Phew! The 19th Annual Vermiculture Conference in Raleigh is in the books! It was an absolutely incredible weekend with lots of camaraderie, beer, networking, speakers, coffee, beer, food, and getting to know fellow worm heads. And more beer or tequila…..for some of us anyways!
While the thoughts are still fresh, I wanted to make sure to throw together a trip report of my time down there. This may be somewhat of a stream-of consciousness post, rather than an exhaustive play-by-play of the event like I did in 2015. This is for a couple reasons.
Firstly, I did not take copious notes of the presentations and even if I tried, it’s difficult to distill a presentation like those delivered by Dr Norman Arancon into a brief synopsis and do it any justice.
Secondly, that 2015 post took waayy too much work!
NCSU Vermiculture Conference Overview
116 people from the US, Mexico, Canada, and Europe attended the November 10-11 event, held in the James B. Hunt Library on the campus of North Carolina State University in Raleigh, NC. While a few folks were from municipalities and universities, most were small business owners of one sort or another or aspiring business owners, by my estimation.
10 speakers gave presentations ranging from the effects of vermicompost and vermicompost extracts and teas on plants to the economics of vermiculture and vermicomposting to soil science to business principles and marketing of compost-related products.
Firstly, a plug for Rhonda Sherman, who has put this conference together for the last 19 years! She works really hard bringing folks together and creating a top-notch experience. Rhonda’s a one-woman show, so there’s no laser-light show, a DJ to play intro music or any of that garbage. She doesn’t vet the presentations or make the speakers toe the party line. She just assembles a diverse lineup of speakers and puts them in a room with an equally diverse group of enthusiastic attendees ……and otherwise lets the magic happen.
Speaking of magic, that also happens during the breaks, lunch time, and at Sammy’s Tap and Grill in the evenings before, during, and after the conference. Social opportunities like this are truly the special sauce of an event like this.
It can’t be reproduced by simply watching video of the event.
Is There Video?
And speaking of video, it is VERY common for people to ask me if there is video or if there are plans for video. There was no video shot this year and to be honest, there may be some legal obstacles to overcome and the university is likely claim ownership of the video as the conference is on their property.
But if the conference is ever recorded and sold to viewers (most likely through a streaming service where unauthorized downloads would be difficult), then I would imagine the price of access would equal the $300+ price of admission or come really close.
Just wanted to get that out there!
So back to the “meat” of the conference…..
2018 Vermiculture Conference Speaker Lineup
I thought the speaker lineup this year was excellent and the topics were very pertinent to the bulk of the audience. It seemed to be the perfect mix of science- and business-based topics.
On the science side, everyone seemed riveted by presentations from Dr. Norman Arancon and Heather Rinaldi about the effects of vermicompost and vermicompost tea on various plants and what is actually going on in our soil.
But without effective – and realistic! – business strategy and execution, the wonderful effects of vermicompost on our soil would remain relegated to university studies and boutique vermicomposting operations subsidized by other profitable ventures.
Zach Brooks is the owner of Arizona Worm Farm and he gave a detailed and brutally honest presentation on the economics of vermiculture and how his growing business has eked out a profit. He exposed the exact costs, revenue, and profit of each of the various facets of his business. I would imagine it's unusual for a business to offer a peek under the financial hood, but data like that is highly valuable for anyone who wants the straight poop on making money with worm poop. Bottom line: There are easier ways to make a million dollars!
Cristy Christie of Black Diamond Vermicompost in Paso Robles, CA detailed how she went from “zero to business” in the span of a few years. I love Cristy’s story and found her path to be so relatable to most folks in the audience. I adore Cristy and credit her advice in 2015 with steering me away from a potentially painful venture in trying to make a go at a mid-scale vermicomposting business myself.
Texas Worm Ranch owner and my “dirt girlfriend” Heather Rinaldi shared the basics of how she creates designer vermicomposts and she delivered a primer on soil biology. Most manure-based vermicomposts are bacterial-dominant, but Heather’s feedstock and processes yield a more fungal-dominant by-product. It's much appreciated by her customers: a Dallas-area arborist, turf specialists from professional sports teams, and cannabis growers who are willing to pay the considerable freight to procure Heather’s worm castings.
Dr. Norman Arancon’s so nice, you’ve got to hear him twice! He spoke on Saturday about the effects of vermicompost on the growth and yield of various plants and on Sunday he covered the effects of vermicompost tea on a similar array of plant and vegetable crops. Norman (it’s a first name basis around here!) is one of the world’s preeminent scholars on vermicompost, if not THE leading academic on the subject.
He studied under Dr Clive Edwards at THE Ohio State University and is now an associate professor at the University of Hawaii-Hilo.
He is a legend in these circles.
While I can’t even come close to transmitting all of the information Norman presented, I can say this to a vermicomposting enthusiast who wants simple answers to questions about how much vermicompost or tea to use on a given plant: there are no simple answers! Application rates, existing soil conditions, plant species, the growth stage of the plant, the type of waste recycled into vermicompost, the age of the vermicompost, the plant growth hormones present, and more all factor in to the efficacy of vermicompost and tea. You really need to hear one of Norman’s presentations to fully appreciate these complexities.
Mi amigo Francisco Niembro wowed again with his presentation on how his company, Aldea Verde Lombricultura sets up some of the world’s largest composting and vermicomposting operations for their mostly agricultural clients in Mexico and the Caribbean who are happy to turn their own waste into vermicompost that they can use to increase their own yields by 20-80%. The scale of Francisco’s operations is truly breathtaking.
(But be warned about Francisco. He doesn't understand the American tendency to consume tequila in shots. He savors his Patron and sips it like a fine wine.)
Dan Lonowski of Michigan SoilWorks delivered a fascinating synopsis of the history of continuous flow vermicomposters from the first attempts at gargantuan machines in the 1970s to the more streamlined CFTs today, delving into the common failure points of most CFTs and how various designs have attempted to handle the unique challenges of large-scale vermicomposting.
I delivered a presentation suggesting ways that solo entrepreneurs in the vermiculture industry can manage the hurdles of growing a business with little time and how business owners can differentiate their products and themselves. In short, I think solo entrepreneurs, especially ones in an industry as decentralized as this, tend to DIY everything, leaving us precious little time for truly profitable activities.
Aquaponics consultant Dr. Rachel Tinker-Kulberg detailed some of her latest work around the benefits of horseshoe crab blood (of all things!) as well as a plethora of business considerations that any vermicomposting operation should consider.
Compost marketing expert Ron Alexander delivered compost and vermicompost sales advice in his usual humorous, forthright manner, and as always, I took away some new nuggets of information around the marketing of worm castings and vermicompost, especially as it relates to compliance with government regulations.
And then there’s Mark Purser of the Worm Farm in Durham, CA. Mark is a legend in this community, and for good reason. Featured on CNBC’s Blue Collar Millionaires, not only does his business generate well into the tens of thousands of dollars daily(!), but Mark is a gentleman and more than willing to share his knowledge and spend time with anyone who approaches him.
My Takeaways from the Conference
Trying to absorb all the material this conference has to offer is like trying to drink from a firehose without wasting a drop. It just can’t be done.
But I did take some “nuggets” away from the conference this year, a few of which are going to be welcome to anyone who thinks they’re just around the corner from a lifetime of riches in vermicomposting. Please keep in mind that these thoughts are mine only and may not represent the viewpoints of the presenters.
Just Selling Worms or Castings Probably Won’t Cut It
While lots of folks at the conference – most I would imagine – don’t expect an easy road to a full-time income, I think lots of folks that I talked to might be underestimating the A) incredibly hard work it would take to develop a market where it may not currently exist, and/or B) the scale required to produce worms or castings with enough efficiency to have a sufficient stream of profit from worms or castings alone.
Zach Brooks’ presentation was a public service in disabusing anyone of the idea that this is easy. Zach is an MBA who self-funded over $100,000 worth of capital expenditures to start the Arizona Worm Farm. He is well-equipped to be highly profitable, relative to most small business owners.
But even Zach isn’t finding this easy and has had to diversity his revenue stream, which should give pause to anyone thinking that castings sales alone will lead to profitable business by itself.
We Need Save the World Dreamers AND Profit-Seekers!
When I ponder the potential for wide-ranging adoption of vermicomposting as a form of organic recycling and soil regeneration and balance it against capitalist impulses that may lead to behavior counter to what’s best for our environment, I’m reminded of a scene in Food Inc, a 2008 documentary about the harm wrought by “Big Ag.”
My memory is fuzzy, but two gentlemen from an organic food producer were working with Wal-Mart to introduce more organic foods into its stores. They acknowledged something to the effect that, to the purists in the organic movement, they were dancing with the devil.
But they also said that if the organic movement was destined to go mainstream (this was in 2008 when many fewer organic options were available), that larger retailers like WalMart were going to have to be part of the equation.
There is a parallel path with vermicomposting as well, in my opinion. In order to realize the potential in for vermicompost to restore soil and reduce the strain on our landfills, we need the partnerships and at-risk capital from profit-seekers and corporations who may not actually share much in common with the environmentally-conscious folks who are the “hardcore” members of the vermicomposting community.
We can’t just rely on people doing the right thing for the “right” reasons. We need to make it profitable for people to do the right thing for the “wrong” reasons.
Worm People Are Amazing
An interesting social experiment would be to ask a random stranger on the sidewalk to observe the interactions between the attendees (speakers AND guests) at the NCSU Vermiculture Conference and ask them to identify the multimillionaire (Mark) or the world’s leading vermicompost scientist (Norman). I don’t think our stranger would be able to discern a hierarchy between Mark or Norman and beginning vermicomposters.
There may be rock stars in the group…..but no divas! Not at this year's conference anyways.
Relationships Are So Important
Rhonda is pretty darned clear about this point; in order to get the most out of your conference admission, you have to take the opportunity to network and meet other folks! I couldn’t agree more. The industry is too decentralized to simply join a group and be fed the information you need to know in order to advance the cause of vermiculture and vermicomposting.
(The sound you hear is me climbing on to a soapbox.)
I am fairly upfront in that I am not – and probably never will be – an expert vermicomposter with encyclopedic Arancon-esque knowledge about vermicompost’s wondrous effects on soil. I do not have the cajones to attempt anything on the scale of Mark Purser or Francisco Niembro. I can’t build a sweet, sweet CFT like Dan Lonowski.
I rely on transmitting the expertise of others to further the cause of vermicomposting AND to further my own interests and grow my business. I do that via my blog, via my e-mail list, and via the very personal interactions I have at this conference. The trust I have built with readers and some of the folks mentioned above is why I have been able to take a hobby and turn it into a financially worthwhile venture with the Urban Worm Bag.
It has nothing to do with expertise….it’s primarily about relationships.
Anyone can do that, but only if you can weave yourself into the fabric of the community and get to know people. If you want to go it alone and do this in a vacuum, you’ll be missing out on the hard-earned expertise of others as you try to reinvent yet another wheel.
Just attending the conference isn't sufficient either! You have to get out there and be an active, engaged member of the community!
Off the soapbox!
A Quick Pitch for the WFA
One of the ways to develop relationships is to join a group like the Worm Farming Alliance. Roughly 15-20% of the attendees and 80% of the speakers at this year's conference were members. Started by Bentley Christie of the popular site Red Worm Composting, the WFA is a knowledge-sharing and networking group where members can trade ideas, skill share with one another, and find useful information often not made available to the average vermiculturalist. We have members who range from beginners in the worm business to large-scale worm farmers like George Mingin and vermicomposters like Francisco.
Note: Bentley asked me and a few others to help manage the WFA a couple years ago, so I receive a small financial benefit from membership dues.
I have to offer the following caveats though. It is not a silver bullet for a business. There are NO secrets or revelations that, by themselves, will be the key to success. And most of the action is on Facebook in our private group, so if you're not on Facebook, then the value is diminished somewhat. You will also often get a range of opinions on a subject, and they may often contradict one another. Folks like Norman and Rhonda are honorary members, but I would not consider this a good way to engage them personally. At $8 per month, the cost is not prohibitive by any means, but it may not be worth it if you don't develop any relationships with other members.
With that out of the way, let me say that the online relationships I've developed as part of the WFA have led to not just Facebook messages, but phone calls, texts, and face-to-face interactions with people I now call friends. These relationships are not just important, but critical to my own success. And I would like to think my skill set is useful to other members as well.
Please visit the Worm Farming Alliance if you are interested in membership!
Who’s Interested in the 20th Annual Vermiculture Conference?
If you have any interest whatsoever in attending a future Vermiculture Conference, I’d love to hear from you! I’ll make sure you stay up to date on any announcements about dates, speakers, or any other pertinent information.
As you can tell from above, the social aspect of the conference is huge and a lot of fun, so if we plan any pre-conference gatherings, I’ll make sure you’re kept up to speed. (Even if you're already on my list, entering your e-mail below will let me know you're interested in getting notified of next year's conference!)
Please sign up below!
Note: I have no financial interest in attendance. I just get a kick out of this stuff!
The 2020 Vermicomposter's Starter Guide
Your roadmap to a successful beginning in vermicomposting.