Urban Worm Interview Series: Mary Ann Smith

mary-ann-smith-valley-view-farms

Mary Ann Smith

It all started with a picture my new “worm friend” Mary Ann Smith of Valley View Farms posted to Facebook a couple years ago.  She had made some pretty awesome vermicompost and decided to experiment with different vermicompost-to-soil ratios and how they affected the germination and growth of cucumber seedlings.

And not only were the results amazing, so was the quality of the photos she took.

I kept in touch Mary Ann over the following few months and began to learn more about her, how she got into vermicomposting and vermiculture, and how she was able to turn a particularly painful experience with Wormz Organics into a hobby that now gives her an awesome resource for her own garden AND quite a bit of money on the side through local sales.

Mary Ann lives in the western North Carolina town of Waynesville, on a 2.5-acre farm with her husband of 37 years.  A retired math teacher with four grown children, Mary Ann now has time to focus on gardening . . . and her worms of course!

Thankfully, she spent some time answering a few questions about how she got into vermicomposting in the first place, how she’s spreading the word in her local community and literally creating a profitable market out of thin air.

Vermicompost-benefits-mary-ann-smithUWC: What sparked your interest in this worm thing? And when did you get started?

MAS: I became interested in worm farming when a friend shared an ad on Facebook about a company that offered to train people and provide everything needed to start a worm business. I made the decision to join the company in April 2014.

UWC: Were you a regular ole’ composter before?

MAS: I had composted casually.

UWC:  You attended the NCSU Vermiculture Conference in Raleigh in 2014.  How was the experience there?

MAS:  The conference was so intriguing to me. There were attendees from all over the world, and the speakers were the leaders in the fields of research and production. I loved hearing about the science behind raising worms and using vermicompost. After listening to the experts describe their scientific studies, I decided to come home and try my hand at doing a study that was relevant to me and people who would be interested in buying product from me. That is when I did my germination study and had what I felt were clearly demonstrable results with my seedlings in differing ratios of castings.

UWC:  Do you need a PhD in biology to understand what they talk about?

MAS:  No.  The speakers seem very aware that they are not speaking to a group of academics, but rather to people who want reliable and pertinent information about how to worm farm and produce quality vermicompost.

UWC:  You got caught up in the Wormz Organics scam, where you basically paid a guy $4500 for worm farming supplies under the assumption that he would buy your castings back from you. He’s sitting in jail somewhere now.

Can you name the one thing you’d like to pass along to the readers from that experience?

MAS:  I guess the most obvious advice would be to make sure you can trust the person or company with whom you do business. With that said, there was a really convincing front to this business. The primary person who ran the scam was a total professional with numerous successful scams under his belt. The drama that unfolded was surreal. In all, there were about 200 people who were taken in by the business and, unfortunately, the majority of them have not been able to develop successful worm enterprises.

UWC:  Were there any blessings-in-disguise that you feel came out it?

The biggest blessings were the good people that I have gotten to know and the relationships that developed because we really pulled together to try to make the best of the situation. We are still networking with our ideas of how to make our worm farming successful. And I have not regretted in any way learning about worm farming. I still get irritated about crooked people taking money in such a dishonest way, but I have never seen the worms as anything but an asset and a valuable investment.

UWC:  I have made no secret about being shy about promoting vermicomposting to the uninitiated. Do you have similar reservations?

MAS:  I can’t say I have strong reservations. Some people just immediately take to the idea of using worms to process food scraps. They seem to have a natural affinity to worms. I have a theory that everyone is born with a soft spot for worms. Have you met any 6-year-olds who don’t just want to get their hands on the little wigglers? Ha! For some reason some people do seem to acquire an aversion to worms, but my theory is that it is a learned response. Call me crazy, but that’s my theory and I’m sticking to it!

UWC:  You’re a fellow member of Bentley Christie’s Worm Farm Alliance. I am grateful for the access that has given me to Bentley’s mentorship and knowledge, especially the wonderful insight he and his admins pass along that are hard to find elsewhere.

Would you recommend the readers join WFA?

MAS:  The Worm Farming Alliance and corresponding Facebook group have certainly been the most helpful resources I have found. I remember when I first found the site, I wanted to make sure that it was reliable information, so I emailed Rhonda Sherman (who runs the NCSU Vermiculture Conference) and she verified that Bentley was a good source. Then I began to devour everything I could from the sites. I have subscribed to most everything Bentley offers, and I have never been disappointed.

I think my favorite things about Bentley’s posts are how readable they are and how he is always inserting humor. After all, surely most worm-heads have a good sense of humor!

UWC:  Are there other collaborative groups you’re a part of?

Yes, the Facebook group “Vermicomposting – Worm Farming” is another good page (with some overlap of members in both groups). I am in a couple of other small Facebook groups. I follow some blogs, but you know how they can be, some good information, some bad. And, of course, The Urban Worm Company has great articles!

UWC:  Thanks for the plug!  Your payment should be arriving any day now.

Can you briefly describe your system of vermicomposting?

MAS:  I have tried and continue to try a number of beddings and foods. I bed my worms in shallow 18” x 26” x 6” bins with black plastic vermiculture-grow-binscovers, all on shelving units my husband built (pictured). For my castings production, I have mainly used organic peat moss as bedding and a 50/50 mix of Purina Worm chow and used coffee grounds as food. This setup makes a very consistent vermicompost. In addition, I have also used various combinations of shredded newspaper and cardboard and dried grass as bedding, with food scraps and rabbit manure as food. I have some bins that I have started with the idea of breeder bins. Another bedding I want to try is coconut coir. I’m definitely still in the exploratory phase, finding out what works best for me. It’s all a grand experiment! My harvester is a simple hand-turned trommel with 1/8” and ¼” screens. I bag my vermicompost in 1-gallon ziplock bags and in 4-gallon and 8-gallon sandbags.
(Update: Mary Ann is now building a 16 square foot continuous flow through digester!)

UWC:  So no $20,000 commercial castings separator?

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Mary Ann’s makeshift – but effective! – harvesting trommel

MAS:  No, but sometime I really wished I had a motorized trommel!

UWC:  How have you adjusted or adapted your methods?

MAS:  Well, honestly I am a novice with just a couple years under my belt. I am still exploring lots of avenues (vermicompost, worm tea, bait and production of composting worms). That means I am trying new things continually, which I think is a big part of the fun with worms!

UWC:  Have you kept any of the methods you learned as part of Wormz Organics?

MAS:  Yes, the peat moss bedding has produced some excellent castings.  But special attention has to be given to adjusting the pH and to raising the C:N ratio, which the coffee grounds help to accomplish. I have my castings tested by the state agency here in NC and I am pursuing getting a microbial test. Most of my bins have run for about 120 days before I harvest them, so there is no question about the compost being a high percent of castings. I must admit that I would like to have a more environmentally-friendly bedding with more nutrition, so the search for bedding is an on-going project. I’m definitely making progress!

UWC:  Do you keep your vermicomposting and vermiculture separate? Or do you harvest worms for sale from your vermicomposting containers?

MAS: Currently I make it all one production. If I become more specialized, I can see the value in separating the two. I am hoping my breeder bins that I am working on will help me to know if I want to separate the production of each.

UWC:  What are some tools you have found to be worth the money? Anything you would not recommend buying for a beginner, other than a contract with a worm scammer? 😉mary-ann-at-work-vermicomposting

MAS: Definitely don’t feel like you have to sign a contract with anyone before starting your work with worms! I think a harvester that suits your needs is very important. Otherwise that job is an enormous amount of work. Other than that, I don’t use any fancy tools. A 3-gallon sprayer works fine!  

UWC:  You seem to have very little problem selling your castings and worm tea and you said you recently sold more than $500 worth in a weekend.   What are you doing around Waynesville to get the word out?

I think this will be really helpful to others. The first thing I realized about the worm business was the need to educate others about the benefits of having worms and of using vermicompost on plants. That meant I needed to be thoroughly educated myself, and I decided to invest the time and money to do that. I started with the NC State Vermiculture Conference… a GREAT starting place that I would recommend to anyone!

After that conference, I came home and began to compile my own resources for educating others. I wanted to speak with confidence aboutmary-ann-stand what I had learned from my own experiences, as well as through my studies. I did a germination study using castings, which I felt was very clear in showing the benefits. I used castings in my own garden with awesome results. I composed handouts about the benefits and uses of vermicompost, and about how to set up a home composting bin. I developed a PowerPoint presentation about vermiculture and vermicompost.

As soon as I had my resources in place, I began to look for ways to educate others and to network with people who would have an interest in the worm business. I found some speaking opportunities to show my PowerPoint presentation at the local library and at a local Middle School. I spoke to the Haywood Community College Horticulture Class and I enrolled in the Master Gardener course this year and made friends with lots of gardening enthusiasts, eventually presenting to the the benefits for vermicompost.

I took an agribusiness course called The Appalachian Farm School to expand my understanding of the business side of worm farming and, again, to network. I shared a blog post about my worm business on Buy Haywood, a website that features local businesses. I posted my worms for sale on Craigslist and Iwanna (a local sales magazine).

I spoke to educators in a neighboring county and now they are vermicomposting food waste from the cafeterias of 9 different schools.

I contacted a business in nearby Asheville, which has purchased worms. Probably the best contact of all is that I have participated in the local Farmers’ Market this year, selling produce and all my worm products.

I hope my point of sharing all this is clear… I brainstormed and followed every avenue I could think of to see what possibilities exist for marketing. It has been very time-consuming, but surprisingly successful. The town I live in is a small town, and yet I have found many people who are interested in the products I have to sell.

UWC:  You know, one of the things I’ve noticed about worm selling is that if you educate your customer about how to take care of worms, you probably rarely have repeat customers since they reproduce so fast that nobody really needs to come back for more. But with worm castings, do you find you have plenty of repeat customers?

MAS: I definitely have return customers with worm castings, but the really great return for me right now is with people who buy worm tea. The positive results of using worm tea are so quick, that people often return after only one week with stories of transformed plants. I have one customer who in about 5 weeks has gone from purchasing 1 gallon weekly to 7 gallons weekly. People have suggested that I put a warning label on the worm tea: “Danger. Stand back when using. Rapid plant growth may be overwhelming.” Ha!

UWC:  Do you have a website? If not, do you have any plans to start one?

MAS:  I do not have a website. (Don’t tell Bentley. Ha!) I do plan to start one, but honestly I think I need to be a little more definitive about the direction I want to go with my business. I do as much as I can on Facebook, especially in the networking realm.

UWC: If you could give the readers a few tips they should follow if they want to follow in your footsteps and sell castings, tea, or worms as a side business, what would they be?

MAS:

  1. Make your business personal. This is something you are selling because you are convinced of the value of it.
  2. Become thoroughly educated, and then make it a mission to educate others.
  3. Brainstorm ways to develop a market and be willing to spend lots of time and also some money to make it happen.
  4. Don’t let yourself get overly anxious about the speed of the development of your business. If you just keep pursuing opportunities, then gradually doors will open. I honestly feel the worm business is close behind the fast-growing trend of organic gardening and buying local. These all fit together naturally.

UWC: What are your top online resources for vermicomposting and vermiculture?

WORM FARMING ALLIANCE!!!!!   (UWC: Here’s the link again to my 3-month guarantee offer.)

NC State Vermicomposting Site

Urban Worm Company

Facebook group: Vermicomposting – Worm Farming

UWC:  Finally, if people are interested in you or your worm-related products, where can they reach you?

MAS: Message me on Facebook or email me at dpmasmith6@charter.net.

And please like the Valley View Farms Facebook Page!

Wrapping It Up & the Entrepreneurial View

Looking back on the interview with Mary Ann, it strikes me how she was able to market castings and tea by doing things that weren’t sales-y.

She did her homework on the product.  

Then she gathered her resources.  She built her evidence for the power of worm castings.

Then she actually paid to take classes that could complement vermicomposting but weren’t directly related to it.

She spoke at libraries and schools for free and helped set up vermicomposting operations for others without expecting payment.  

Only after doing the legwork grunt work to educate herself and her market did she set about selling her castings and her tea.  There’s a lot of toiling for free that you’ve got to do before seeing a tangible return.  But now Mary Ann’s got an enthusiastic market for a product that’s literally made while she sleeps, tends to her garden, or spends time with family.

In simple terms, Mary Ann didn’t just go out and find a market.  She created it with simple tools, a little manual labor, and a lot of hustle.

Are there more Mary Ann Smiths out there?  I hope so!  If you have a story you’d like to share, I’d love to hear from you!

 

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