About a year ago, I watched a fascinating time lapse video of the assembly of one of the most attractive continuous flow vermicomposting systems I have ever seen. Some guy named Dan Lonowski of Michigan SoilWorks and Gavin Newton of Detroit-area worm castings producer WormCycle were putting together a 16-ft CFT for use in Gavin's operation.
While I was already friends with Gavin, all I knew of Dan was that he was a member of the Worm Farming Alliance and posted infrequently about the development of his CFT. Little did I know that he was designing and manufacturing what I now consider to be the gold standard in reasonably-priced mid-scale vermicomposting systems.
I finally met Dan in Raleigh, NC at the 2017 NCSU Vermiculture Conference and quickly learned that he is a serious player: a meticulous automotive R&D engineer with a vision for the vast untapped potential in the vermicompost/worm castings market, both for bulk consumers who want to produce their own castings and for potential producers like farms who create copious amounts of organic waste.
As the boom in organic growing methods and impending marijuana legalization in places like Dan's home state of Michigan and beyond are taking root, the demand in some regions is outstripping supply of worm castings, a valuable soil amendment.
I've gotten to know Dan over the past 6 months and was both honored and excited when he asked if I could help with marketing for this new agribusiness startup. I have been so impressed with his attention to detail and process-oriented approach to both the business and his CFT.
Note: In full disclosure, I am in a marketing agreement with Dan and Michigan SoilWorks and stand to benefit from the sale of Michigan SoilWorks' CFTs.
While I admire the level of ingenuity I see from folks making their own continuous flow through systems (which is light years beyond my engineering chops), Dan's level of standardization is incredible.
And as Dan's system is modular, allowing users to expand their system, standardization and precision are crucial in order to ensure “part X” in one system is identical to “part X” in another system.
Dan is a fairly reserved individual and not apt to toot his own horn, so somebody has to do it for him! So I'm thrilled to ask him a few questions about himself, his approach to vermicomposting with CFTs, and about the Michigan SoilWorks CFT itself.
Urban Worm Interview with Dan Lonowski
UWC: So tell us a little about the pre-Michigan SoilWorks Dan Lonowski
Well, I always had a creative streak – I loved playing piano since the age of 4, and won art contests in high school. I was a bit of a free spirit, and in college I couldn’t decide between composing music for avant garde theatre, or to design wind turbines for alternative energy. I wound up studying both.
At some point, I realized I could never make a good living in music, and threw myself completely into engineering. My first job was in the auto industry, and I’ve been there ever since. For the last 10 years I’ve headed up R&D.
But work was always a vocation. My passions seemed to be outside of work. Next year I’ll be able to retire from the day job and devote full time to Michigan SoilWorks.
UWC: How and when did you discover your passion for vermicomposting?
Years ago I was reading an article about organic lawn care, and the author mentioned the benefits of worm castings – something I’d heard about for gardening. When I asked local lawn care and landscaping companies if they offered vermicompost top dressings or teas for lawn application, I got nothing but blank stares. So that really piqued my interest. If it’s so good for plants, why is it so unheard of? I began learning everything I could about worm castings, leading to vermicomposting and techniques.
It wasn’t long before my interests went far beyond the lawn!
UWC: Tell us about your first experience with CFTs.
Originally I was only interested in producing vermicompost, to sell it and to start a top-dressing lawn service. I started reading everything I could find online about vermicompost and how to make it. I don’t remember when I first heard of ‘continuous flow through’ systems. I think I was reading about Scott Subler’s pioneering work at Ohio State in the 80’s. But that was it.
From then on, for me, vermicomposting meant CFTs, and vice versa.
UWC: So then you built your first CFT, right? I saw your early YouTube “Danner” video.
Yes, but first I had to prove to myself that I could raise worms – keep them healthy and propagating, and avoid the common pitfalls you read about. I did this first in a Rubbermaid tub. Within a few months though, I built a 2 ft x 4 ft CFT, the VB24 from plans available at RedWormComposting.com. It has a floor grating of conduits spaced apart that you can rake out the finished product. I modified the legs to improve access for harvesting.
UWC: You did what?
Engineers are compelled to ‘optimizing’ things – even things that are already good enough. I’m sorry, it’s a curse for those around them.
UWC: Ha! And this was in the basement right? What does Mrs. Lonowski think of this madness?
Brenda always tolerated my ‘projects’ in the past – but she was not amused by this one at first. It looked too much like a coffin on legs in her basement, full of worms and horse manure. But once she realized it didn’t smell and the worms were happy, she didn’t mind. And especially once she saw what it could do for her zinnias!
UWC: What did you learn from that first CFT bin?
It went surprisingly well for a year or so – I produced all the vermicompost I could use around the home, and I had a happy herd. But my quick-and-dirty setup was not built to last forever, and before long the damp walls and corners became a dark and spongy breeding ground for springtails and mites. And I was ready to scale up, move out, and commit to a pro-grade system.
I kept looking at pictures of the industrial-size systems like Sonoma Valley Worm Farm, and Worm Power, and VermiGrand. That’s some impressive engineering. But the smaller kits for sale online didn’t impress me, and didn’t seem like good value for the money. What I wanted was the best of both worlds, and I couldn’t find it.
UWC: So did you design and build one then?
Well, I still wasn’t thinking about making my own CFT yet, because I thought I wanted to produce and sell vermicompost as soon as possible. I wanted to buy one, not get side-tracked by building one from scratch. And I knew the cutting bar system would be a challenge.
About that time (it was late 2015), I became friends with a fellow Michigan vermicomposter, Gavin Newton of WormCycle. Gavin was doing windrows on a concrete slab in long shed. That was working well for him, and business was growing. We often talked over coffee about how to scale up production. One day when I was complaining about the systems out there for sale, Gavin said, why don’t you just build one? I shrugged it off at the time, but I thought about it later, and that was the nudge that got me started.
I built my first one in evenings and weekends, an 8’ x 4’ container using welded steel frame, poly tank walls and horse fence floor grating. The harvester was a single bar and guide that rode on rails with hand-winches at each end for pulling. When I showed it to Gavin one day he offered to buy it, and we put it to work.
UWC: What are the most common points of failure in a CFT?
That’s easy. The harvesting mechanism – the cutting bar, or breaker bar, whatever you call it. Lots of DIY’ers put together a perfectly decent bin and grating, only to be frustrated with their cutters and pulling systems. The workings of a breaker system are not intuitive, and even skilled mechanical-types will fail to get it right. Some of the best designs have been patented to protect them from being copied. But some of them aren't all that great.
When your bin is full, it’s tough to do much about a faulty cutting mechanism. My first one had some major bugs, and I dug it out numerous times to work on it. Eventually it twisted itself into a pretzel – I still can’t figure out how that happened!
But I was determined to improve the concept with each build. Now, my latest (4th) generation glides smoothly with no binding and very low power draw from the motor or winches – like a knife through cake, I like to say.
UWC: Here's the million dollar question: Do you sell your CFT plans?
No not yet – and I’ve had LOTS of requests. But I am thinking about selling the cutting bar and guide rail system separately, in a customizable kit that people can retrofit into their own CFT bins.
If I do that, I’ll post it on the website, and maybe advertise it on prominent places like urbanwormcompany.com.
UWC: Thanks for the shameless plug! Have you patented your design?
No. I’ve worked with patents for most of my career, and I have a couple of them – for bearings and camshafts – I even filed for a bird feeder patent once. But I decided to treat my cutting bar concept as a trade secret instead. Patents are expensive, and I didn't see the benefit. No one's getting rich on CFT's.
UWC: I'd better not be seeing you driving a Bentley any time soon! You custom designed your motor drive system, which is sooo freakin’ cool. Tell us more.
Who’d a thunk that a worm bin could have a wow factor? But it does, I get that response all the time. Often a good design will also have aesthetic appeal. It just happens.
For example, some bridges are majestic and beautiful; some are just metal and concrete. They both get you across the water, but…
UWC: It does look good. But what makes your motor different from others, functionally?
A good design is more than the sum of its parts. You can use a couple of 12V DC jeep towing winches to pull a breaker back and forth in a worm bin. It might do the job but it’s a hack, and I didn’t want to do that. I wanted an integrated system, purpose built, an elegant solution.
And it’s not just about the pulling – it’s about equalizing the forces, keeping the cutter from binding up, making it easy and reliable, and also expandable. Most of my parts are off the shelf, but they’re put together in a novel way.
UWC: And that laser cut logo is just eye candy!
Yes, I thought you’d like that.
UWC: You got help from an outside engineering firm on the motor drive system. Can you talk about that?
Yes, it was a key step to getting this thing to market sooner rather than later. I had the basic concept, the mechanics, worked out. But spec’ing out the right components is critical and time consuming. There are literally hundreds of motors, gear reducers, cables, pulleys, and bearings that need to be put together in the right combination to bring the concept to life. Meanwhile, I also needed to focus on all the other parts of launching a startup.
For the hardcore technical stuff, I worked with Brainchild Engineering in Northville, MI. And besides being another set of eyes and ears, they provided other services that I took advantage of – CAD drawings, 3-D printing, stress analysis, sub-assembly, testing, and more. They’re an important and trusted part of my team now.
UWC: What else do you farm out?
Lots. All the actual production work – the steel fabricating, the panel machining, the powdercoating, the packing & shipping. It’s all contracted out to local small businesses, 2-10 employees each.
Most of my gearing up for production was about finding the right partners to work with. I needed job shops that like to work in small lots, with an eye for precision and quality, and that get what I am doing and care to help me succeed. I’m really happy with my suppliers now, and I’d really hate to lose a single one of them. I take good care of them.
UWC: So that’s an interesting business model. Want to tell us a bit about that? I mean, you’re not really mass-producing, but at the same time, you are probably trying to capture some of the efficiencies, right?
Correct. There’s no factory or a store front. No fixed assets or fixed costs. Just a home office.
I spend a fair amount of time with my suppliers, coordinating production schedules, and improving the product and reducing costs. All my costs are variable, so I can adjust quickly to changing demand. My margins are lean but ok for first year. All my profit goes back into the business for product development. I could REALLY use a truck though. That’s on my list for next year.
Ecommerce wouldn’t work for this kind of product. It's an investment for most buyers and some folks are financing. Also there‘s not enough volume for third-party fulfillment. My website is exclusively for educating and informing prospects to generating leads, which I then personally develop to a sale by building a relationship via phone and email.
So far, all sales have been make-to-order, with about 8-week lead time. I haven’t held any inventory so far, but that will change this fall so I can offer a lead time of under 4 weeks.
UWC: So when did you say, “I absolutely have to have the top of the line stuff here”?
It’s really not like that. It’s about getting the best value. That’s getting the right balance of performance and cost. That could be anywhere on the spectrum, from cheap and low performance, to expensive and best of everything. I would like to be the lowest cost available, and I’m still working on that. But I KNOW I already have really good performance, and so far customers are recognizing that.
UWC: So what sets this apart from other mass-produced CFTs on the market?
It’s more durable and reliable, it’s more efficient, meaning it’s easier to operate, it’s expandable, and it looks good.
It’s easily the best value for the money.
UWC: Let's talk numbers. What is the theoretical output of, say, a 16-ft CFT?
Each single 8-ft module produces 40 gallons per week, to pick an easy way to measure it. If you screen it for uniform size quality, you will lose some and what doesn't make it through the screen can go back in the CFT for another trip through. As it air-dries, it gets a bit lighter and shrinks a bit. You will end up with around 27 gallons or 120 lbs.
For a 16-ft system, that works out to more than a cubic yard each month, about 230 gallons or 1000 lbs, depending on how you like to measure it, for finished screened product.
UWC: How is a CFT fed? How often, and harvested?
Ideally you put in about 2 inches of fresh feedstock twice a week, but it can be done once per week, 3-to 4 inches total per week. That's nearly a cubic yard a month for each 8-ft module.
Harvesting is done once per week. The difference in volume is due to reduction during digestion and aging in the bin on the trip from top to bottom.
UWC: Are there certain feedstocks that don’t work as well in continuous flow systems?
The same rules apply as for composting. No meats or dairy mainly. A bigger issue is how to process large amounts of vegetable and fruit waste. Many large food sources are wrestling with this today. You can’t put tons of kitchen scraps directly in a worm bin, because of high moisture and nitrogen content, and odors, and attracting pests.
For most feedstocks, it is best to ‘pre-compost’ the raw materials first, like with an aerated static pile. In a short time, like a few weeks, nearly anything can be broken down to a stage that is a great feedstock for vermicompost.
UWC: Who are the ideal customers for your system?
This system fits well for owner-operators, small businesses that want to produce VC. Either for their own use, or to process their waste to avoid disposal costs, or to generate an income stream out of their organic waste. My customers are typically organic food producers or vermicompost producers for bagging and selling. There is some interest in bulk production too for wholesale.
Others include horse farmers converting manure into sellable product, crop farmers restoring depleted soils, ‘super-soil’ mixes typically used by cannabis growers, and disposing food waste from restaurants and institutions.
Actually, I envision a turn-key side business that would work for many people, using a couple of long rows of CFT’s in a shed or hoop house, using existing skid steer loaders and other equipment already on hand, and generating a new source of revenue selling locally or in their region.
I’d like to see that start happening next year, and I’m talking with a couple interested parties in western Michigan about it now.
UWC: You just started sales this spring. How have sales gone?
I've been happy to sell 19 modules to customers in 3 different countries. In fact, I have been somewhat limited in the number of orders I could handle this year as I was optimizing the supply chain and finding fabricators, powder coaters, and shipping companies.
But I'm thrilled that the processes we have in place are now allowing us to ramp up production and fulfillment.
UWC: What’s your process for helping someone determine what size they need?
It depends a lot on what is to be processed. Say someone has a horse. A horse produces a yard of manure and waste bedding each month. If it sits in a pile for a few months, or gets pre-composted a few weeks, it will reduce by 20% or so. That’s about perfect for a single 8 ft unit.
On the other hand, food waste can be harder to estimate, because it goes by weight not volume, and weight varies with moisture content.
I’m consulting for an organic food market that wants to divert a large amount of non-sellable product each week, to avoid disposal costs and generate a revenue stream from the byproduct. So we have to figure out first how to reduce the moisture and nitrogen content on a large scale, that is, precomposting, with a large volume reduction of maybe 50% or more from evaporation, before it’s ready for feeding to worms. It’s going to need some adjustable capacity.
For more information on input, output, and the assumptions behind them, I have a Rates and Calculations page on my website.
UWC: How should potential customers think about the payback period on an investment like this?
Same as any other capital investment. Farmers and small business buy equipment all the time, and typically if you can break even in under two years, it’s a no-brainer. My CFTs can pay-off in 18 months or so, based on average bulk selling price for VC.
At the same time, there can be other advantages, like labor reduction. I have one customer that has done vermicomposting for years for his own use in his orchards, and he’s only interested in the man-hours he will save using a continuous flow system to replace his static bin-based systems. His operation will become much more efficient immediately, freeing up labor for other productive work.
UWC: What about best practices when it comes to using the CFT? You talked before about harvesting once a week, feeding twice a week, and screening, and there’s questions about shelf life, analysis, quality, on and on. There’s no government quality standards as far as I know. So what’s ‘good’ vermicompost?
That’s true. It’s an interesting point, because everyone does things differently in their own systems, and they all crank out something called vermicompost in the end. If the herd is watered and kept in decent conditions, they’ll get along fine and you’ll have something to sell.
But we are talking about living organisms here, that makes it all possible for us. It’s a dynamic community of worms, microbes, and fungi, and we need to remember that there’s a broad range between surviving and thriving. That, in turn, affects the consistency and quality of the product from batch to batch. Some customers are willing to pay top dollar for product that they know is consistently highest quality.
So I’m an advocate for following standard procedures, or SOP’s, for consistency. Many industries use them – factories, hospitals, airlines, grow facilities, they all use standard procedures to ensure consistency and safety. Then if they make an improvement, they update the SOP’s to include that improvement in their standards for the future.
If you are serious about this, you should develop your own standards and procedures, written and checked periodically. I don’t have SOP’s to give out, but I do give my customers a proven set of guidelines that they should use to get started. It focuses on the critical first few months getting started, but the ongoing day-to-day operations are an extension of that.
As vermicomposters, we’re trying to educate our customers and the public about the benefits of vermicompost. So a consistent quality product will reinforce that, and the market for vermicompost should grow as a result.
Wrapping It Up
Well considering that Dan and I have been working together for over 9 months now, he always manages to teach me something new, and this interview was no different.
While Dan and I have a business relationship as stated before, I personally admire his honesty and rejection of a “good enough for government work” mentality and his attention to detail has certainly improved my own approach to product design for the Urban Worm Bag, which I am striving to improve with each iteration.
Dan is playing the “long game” and is not in this for a quick buck.
While the construction of the CFT is impeccable in my opinion (so much so that I purchased one myself to be installed this summer), Dan is also committed to preparing customers for the prospect of owning one.
On more than one occasion, I have witnessed him steer potential customers towards other solutions if he felt the situation didn't call for a Michigan SoilWorks CFT.
Look, this CFT is not cheap and the market for a precision-engineered CFT is limited to businesses and institutions that can make a business case for spending this kind of coin. As Dan stated, this is a serious capital expenditure, but at an 18-month payback period at bulk worm castings prices, that case can be compelling. If castings can be sold at retail prices AND you can reduce waste disposal costs with precomposting and vermicomposting, then the payback period is further reduced.
In fact, Dan is willing to reduce the payback period even further for Urban Worm Company readers by offering $300 off the base 4×8 ft unit and $700 off the 4×16-ft unit or larger, which comes standard with the custom motorized drive. Just contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and let him know I sent you. He will probably ask some questions about your intended feedstock and volume to determine the best solution for your needs.
The 2020 Vermicomposter's Starter Guide
Your roadmap to a successful beginning in vermicomposting.