Other than this site, my main connection to the vermiculture and vermicomposting community is through the various Facebook groups I belong to. Like most social media communities, the conversation tends to be dominated by very few people who post frequently.
But every now and then, this quiet, infrequent poster named Heather Rinaldi would add her two cents and it would catch my attention. I don't know if its the fact that she's a talented writer, or just backs up her opinion with data, but there was something about her I wanted to learn more about.
So I asked around a little bit and here is what I found.
Most of us actually dabble in worm composting.
Heather Rinaldi is in full-on “Beast Mode.”
She's the sole proprietor of Texas Worm Ranch, a 16,000-sq ft facility in Dallas, TX that produces organic vegetables and processes over 5000 lbs of waste per week. She has a diverse and knowledgable customer base with revenues growing around 15% per year without an advertising budget.
She has built a solid team of 5 employees who she calls “smart, hardworking, and overqualified” that “add so much” to her life.
Thankfully, Heather agreed to answer a crapload of my questions and the answers she gave are nothing short of fantastic.
Before we get into the questions and answers, let me say that for anyone looking to make this worm thing a job for themselves, please learn from Heather's example. She's very forthright about the difficulties one can face trying to make the transition from a “home gamer” to a real business owner and thankfully gives us a reality check about an industry too many people assume is easy to succeed in.
But Heather has overcome those difficulties to become, in my book, a leading authority on vermicomposting. And after you read the interview, I bet you'll think the same.
UWC: Tell us a little about Heather Rinaldi
HR: If you called me Mom, wife, entrepreneur, gardener, health promoter, food enthusiast, mom taxi, athletic coordinator, head cheerleader, nature lover, environmental activist, soil remediator, idealist, educator, biologist, researcher and aspiring author you would be correct. If you added accountant, janitor, web administrator, marketing pro, poop shoveler, waste management professional or recycler, you would also cover a few of the hats I wear.
UWC: When did you get into vermicomposting?
HR: I am a lifetime gardener and started growing organically many years ago. Research is a love of mine, and I have always been fascinated with any biology. Soil microbes in vermicompost seemed so rational and the more I read the more convinced I was that nature’s answer was the one I should follow to grow safe, nutrient-dense food.
The success from that first worm bin has started all this trouble. I had a local mentor who had raised worms and Bentley Christie’s Red Worm Composting site and many of his patient responses were integral to my early confidence and success.
The Basics of Texas Worm Ranch's Business
UWC: When you listed Texas Worm Ranch on the Urban Worm Network, you indicated you processed roughly 5000 lbs per week. Wowsers! How much vermicompost does that yield?
HR: We start with pre-composting the carbon material outside. So we have quite a mountain of leaf and wood chip matter. That reduces down as it decomposes.
Some gets used as mulch in our gardens and some is used to create compost for our gardens. We get hundreds of pumpkins in late fall and we have waste dropped to us by a 3rd-party recycler from a local juice bar. What goes to the worm bins over time helps us produce somewhere between 7,000-12,000 lbs of vermicompost a month.
UWC: Give me a second to pick my jaw up off the floor.
OK, so do you have to pay for the feedstock?
HR: Two local mowing crews dump fall leaves at our facility (one uses only solar powered equipment and organic practices!), and a local tree trimmer dumps wood chips. A sustainable recycler brings fruit and vegetable pulp from a local juice bar company.
All of them would have to pay to dump at a landfill or compost facility. They are thrilled to be partners with us, and we love keeping waste out of the landfill and helping other small businesses.
Neighbors dump their Halloween pumpkins at the Worm Ranch if I am lucky or on my porch if I’m not so lucky. (I have to haul hundreds of pounds of pumpkins to the warehouse—quite the workout!)
UWC: No manure then?
HR: We stopped using all manure waste about a year ago. The stable owner died and he was our only guaranteed source of sand-free manure. The sand can break the equipment of our largest clients that make large batches of AACT** or extractions from our castings, and I had already been concerned with herbicide damage possibilities, E Coli, antibiotics, and other issues with manure.
I also had a goal to design a more fungal dominant vermicompost for 2 reasons: 1) one of our largest clients is an organic tree arborist and 2) a year of massive flooding across Texas made it evident that most agricultural fields, even organic ones, were so low in fungal hyphae/organic matter that they had no water-holding capacity.
It is hard to get stubborn farmers to stop tilling and use regenerative ways, but if they can see that inoculating with fungi and adding continuous organic matter helps their profits, maybe we can solve a whole lot of problems like water management, farm profits and yields, global hunger, reduced CO2 in the atmosphere, and global climate change.
**AACT stands for actively aerated compost tea.
UWC: Hold on a sec. I have to Google “hyphae.”
OK, I'm back. Does it take longer for your fungal-dominant vermicompost to finish? I would imagine the wood chips necessary to create it take longer to break down.
HR: To completely break down, yes…we actually screen casting material from bins at a typical rate (ideally 12-14 weeks) and just throw large screened wood pieces back in bins for continuous breakdown.
UWC: Between worms and byproducts like castings and tea, what is the percentage breakdown of your sales?
HR: Revenue and profits are quite different. The lowest profit margin for us is in worms and produce. Honestly, we call our worm sales a social venture, and I only sell worms because I want to encourage worldwide recycling and sustainable garden practices any way I can. We have our gardens for classes and as a showcase for our product credibility. People love our produce! We are almost always the first ones to sell out and can sometimes be out of produce an hour after market starts!
Back to revenue:
- Bulk vermicompost: 50%
- Classes and speaking engagements with post class sales of product (worm composting, sustainable gardening, regenerative agriculture): 20%
- Local and online sales of worms, Worm Wine AACT and vermicompost: 10%
- Farmers market (worm related): 10%
- Naturally grown produce and plants sold at farmers market: 10%
UWC: How much time do you feel you spend educating customers? Or has the market developed so well that you can't keep up with demand?
HR: One-on-one instruction has become so hard. I had to drop my phone number from everywhere, or otherwise I would spend ALL DAY telling people why they can’t throw worms out in their hard, hot clay-heavy Texas yard.
I get so many emails and private Facebook messages, it is very hard to keep up—especially during spring busy season with business, kids’ sports and tax season in full swing. I just can’t handle adding unlimited access by phone calls which require stopping all work, stripping off gloves or washing hands and trying to find a quiet place to talk, locating a pen, paper and surface to write on, and hoping that piece of paper doesn’t accidentally get lost!
If they email me, I have several cut-and-paste templates I can explain why, how, and what they can do. Classes help increase the percentage of success. We talk to hundreds each week at market. It works out to a ton of education.
UWC: How much seasonality does your business see?
HR: A lot! We are slammed from February to late May. We're dead in July and August, and rev up again September thru November. December and January can be slow in sales, but we are busy getting prepared for the spring season.
UWC: What are your thoughts on the FDA rule proposal on the prohibition of manures in agriculture?
HR: Eye roll. Just another way to help the chemical companies and corporate agriculture maintain market dominance under the guise of protecting the public.
UWC: Any plans for growth?
HR: In this chapter, I am more interested in creating efficiencies and continuous quality improvements. If we can create more vermicompost within our 4 walls while maintaining and improving quality and limiting expenses, and increase profits, that would be great.
UWC: You have an interesting way of vermicomposting with what looks like a bed on tables. Did you come up with this yourself? Is it labor intensive?
HR: It is very labor intensive, but we can use a high percentage of repurposed materials to accomplish this. Much of the lumber we use comes from apartment developments. We ask for permission to get lumber out of their trash dumpsters. Pull a few nails, and voila!, worm bins (and less waste to the landfill).
Concrete blocks came to us free from a project where they were wanting to get rid of those. One of the reasons we have the beds high off the ground is to have a check on fire ants. We can see a trail coming to a specific bed and quickly stop it with organic methods.
Open-air vermicomposting helps to keep material from getting anaerobic, so I do think that is a plus. Worms seem happy and the lab results are great. If we could reduce my back and body pain, it would be even better!
UWC: What kind of equipment do you use?
HR: We have two vibrating-motor sorting machines we made to separate worms and large material for our first round of vermicompost sifting. We take the finer material from that screening to our rotating trommel (named Bertha), which has an even finer screen. We have a 80-gallon brew tank and pump set up for AACT brewing.
UWC: Do you think the worm business appears easier on the surface than it is in real life? It's easy to look at a product (worms) that sells for the price of Kobe beef and think “I could do that,” not realizing that it's still a lot of work, and that's even before you begin to find buyers.
HR: I have many people come to me on the verge of retirement, with physical limitations. It worries me to have them think they can reasonably handle the physical aspect and make a full time salary from worms.
Then you have people who have never managed a corporate business plan or spreadsheet, never dealt with websites or marketing. They don’t understand tax issues. The scale they have might require employees and they have no management experience. They may not have the proper facilities to keep them alive in Texas.
There are a lot of factors to keeping your head above water and 99% of the people are truly not prepared to succeed at a full-time business. Small financial additions as a hobby is possible, full-time business is another story.
UWC: Can you give 2015 growth in percentage terms?
HR: We seem to maintain 10-15% growth year over year.
Vermicompost and Marijuana
UWC: You and I had a sidebar conversation about selling to marijuana growers and I think’s safe to say we’re both a little conflicted about chasing that business. But I understand your business is booming with them. Can you talk about how that market developed for you?
HR: Curious thing, all the states that have either legalized or had a vote (even if it failed) to legalize have a much higher percentage of sales than other states (other than our home state). I don’t ask those online purchasers, but I think I know what is growing on there.
UWC: When people call or message you with orders, do they actually identify themselves as medical marijuana growers?
HR: Only one company has. I’m fairly certain the majority of the rest are recreational growers, or people trying to establish their business.
UWC: I think it speaks to the quality of your product that Colorado marijuana growers pay substantial shipping costs to get your vermicompost as opposed to paying someone local for their home-brewed castings.
HR: We proudly display our biology reports and marijuana growers are much more savvy and into research than the average farmer (who sometimes get stuck in the traditional rut). We get asked to send our most recent results too, and are happy to do that.
UWC: Where and how do you get your product tested?
HR: Earthfort Lab for biology and Texas Plant and Soil Lab for humic acid. My bulk customers understand microbes are the true benefit, so we have no need for standard NPK-based testing. Customers who don’t understand get a microbiology lesson and the light usually goes on after that.
UWC: How often do you send for testing?
HR: I usually have our biology test run twice a year. Several of our customers also test our product to see if our quality is consistent (or they have project specs to meet). They almost always share the results they get, which are always close to what our own tests are.
UWC: What are the numbers you're looking for in your vermicompost test results?
HR: It depends on who we are designing it for. Tree specialists might need higher fungal numbers, backyard gardeners might need more bacterial dominance. We want high protozoa numbers for nutrient cycling, as long as it is aerobic. We want balance to ensure maturity or near-maturity. It’s hard to explain in a few sentences!
UWC: Yeah, so I'm happy just making worm poop and here you are “designing” it!
Back to the cannabis growers, is there anything about your vermicompost that they like in particular?
HR: Nitrogen cycling! Nitrogen cycling builds foliage, so I think that is what they are attracted to.
UWC: Do you choose your feedstock to match some sort of desired vermicompost nutrient and microbial profile?
HR: Our woody mix is increased for more fungal dominant castings and we can increase balance of leaf matter to green waste to go more bacterial dominant. I can look at a bed and make a really good guess at what it will lab test towards.
Worm Tea and Bagging the Vermicompost
UWC: Let's talk worm tea. The economics are astounding. Just a 1% concentration can give awesome results which makes using the tea for something like lawn care economical where it's not economical to use castings and vermicompost.
Is tea a significant part of your business?
HR: The majority of our large customers make their own, so it can be made and used as quickly as possible. That business is growing significantly and many of those customers use soil microbe consultants.
Backyard gardeners haven’t quite caught up. It takes a whole lot of science knowledge! And we aren’t spending millions on a marketing campaign (like the chemical companies) and those sales are fairly flat.
UWC: How much can you produce each day?
HR: 80 to 250 gallons, if needed.
UWC: How do you store your castings and/or vermicompost? Or are you bagging and shipping as fast as you can process it?
HR: Store?! We can’t keep in stock!
UWC: Alright, you tycoon, you! 🙂 How do you bag it?
HR: By hand. Shoot me now and put my back out of misery. It's hard to find and afford machines we could use. We use the sand bags and small lined coffee bags to ensure oxygen. We try hard to educate our customers about care of the vermicompost for best microbial inoculation. Bulk castings are picked up in repurposed mineral tubs I get from a grass fed beef and lamb customer, who we also buy lamb and beef from!
UWC: Shooting people is my other blog. Can you answer some questions for the beginning vermicomposter?
Advice for Beginning Vermicomposters
UWC: What are the top 3 mistakes beginning vermicomposters make?
HR: 1) Keeping them outside in the heat. 2) Overfeeding. 3) Buying from the discount worm seller or Walmart (who probably buys from the discount worm seller) and getting a large % of Indian Blues instead of buying from trusted local sources.
UWC: Uh oh, Larry Shier is going to have some words with you for picking on his blues!
So if someone were just starting out, what kind of bin would you recommend they start out with?
HR: Either a simple DIY plastic bin or one of the Worm Inns. I am not a fan of the stacking systems, the potential anaerobic conditions they create and the promotion of using anaerobic leachate. It is very expensive, carries potential pathogen harm and has such little square footage that the chances for mishaps are high.
UWC: Yep. People seem to brag about the “tea” they get from bottom of these stackables as though it's a good thing.
HR: Yes, I love teaching my worm composting classes and getting people started on the right foot! There are too many “Youtube experts” with no experience sending incorrect info out there!
UWC: What advice would you have for anyone who wants to start their own vermicomposting or vermiculture business?
HR: Have a purpose in mind other than getting rich quickly. Chances are, you won’t be the next worm millionaire.
My goal is to create a legacy of environmental stewardship and make my community and our planet a healthier place. When I help people be healthier, it makes me very happy. Employing and paying a decent wage to my great work team makes me happy.
Learn from people who have been in the worm business for a long time, like Worm Farming Alliance members or Bentley’s Red Worm Composting page. There are many aspects to the worm business that you could pursue. Plan to work very hard, not just physically, but mentally also to make your business a success. Murphy’s Law is always in effect when you have living critters to contend with, so be prepared to have some missteps along the way.
Wrapping it up
Awesome. Freaking awesome.
Heather does not toot her own horn, but every now and then, my ears would perk up when I would hear her advice on the Worm Farming Alliance Facebook group, and think to myself “This woman knows what's up.”
Again, I pat myself on the back for simply making worm poop. But Heather and the crew at the Texas Worm Ranch can actually design it meet certain microbial profiles, which I find extremely impressive.
Heather's evolution from hobbyist to kinda-sorta business-woman in a garage to a highly sought-after source of designer worm doo-doo is fascinating. But her words of caution to anyone looking to follow in her footsteps just can't be ignored.
I know I learned a buttload in this interview.
If so, let us know in the comments below!