ever be an expert in this field.
Many of you may be curious as to what goes on at this conference, so I'd love to give you a recap and let you know a little of what I learned from each presentation.
Now if you’re wondering if the conference is worth the money, the answer is a resounding YES! if you have an inkling of using earthworms to manage waste on any scale or if you have any ideas of making any money with vermiculture or vermicomposting.
And if you’re wondering whether this article serves as a substitution for actually attending in future years, that answer is a resounding NO!
I hunt and peck at about 30 words per minute so there’s no way I captured that much of what was discussed. And even if I did, the access to industry academics like Dr. Norman Arancon and professionals like Worm Power’s Tom Herlihy is not something you’ll get outside of this conference.
First of all, the venue at the James B. Hunt Library was amazing and much higher-tech venue than one might expect for a gathering of worm heads.
Secondly, the crowd was far more eclectic than I’d anticipated, consisting of engineers, academics, waste management experts, entrepreneurs, “wantreprenuers,” save-the-world idealists, active and retired military, and even a UBS Financial Services Wealth Manager with a client portfolio worth over $2 billion.
But to a person, everyone was friendly and the presenters NCSU's Rhonda Sherman invited were extremely accessible, even to nobodies like me.
Rhonda got the morning started with an introduction and quickly got the “dos and don’ts” out of the way before her own presentation described below.
Now my thoroughness was lacking at times as I felt I needed to absorb the information first and record it second. Some presentations were easy to summarize in paragraph form while I felt others called for giving you a list of bullet points. So I apologize in advance for what may seem like inconsistent formatting.
And as you read the following sections, keep a couple things in mind.
- Assume red wigglers (eisenia fetida) is the operative species.
- The terms “vermicompost” and “worm castings” may be used interchangeably.
- The advice the presenters give is generally geared towards commercial or larger-scale operations and not necessarily prescriptive for someone just looking to vermicompost their own food scraps.
- From time to time, I will interject my own thoughts. When I'm not explicitly speaking in the first person, these thoughts will be identified by “UWC:”.
Let's get started!
NCSU Vermiculture Conference Presentation Summaries
Planning and Setting Up a Vermicomposting Operation
Rhonda Sherman, North Carolina State University
Rhonda re-hashed the basics of vermiculture and vermicomposting, including some need-to-know numbers. At first I thought she was preaching to the choir until I considered how many municipal waste experts and consultants were there to learn specifically about vermicomposting.
Given Rhonda’s status in academia, she spent what I considered to be quite a bit of time on marketing, which she emphasized must come first for anyone looking to grow worms or vermicompost with them on any large scale.
I really appreciate the emphasis on markets because I think it’s easy for wild-eyed dreamers to envision tractor trailers full of wiggling inventory or castings leaving their property without considering who they would ever sell to and how they would feed and manage such a stock of earthworms in the first place. It was very refreshing to hear some honest truths about the reality facing the prospective earthworm entrepreneurs in the room.
Vermiculture and Vermicomposting Basics
- Thermophilic hot composting and mesophilic worm composting are completely different processes.
- Worm composting is faster and yields a much higher quality end product.
- There are no shortcuts to finished hot compost. It takes 6-9 months so don’t believe the hype about 14-day hot compost.
- 55-83 degrees is the new consensus range for acceptable temperatures, but the temperature range is dependent upon the humidity of the climate. Earthworms can tolerate a higher end of the range in more arid climates.
- Earthworms will eat 25-33% of their own weight each day.
- UWC: This is below the oft-quoted range of 50-100%, but this may also be safer and a wise way to manage expectations.
- Stocking density is 1-2lbs/sq ft.
- UWC: I found this to be higher than most recommended densities of 1/2lb to 1lb/sq foot.
- Larger systems should start with 6 inches of bedding.
- Feed in 1-inch layers.
- Keep feedstock consistent! The best feed is homogenous in texture and particle size.
- Know your feedstock, and research whether it may include persistent herbicides. These herbicides will not break down with thermophilic composting.
- Assume everything has pathogens, so pre-composting is a must.
- Using ice cubes will not cool your bin! The introduction of more moisture promotes even greater microbial activity, which will heat your bin even more.
- Vermicomposting in a nutshell: A little bit of microbes goes in the earthworms . . .and a ton of it comes out!
- Bins should be no more than 8 ft wide to allow for inspection of all sections of it.
- You should not be getting leachate from the bottom of the bin. Ever.
Vermicomposting and Vermiculture As a Business
- Markets come first!
- Animal husbandry comes second.
- Get your vermicompost tested. It’s the only way to make a reasonable representation of your product to your buyers.
- Vermicompost can sell for $400-1250 per cubic yard. This is compared to thermophilic compost at $30 per yard.
- A cubic yard of vermicompost will weigh around 800 lbs.
- If stored correctly, vermicompost can have a 2-year shelf life.
- Norman Arancon later said that vermicompost will retain its plant growth properties for two years, but its microbial, pathogen-suppressing characteristics will be lost after only a few months or less.
- For worm teas, Rhonda does not recommend adding molasses or other sugars as they can introduce pathogens.
Developing a Multi-Market Worm Farm
John Stewart, The Worm Farm
The next present was The Worm Farm’s John Stewart who, along with the Purser family, was recently featured on CNBC’s Blue Collar Millionaires. Located in Durham, CA, The Worm Farm has been in operation for more than 20 years after its conversion from a chicken farm.
John spent a good amount of time explaining his operation, which includes over 1.5 miles of windrows for both worm growing and worm composting.
While windrows are more labor intensive and primitive than flow-through digesters, John explained his choice of using windrows as a choice between capital cost and labor cost, saying he chose labor.
And it seems to be working pretty well. Using 3 full-time employees (and 5 during the spring season), John spreads 60 cubic yards of pre-composted cattle manure each feeding using a manure spreader and harvests his worms using a trommel-style harvester with 3/8-in screen. For worm sales, each harvest nets them about 1lb of adult red wigglers per linear foot of windrow.
About 90% of the Worm Farm’s sales actually come from the castings which they use make various soil mixes, netting them up to $70,000-$80,000 per day(UWC:!!!!!) during their best days which occur in the February through June timeframe.
While they test their castings for pathogens and nutrient levels, they are careful not to include those numbers on their packaging, preferring to sell their castings as a “soil amendment” rather than a fertilizer which would attract the interest of regulators.
Some takeaways and tidbits from John’s presentation:
- Make sure your feedstock is consistent. The Worm Farm experimented with different feeds which did result in larger worms but also a case of protein poisoning. They now use cattle manure exclusively.
- Manures are much easier to use from a regulatory perspective than are vegetable wastes or post-consumer waste.
- 20% castings mixes generally yield the best results for growth. UWC: There’s more on this in Dr. Arancon’s later presentations.
- They achieve 50% margin on earthworms and 30% margin on soil mixes.
- Their harvester has a 30-in diameter and rotates at 19 rpm.
- Home owners are their biggest market for earthworms while the greatest demand for their soil mixes comes from the cannabis industry.
- They will stick with windrows because their employees are already trained on them and they already have the equipment necessary to tend to them.
- Bags for vermicompost must be breathable.
Vermicompost Effects on Plant Growth & Suppression of Diseases and Pests
Norman Arancon, Ph.D. U of H- Hilo
Next up was Dr. Norman Arancon from the University of Hawaii-Hilo. He’s pretty much the Luke Skywalker to Dr. Clive Edwards’ Obi Wan Kenobi, having studied under Dr. Edwards at my alma mater, The Ohio State University.
Norman (you get to call PhDs by the first name when you attend this conference!) covered why vermicompost works the way it does and explained how well the worm gut – which no scientist has ever replicated – increases microbial richness by orders of magnitude and promotes plant growth.
He listed the known benefits of vermicompost on plant growth and no doubt, you’ve heard these before:
- Increases microbial populations
- Increases microbial diversity
- Aids in decomposition of organic matters
- Slow nutrient release
- Aids in pest suppression
- Aids in pathogen suppression
- I found this part interesting. Vermicompost won't kill or eradicate pathogens. They are still present, but will remain non-virulent if kept in check by other micro-organisms. If the pathogen does attack, the plants will be able to better fight it off.
- Aids in disease suppression
- Regulates plant growth regulation. If VC tests positive for hormones, fruits are bigger and will flower several weeks earlier.
Norman covered so much in this hour that it’s really difficult to try and cover it all. But I learned some very interesting tidbits about vermicompost’s pathogen suppressing capabilities, the hormones found in vermicompost and how they work, what the best substitution rates are for various plants, and why its’ really important not to fondle your worms! Let’s cover each of these separately.
Contrary to what laypeople like me might think, vermicompost does not fight pathogens or eradicate any pathogens present in your soil or in your plants. What happens is that the good microbes present in vermicompost keep pathogenic activity from occurring within your plants. Pathogens are bullies; they don’t really attack unless they sense weakness and the microbes present in vermicompost do a great job of preventing virulence in the pathogens. And if the pathogens do attack, plants grown in vermicompost are better at fighting them off.
Just like in the human body, hormones in vermicompost regulate growth. And plants grown in vermicompost that tests positive for hormones are shown to flower several weeks earlier and produce higher fruit yield.
I found this next part really fascinating. A synthetic version of one of the hormones often present in vermicompost, auxine, was the active ingredient in Agent Orange, the Vietnam-era defoliant designed to destroy the jungle flora that shielded the North Vietnamese from American aircraft flying overhead. So vermicompost and Agent Orange have something in common? Yes, but Agent Orange had such extreme concentrations of auxine that it caused jungle vegetation to outgrow its ability to feed itself, causing a quick death. At the levels present in many vermicomposts, the presence of auxine (and other hormones like abscisic acid, gibberellin, and cytokynin) appear to have profoundly positive effects on plant growth and yield and appear to improve the physical characteristics of soil as well.
Another interesting note: Cristy Christie of Black Diamond Vermicompost in Paso Robles, CA told me that as of two years ago, 33 hormones found in vermicompost had been identified. Today, there are 135. Considering the earthworm was Charles Darwin’s favorite animal, it’s remarkable how the science around its by-product is evolving (pun very intended) so rapidly.
The Best Concentrations of Vermicompost
Norman showed many examples of improved plant growth and yield at varying rates of vermicompost substitution in the growing medium. There is just no one good answer to how much vermicompost to apply to your plants (something I took a stab at in this blog post) because the answer appears dependent upon several factors like:
- Feedstock for the worms
- The plant being grown
- The plant’s current stage of growth
- The existing growing medium
There were too many results to list, but the highest part of the bell curve was in between 10-20% vermicompost concentration and anything higher typically showed marginal or insignificant improvement and even poorer growth.
Don’t Molest Your Worms!
I felt Norman was speaking directly to me when he encouraged us to leave our worms alone. Like pathogens, mites aren’t necessarily harmful in your bins . . . . until they smell weakness. By frequently disturbing your worm population, you cause distress which can elicit attack from any mites present.
I hear you loud and clear Norman!
Large Scale Vermicomposting: All the Same?
Alexandre Meire, PUR VER
Up next was Alexandre Meire, a Belgian entrepreneur who detailed his journey into large-scale vermicomposting. It was interesting watching the evolution of PUR VER from an unprofitable thermophilic composting operation to a soon-to-be profitable vermicomposting business with 2 continuous flow-through digesters with plans for 10 by 2018.
Alexandre was very open about the downsides of various efforts which included using yard waste compost in smaller containers, which proved to be a poor food source. He also found it difficult to maintain proper moisture levels in the containers.
PUR VER then tested a small 1m x 2m continuous flow but the equipment – which I assume to be the breaker bar mechanism – kept breaking and that was soon abandoned.
Then Alexandre and his backers decided to scale up, building two larger flow-throughs measured at approximately 20 feet x 8 feet. These are still in operation today and PUR VER will have 8 more within 3 years.
One interesting tidbit is that Alexandre has to buy his feedstock, which is mostly vegetable and yard waste alongside a starch by-product from a local food processing facility. Most of us in America think of waste as free of course, but our Belgian friends appear to have so many recycling efforts underway that competition is tougher when it comes to procuring it.
PUR VER’s size hasn’t shielded it from a frustration common to small-scale vermicomposters: the cross-contamination of species. While Alexandre thought he has working with eisenia fetida (red wigglers), he later learned he had two other species present in his flow-throughs as he found peronyx excavatus (Indian Blue) and eisenia hortensis (European nightcrawlers). UWC: While cross-contamination doesn’t really effect vermicast output, it DOES effect population growth as the species can’t interbreed.
Vermicomposting in France, India, Madagascar, and Kenya
Peter Ash, StraightAsh Environmental
Waste management expert Peter Ash from Straight Ash Environmental in San Diego gave us a very interesting slideshow of vermicomposting operations he either observed, consulted on, or helped build himself in less-developed countries around the world.
One thing that struck me about Peter’s presentation was the realization that for countries that lack American or Western wealth, infrastructure, and waste management capability, vermicomposting is a necessity. In the US, where the trash man typically comes once or twice a week, we aren’t forced to give much thought to where our household or municipal waste goes.
The countries Peter visited don’t have that luxury. And since they also lack the capital for automated vermicomposting systems, they have had to come up with some pretty innovative ways to work with what they’ve got.
One interesting anecdote that Peter passed along involved a very polluted area near a hospital in India that had very high levels of trace metals. With a ton of work over several years creating what I can only describe as an in-ground vermicomposting bed covered in thatch, that soil was remediated to the point where nearly all pollutants disappeared!
And how could this happen? Peter said that the metal pollutants must have been chelated while passing through the worms’ guts. (Chelation is the process by which metal atoms bind to an organic ligand. Thanks Wikipedia!) But what happens when the worms die? Doesn’t that pollutant get dumped back into the soil when the worm decomposes? Peter’s theory is that the metals remain chelated in the organic material left behind when the worm dies.
Magic, if you ask me.
Getting Started: Steps to Developing Low-Cost Systems
Peter Ash, StraightAsh Environmental
Peter stuck around to give us an overview of lower cost systems. You are probably familiar with many of these vermicomposting methods:
- Containers and boxes
- Wedge systems
- Continuous Flow-Through Systems
- UWC: These are not typically thought of as low-cost, but there are some smaller inexpensive solutions out there that can be made at home.
Peter gave some common sense advice to the beginners in the audience:
- Start small
- Set manageable goals
- The biggest moneymaker is compost tea as it allows you to spread a lot over a large area without a massive investment.
- Peter has been shying away from using sugars in his compost tea. He prefers adding humic acid.
- Get your vermicompost tested regularly for quality assurance.
- Obtain a consistent feedstock and learn about where it came from.
- The stuff that may drip out the bottom of the bin is leachate, not tea. It is dangerous to your plants, so throw it out.
Marketing Vermicompost Products to Production Agriculture
Tom Herlihy, Worm Power
This presentation alone was worth the price of admission. Period.
Tom Herlihy runs Worm Power, a massive vermicomposting operation in Avon, New York. I haven’t seen recent numbers on his output, but I believe he produces over 10 million pounds of worm castings per year, most of which are ultimately used by large-scale agricultural operations.
Due to the size of his customers (and I’d suspect his meticulous nature) the OMRI-certified organic castings produced at Worm Power are probably scrutinized more closely than any other vermicompost product in the world. And in a partnership with Cornell University, the Worm Power product was tested, not just against control groups, but against the competition. And Worm Power’s castings won out, hands down.
I can’t come close to covering all that Tom talked about, but the common thread around all of his presentation was this: If you’re ever going to sell castings on any scale, you must have a process and a product that is repeatable and verifiable.
Now most people reading this can get away with some coffee grounds and banana peels here and some horse manure there and still sell some good worm castings if they want. But Tom’s customers aren’t looking for just some good worm castings. They need a product created through that verifiable and repeatable process.
How to Use Vermicompost and Earthworms in China
Sun Zhenjun, China Agricultural University, Beijing
The next presenter was Dr. Sun Zhenjun, a professor at China Agricultural University. The presentation’s name is a bit of a misnomer as it was more about the science of vermicompost than about how to use it.
Dr. Sun’s presentation overlapped quite a bit with that of previous presenters but I certainly took home some helpful and good-to-know nuggets from his talk:
- Microbial diversity is the real difference between compost and vermicompost.
- Only 5% of microbes have any known effects on plants or soil.
- Only 2 of those microbes are responsible for keeping most pathogens in check.
- In order for nitrogen to be plant-available, it must be in the nitrate (NH4) or ammonium form (NO3).
- 20% VC is the optimal dose to prevent and cure soil-borne diseases in the seedling stage, but the percentage is also affected by its feedstock and which crop it is used on.
Effects on Plant Growth and Pest and Disease Suppression Using Vermicompost Aqueous Extracts
Norman Arancon, Ph.D. U of H- Hilo
Back to the floor was Norman who hit us all with another info-packed presentation, this time on aqueous vermicompost extracts (nerdpeak for worm castings tea).
And naturally, he started off by belting out Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water.
You read that correctly.
I have to admit, I didn’t think he going to pull it off and I was frankly horrified when he pulled out his iPhone to provide the background music. But when it comes down to it, he was the only guy in that room with the charisma, energy, and frankly, cajones, to do that.
So hats off to you Norman! You’ve got pipes!
iPhone safely back in his pocket, Norman, got back down to business, first reminding us of the differences between thermophilic compost and worm compost, chiefly the fact that the heat from thermophilic composts kills the mesophilic microbes that makes vermicompost such a potent soil additive.
Norman’s a huge proponent of aerated compost teas (ACT) vs non-aerated teas (NCT). While both types of teas are created with by steeping a “tea bag” of vermicompost in water, aerated teas are made by introducing the use of a bubbler, which over the course of several hours, oxygenates the solution, activating a rocking microbial party within.
Compared to NCTs, ACTs are:
- More alkaline
- Higher in conductivity and salt as the aeration physically releases salts and minerals into the liquid solution
- Higher in nitrogen in plant-available nitrate form
- Much higher in microbial activity in comparison to both NCT and thermophilic compost tea.
- Higher in microbial biomass
- Better for plant growth at all stages
Here’s the thing that’s always kind of deterred me from making vermicompost tea. It sounds like a bit of a pain. Here I am, patting myself on the back for cultivating some pretty sweet black gold over the course of several months and now I’m supposed to make something else with it? And oh by the way I need more equipment to do it?
It better be worth it.
Well, for some practical (and even financial) reasons, it’s clearly worth it.
Firstly, vermicompost in liquid form is a much more efficient way to transfer its biological and chemical properties to your plants as you have the option to use it as a foliar spray to provide its benefits directly.
Secondly, a little bit of vermicompost goes a loooooonnnnnng way. Entrepreneurs, listen up! Norman’s presentation indicated that aerated worm compost tea at just 1% concentration provided the greatest benefit for seed germination. In other words, you could make 100 gallons of some awesome seed sprouting juice with just one gallon of vermicompost.
Thirdly, while your core business may be worm or worm castings sales, you can introduce worm compost tea as a value added product with very little effort. The hard part, making the compost, is already done.
The catch is that ACT has a very short shelf life in comparison to vermicompost, losing nearly all of its microbial activity within a few days without use. Norman says that cold storage is shown to extend its stored benefit past 150 days, but that microbial activity crashes after 21 days.
Selling Vermicompost Products: Market Research and Development
Ron Alexander, R. Alexander & Associates
Given Rhonda’s emphasis on marketing, it was only appropriate that the final presenter was a marketing expert. Ron Alexander is a top-flight marketer with 27 years of experience in the world of composting and organics recycling. I’m sad to say that this is when my laptop’s battery finally gave up for the day and I couldn't capture much of the presentation (you'll just have to come next year!), but Ron's advice reinforced many of the previous two days' lessons:
- Know your product, inside and out
- Get it tested!
- Know where your product fits in the market
- Is it marketed as a fertilizer or a soil amendment?
- Know the regulations and what claims you can make on your labels
To be sure, much of Ron's presentation was aimed at mid-scale and larger vermicompost producers but his advice is applicable across nearly every market and I certainly appreciated his no-nonsense approach.
2015 Vermiculture Conference Summary
What a great two days! Obviously, the presentations were packed with actionable information. But the informal interactions are where I did some of my best learning. The engineer consulting on food waste disposal for an Ivy League school, the wealth manager starting a vermicomposting operation for altruistic purposes in Costa Rica, the municipal waste managers, the successful vermiculture and vermicomposting entrepreneurs and the wannabes looking to follow in their footsteps all volunteered their own setbacks and successes and made this a really rich experience.
I came away very excited about the future of vermicomposting and its economic opportunities but it also sent me a clear message that I can't continue
on my current path over the long term, which is an unsustainable hybrid of local and drop-shipped worm sales, small scale vermicompost production and a website that – for now – barely makes enough money to pay for itself. I need to go big or go home, from both a vermicomposting and marketing standpoint to make this worth my time. Blessed with two young children, a patient wife, and a really good job, I'm not making an economically-sound decision to continue trying to make a business out of cinder block beds in my barn with a trommel I made out of bike rims and landscape cloth. It has to be bigger. There have to be continuous flow-through digesters in the equation. And there must be a market (there's that word again) for the castings or it's not worth my time as anything other than a hobby.
Now that may sound like depressing news to receive, but by choosing to attend this conference, I put myself in touch with people who can help show me how it's done. These are people like Dan Holcombe, who designed some of the first flow-through digesters including those in use at Worm Power. Or Cristy Christie, who educated her customers so well that she must grow her business in order to meet their demand for castings. Or Ron Alexander who is the go-to guy for the marketing of castings. All of these people are a wealth of information and could help grow my business – or yours – and prevent costly mistakes along the way.
But not all of you are interested in the business end of things. Maybe you want to help your municipality start a vermicomposting operation. Or maybe you have a grant to attend conferences on environmental issues. In any case, the amount of information (and enjoyment!) you can get from two days in Raleigh is clearly worth the price of admission and save you the anguish of trying to learn this stuff yourselves.
I highly recommend attending next year's NCSU Vermiculture Conference! If you attended this year or previous years or are hoping to attend next year, I'd love to hear your thoughts and input in the comments below.