If you use Facebook groups as source of information on vermicomposting, then you know who Larry Shier is. He's the guy who seems to answer about half the questions posted to the Red Worm Composting, Vermicomposting-Worm Farming, and Worm Farming Alliance groups.
More than just a worm expert, Larry is a Renaissance Man. He's a self-taught chemist/biologist. He became well-versed in animal husbandry at an early age. He owned a trucking company. He's been a bouncer, which is probably good training to become a moderator!
All along the way, he's overcome circumstances beyond his control to succeed in every venture he's tried.
Larry took the time to give us a peek at who he is, why he spends so much time delivering so much information for nothing, which country is taking the lead in vermicomposting, and why GMOs aren't the bogeyman when it comes to vermicomposting.
I sent him a litany of questions and he was gracious enough to answer all of them for us.
UWC: Larry, so we know you're the guy who answers all of our questions about vermicomposting and vermiculture. But before we get into those, what’s your personal story?
LJ: I grew up with on a self-sufficient homestead with an insatiable appetite for knowledge and a keen sense of observation. Combined with a near photographic memory, I had read almost all the non-fiction books in our small town public library by the age of 11. At around that age my father gave me my first steer calf as payment for helping with the farm chores, keeping good grades, and as a lesson in business.
I was taught early to calculate profit, margins, expenses etc. When I sold that steer I bought 3 small calves with that money and continued learning business skills. At 13, I started my first business, selling nightcrawlers for bait. At 15, I began also doing maintenance at a number of cemeteries, cutting grass, filling gopher holes, mapping graves etc.
I was in school, running a portion of the farm, picking and selling nightcrawlers, maintaining cemeteries and still insatiably reading books. The bait business became quite profitable for a young teen and I saved that money with the money from beef cattle and cemetery maintenance business . I sold both those first businesses and had 4 years of tuition and living expenses in the bank to go to college.
My choice of curriculum was Manufacturing Science/Robotics Engineering, but part way through my second year, two things happened. Our professors went on strike and I became interested in prosthetic limbs for amputees. The interest in prosthetics seemed to fit with my robotics courses, so during the strike I took a couple of pre-med organic chemistry classes by correspondence. The resulting extra year of college because of the strike left me unprepared to continue to medical school financially.
The full effects of NAFTA were now in full swing with manufacturing jobs leaving Canada at an alarming rate and leaving me without much chance of a career in my chosen field. I took a job as an office machine service technician, a second work at home job doing circuit board repair and a night job doing security at a night club. In 1994 the office machine business started taking a hit as copiers were replaced by scanners and fax machines replaced by email, I was permanently laid off. At this point I found a job in a warehouse unloading trucks and continued the night club gig another couple of years.
Eventually, I got my class A drivers license (CDL to the Americans) and took on a job delivering freight internationally. I progressed at this and eventually bought my own equipment and again was an entrepreneur. The early business lessons from my father again helped me succeed to a high level. In 2007, my first son was born and in 2008, I sold my business and took my current job fueling and servicing transit buses for my city. My second son was born in 2011 and my daughter in 2014. Even during all of this, I read books constantly.
UWC: When did you first become interested in the power of worms?
LJ: Hmmm. I guess about age 4 when I used their power to catch lunch 🙂 But as for my interest, it spawned about 20 years ago and I read a lot about vermicomposting combined with gardening books. I didn't actually get a chance to start with worms for composting until 2012 though.
UWC: Are you more interested in the vermiculture or vermicomposting side of the industry? And why?
LJ: My real interest is remediation and waste reduction, and to do it with worms really requires skill and knowledge of both.
UWC: What do you enjoy most about being one of the resident Facebook Group gurus?
LJ: I don't consider myself a “Facebook group guru.” I'm a guy that's done a lot of studying and research. But what I enjoy most about being a group moderator is seeing someone who was struggling say “thank you.”
UWC: I totally get it. So, Guru, what frustrates you the most about that gig?
LJ: The most frustrating part of being group moderator has to be when someone posts a question because they're struggling then tells you your advice is wrong because they've gotten bad info elsewhere.
UWC: You work for free except for a little referral income for the Worm Farming Alliance. What motivates you to do that?
LJ: The motivation to do this without financial gain is seeing others succeed. I like the saying “focus on the success of others and that soon becomes your reward.”
UWC: Is there one question you get so frequently that you wish you could just answer it once and be done with it? If so, let’s retire it right now!
LJ: I guess the question of using GMO plant materials for food in a worm bin is the one I get most tired of answering. It's also one that gets intelligent people totally irrational.
For composting purposes, GMO is irrelevant unless you're seeking organic certification. The only possible issue is if the plant has been heavily sprayed with pesticides because it's been modified to withstand it. A plant, whether genetically modified or not, is comprised of the same elements hydrogen, nitrogen, carbon, oxygen, phosphorus and some trace minerals.
Composting is simply rearranging those atoms into their most stable configurations. Even the DNA itself is made up of nitrogen, hydrogen, phosphorus, oxygen and carbon and thus can be broken down to simpler and more stable compounds.
UWC: You know heads are totally exploding right now, right? But seriously, thanks for sorting that out. I think a normal suspicion of all things man-made has lumped GMOs in with herbicides in people's minds. Completely different ball game.
LJ: Yes. I'm not advocating GMO as a food source by any stretch. It's just that composting them will remediate whatever alterations were made. In fact, I'm working on an article about how composting GMOs may just be the answer to a huge problem in the developed world.
UWC: And that’s a great lead-in to my next question. You’re going to have your own site soon and it’s going to have a special emphasis. Can you tell us what it’s about and when you expect to launch?
LJ: Thanks for asking. I am actually working on 2 sites. The first will have an emphasis on a misunderstood worm species, the Perionyx excavatus or blue worm. These worms are considered pests by many but I've learned that almost every worm shipment sold today has a quantity of these worms in it.
The second site will have a stronger emphasis on waste reduction and remediation of abused farmland using worms and fungi. A launch date for these is still a bit up in the air as I'm also currently authoring 2 e-books that I plan to offer through my sites. Add to that a family life and 40-hour per week job and time gets scarce to work on these side projects.
UWC: So I guess you won't be attending the North Carolina State University Vermiculture Conference any time soon?
LJ: At this time, I have no plans to attend NCSU conference in the near future. Not because I wouldn't love to, but my wife and I shuffle our schedules to care for the kids. And my second son is autistic and doesn't handle sitters or overnight travel well.
UWC: You have an extremely advanced knowledge of the chemistry and interactions of various biological and/or organic elements. And you apply it very well to vermicomposting.
How did you learn all that stuff?
LJ: I guess I kind of touched on my knowledge of chemistry earlier. I've also self-educated, expanding on what I'd already learned. I search out scientific research studies, doctorate thesis papers and such on the subject and read them until I understand.
UWC: You’re a fellow member of the Worm Farming Alliance, run by fellow Canuck Bentley Christie. And you're one of the admins for the “WFA” Facebook Group. If you could pick one main benefit of membership, what would it be?
LJ: I would say a major benefit of the WFA is being able to brainstorm with other wormers and professional worm farmers about numerous advanced topics that are simply beyond the beginner or home composter's needs. We discuss marketing, sales tactics, methodology and more.
UWC: Very true. I'm thrilled to see Bentley be so active in the Facebook group along with professionals like George Mingin and David Murphy. What do you find each of them brings in terms of expertise?
LJ: Within the WFA, Bentley Christie brings a wealth of knowledge and experience particularly useful to small-to medium- sized businesses and he's a master of online marketing.
George Mingin, well wow, he's a true master of growing massive numbers of worms and also has a strong knowledge of the biological and chemical reactions in composting and vermicomposting. He's also very free with sharing what he does and what he knows.
David Murphy is a man that really is an expert in soil fertility using worms, very large scale composting and vermicomposting. The small-scale home vermicomposter may have trouble relating to him, but he's definitely an asset to a growing business.
Don't forget some other experts now within the WFA community! Tom Herlihy, proprietor of Worm Power, the largest indoor vermicomposting facility in the Western Hemisphere.
Dr. Norman Arancon who worked closely with Dr. Edwards in the Ohio State University's soil lab to create Vermiculture Technology, perhaps the bible to the scientifically-minded worm grower.
There's also Rhonda Sherman of NCSU, who I know you're familiar with Steve. She also worked very closely with Dr Edwards.
UWC: Any rising stars or influencers out there you’d like to note?
LJ: Watch the entire country of India. With India's fast growing population, manufacturing sector, and history of agriculture, comes a fast-growing waste problem. India is battling poverty and improving lifestyles through education. The combination of education and desperation creates innovation.
UWC: I’ve been wondering about this, because the countries who are so developed in employing vermicomposting, like India and Cuba, are often undeveloped in many other ways. Do you think it’s because they’re kind of forced into vermicomposting because they lack waste management infrastructure?
LJ: India certainly is growing in population faster than infrastructure can be built to deal with waste, at the same time they' are quickly growing manufacturing and industrial sectors which also produce waste. So yes I do believe they're being forced to find ways to deal with a waste stream that's growing beyond the capability of their current system.
Cuba is a little different, they don't have the infrastructure but the same huge population growth isn't there, and what's partially driven the rise of vermicomposting in Cuba are the 50+ year old sanctions imposed by the United States. They've been forced to find alternative ways to fertilize their crops because they were prevented from importing chemical fertilizers. Ingenuity prevailed in Cuba and they've learned to turn lemons into lemonade as they say.
UWC: I have some questions, all pertaining to beginning vermicomposters.
What 3 books are required reading?
LJ: 3 books for beginners is really a tough one for me, there's so much truly misguided information in most books, that unless one has the knowledge to sort the junk from the gems, it can become more confusing than helpful. One of the best out there is actually a freebie for download at http://oacc.info/docs/vermiculture_farmersmanual_gm.pdf.
Mary Applehoff's “Worms Eat My Garbage” is always highly recommended but in all honesty I haven't read that one.
Another freebie that is excellent is by Rhonda Sherman, available here https://www.bae.ncsu.edu/topic/vermicomposting/pubs/earthworms.pdf
There are more advanced books than these, like Vermiculture Technology, that I'd recommend after someone becomes more serious about “vermi-life.”
UWC: (Newbies, listen up!) What are the top 3 mistakes beginners make and how can they avoid them?
LJ: 3 biggest mistakes for beginners is easy: too much food, too wet and insufficient airflow.
Beginners overestimate what worms can eat, so start with half of what you expect your worms to eat, then monitor the food. If it's gone in 5-7 days, that is the proper amount. If it's gone in less than 5 days put a little more in next time. If food remains at 7 days, don't feed again until it's gone and add less this time.
One of the worst pieces of advice out there is that you should get liquid running out of your worm bin. Some mistakenly call it “tea” or “worm wee” it's actually a sign of excess moisture. Don't add additional water and mix equal parts dry carbon rich material with wet food when adding food to counteract excess moisture and use true castings to brew a tea or make an infusion.
Many beginners get paranoid about worms escaping, so they button on a tight lid and drill too few holes that are too small to allow the worms proper respiration. The irony is this makes them try to escape. Leave lids off and make a blanket of sorts from damp newspaper or cardboard, old carpeting or something to just lay on the bedding. Your worms will breathe better and stay where they belong much better.
UWC: One of your areas of expertise is identification of worm species. What are the easiest ways for beginners to identify and differentiate the following species: red wigglers, European Nightcrawlers, and Indian blues.
LJ: Of the 3 species you asked for identification differences, the red wiggler (eisenia fetida) and European nightcrawlers (eisenia hortensis) are the hardest to distinguish from one another. Red wigglers are small, can appear striped or solid-coloured, but they have a clitellum that begins at segment 25 and it bulges out. Eisenia hortensis look extremely similar to EF, but they tend to be bigger, plumper and the clitellum starts at segment 18.
Indian blues have a clitellum that is flush to the worm's body and it begins at segment 13. They're also far skinnier and more pointy on the ends than the eisenia species. A dark head and colour that flashes electric blue in the light are also strong indicators of PE.
UWC: Larry, on behalf of the readers here at the Urban Worm Company and all of us who benefit from your work as a Facebook guru admin, thanks so much for your time!
Good luck with your new sites and let us all know when it’s time for them to launch!
LJ: My pleasure Steve, thank you for the work you're doing to expand Vermiculture and get reliable information out to the folks interested. I believe guys like you are a key role in a revolution of agriculture, food production, soil remediation and overall health of the population.
Wrapping it up
Well that was pretty cool. Larry is a wealth of information and extremely generous with his time, patiently answering all of our questions, even the ones that privately irritate him the most!
And on a larger note, his experience should be a lesson for everyone. He has no pedigree and even admitted he had to read things several times before they made sense. Through nothing but his own curiosity and hard work, it's safe to say he's now one of the leading authorities on vermicomposting, worldwide.
Thanks for all you do Larry!