Worm farming creeps onto horizon

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(Part I of a two-part series.)

SALEM, Ohio – For “farmer” Eric Hetzel, it’s not about who has the biggest tractor, the most land or the most productive cow. In fact, Hetzel doesn’t even have a tractor, land or cow.

When it’s time for harvest, Hetzel isn’t out in the field combining, he’s harvesting worms.

Worm farming, also known as vermiculture, has entrepreneurs anxious to see how far this growing business will stretch.

Winning worm rewards. Vermiculture is a new ideal in farming. Part of the appeal is that growers can start worm farms in their basements – no big barns, no fancy equipment and no outrageous overhead.

In addition, the “livestock” can flourish in five-gallon plastic buckets with as little as three hours a week dedicated to their care.

Most importantly, these growers make money from the worms and their waste.

Ensuring sales. Farmers like Hetzel feel confident in entering the business because, if they have a contract, they have a guaranteed buyer of their “product.”

Although there are some independent worm farmers, others are contracted through larger worm farms. Such is the case with Hetzel, who contracts with B&B Worm Farms Inc. of Meeker, Okla.

Growers like Hetzel buy worms through a contract, raise the worms, harvest them and usually sell them back to a distributor.

During the harvest, usually every six to eight weeks, the worm castings, or waste, are separated. Growers typically market the castings on their own as garden fertilizer.

How it works. Hetzel’s worm operation in northeast Ohio is called VermiPro and it is a representative of the larger B&B farms.

Hetzel signed up with B&B to make extra money on a part-time basis and for possible future growth.

Hetzel said he didn’t want to have to sell anything or find his own market. With Lakeside Sales in St. Marys, Ohio, as the closest B&B distributor, he already had a buyer.

Growers bring their worms to distribution centers after harvest. Distributors also sell supplies and offer growing support and advice.

From the start. When he started two years ago, Hetzel had 25 pounds of worms in two large buckets in his basement.

He now has 200 square feet of bed space and recently moved his operation outside.

Hetzel installed heating cables under the bed that will give off radiant heat and keep the soil temperature in the correct range.

Hetzel said his operation is small compared to some large growers who harvest thousands of pounds of worms. He typically harvests 100 pounds of worms.

After he harvests the worms, he delivers them to Lakeside Sales. The worms are weighed and the amount is sent to B&B. B&B then sends Hetzel his check.

Through the contract, growers get approximately $7-$10 a pound for the worms. If growers marketed the worms themselves, Hetzel estimates they could be sold to home composters for $20 a pound.

Time efficient. The “livestock” is basically on its own, squirming, eating, excreting and reproducing – making Hetzel money each inch of the way.

He peeks in on his worms occasionally but usually doesn’t spend more than two to three hours a week on their care.

After the initial set-up, most of his time is spent feeding them.

The nitrogen and fungus in horse manure make it Hetzel’s feed of choice. He also supplements the worms’ diet with rabbit pellets.

Since wriggling into the business two years ago, Hetzel has picked up some tips to worm success.

The soil moisture needs to be at 90 percent, and Hetzel uses a sprinkler system to keep his beds moist. The soil pH should be at 7.0 or slightly under and the soil temperature in the high 60s or low 70s.

With the right conditions, Hetzel says the worms will produce beneficial bacteria and microscopic fungus in the castings.

Not the nutrients. Ohio State soil specialist Maurice Watson refutes overly ambitious casting claims.

Some worm growers assert that castings are a better fertilizer than synthetic fertilizer.

Watson says this is not the case and that the main benefits of castings aren’t in the nutrient supply.

Through Watson’s work testing vermiculture material, the specialist said the material is usually high in nitrate-nitrogen, which is the form of nitrogen immediately available to plants. This form of nitrogen, however, is equally available in synthetic fertilizer.

Watson said the real advantages are that the castings improve the soil structure and organic matter addition.

On a small scale, Watson sees gardeners catching on to worm castings and making good use of them, but doubts that farmers with a lot of acreage will significantly use it as fertilizer.

This is partly due to it being more difficult to obtain and harder to handle than ordinary fertilizers.

B&B background. If looking at numbers is any indication of the growth of worm farming, B&B’s numbers reflect it.

In 2001, the company had $7 million in revenue, and that came just three years after the company opened. Projected revenue for 2002 is $20 million.

B&B has 2,400 growers in 40 states and 22 distribution sites.

Jill Bradley, the company’s executive marketing director, says worm farming is a market that hadn’t been tapped, which explains the high revenue figures.

People are becoming more aware of the potential for vermiculture, she said, and she doesn’t see the business slowing down.

Worm potential. Last year, B&B began to branch out to a new market – the government. The Sierra Leone government in Africa contracted with B&B to send hundreds of bags of organic fertilizer and castings to Africa. The fertilizer was used on depleted land to improve the soil.

Bradley anticipates that similar contracts will continue, even in the United States.

More resources. For more information about worm farming, call Hetzel at 330-273-9421 or visit B&B Worm Farms Inc. at www.bandbworms.com/.

(Next week, working with worms on a large scale.)

(You can contact Kristy Hebert at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at khebert@farmanddairy.com.)

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