Worm Composting on a Large Scale: How it Works – A Look at the Business of Worms
Guest post by Patricia Riedman Yeager, Freelance writer
Step inside Worm Power’s worm composting facility in upstate New York, and you’ll get a glimpse of the future. Inside worm beds that would stretch from one football sideline to the other, 15 million worms are hard at work. Wriggling away, they furiously eat, breed and shed castings, or worm poop, the gold standard for organic fertility.
Demand for vermicompost is growing all the time, especially as more farmers seek ways to reduce use of synthetic fertilizers and to safely dispose of agricultural waste. Countries worldwide—from Cuba and India to the Philippines—are experimenting with large-scale worm composting techniques. In the Philippines, worms are fed organic residues such as sawdust, cereal straw, rice husks and cardboard. In Cuba, cow manure is composted in cement troughs or windrows covered with palm fronds. In the Finger Lakes region of New York State the Worm Power company operates the largest vermicomposting facility in the Western Hemisphere.
Just what goes on inside Worm Power’s facility? First, manure from 1,000 dairy cows is mixed with chopped silage. Both the manure and silage come exclusively from the nearby Coyne Family Farm, a fifth-generation dairy farm in rural Avon, N.Y. The cows are fed a consistent diet, which is necessary for producing vermicompost with uniform characteristics, batch after batch.
Next, the feedstock undergoes thermophilic (high-temperature) composting in indoor, aerated static piles. The piles must reach a temperature between 131° F and 170° F for a minimum of three consecutive days. These high temperatures kill potential pathogens in the compost, deactivate weed seeds, and produce a feedstock that worms can digest readily.
Then the worms take over. The composted material is large bins, called flow-through digesters, where millions of red wiggler worms reside. These hardy worms perform well in Worm Power’s system, thriving on the steady supply of rich compost. They live in the top several inches of the worm bed, where the fresh feedstock is deposited, finished Worm Power vermicompost is harvested from the bottom of the bins.
Each worm bed is designed to be a health spa for the wiggly sort. Conditions are monitored to maintain ideal temperatures, moisture levels, feeding rate, worm population densities, and worm reproduction rates.
Finally, the finished vermicompost is screened to a uniform, fine particle size to ensure ease of handling in agriculture and gardening. The odorless, crumbly worm compost contains beneficial microorganisms and is rich in both primary nutrients (NPK) and micronutrients. Testing takes place routinely to verify nutrient and moisture levels, and Worm Power has achieved OMRI approval for use in organic agriculture.
The whole vermicomposting process takes about 70 days, says Tom Herlihy, president and co-founder of Worm Power, which is about three times faster than composting without worms. “This stuff is hard to make,” he says. “It’s nature’s original fertilizer, straight from the worms.” But regulating this natural biological process on a large scale takes skill and experience.
Thanks to a recent eightfold expansion, Worm Power’s annual production will exceed 2 million pounds in 2012, up from the original 250,000 lb. average. Worm Power has now partnered with Rochester, NY-based Harris Seeds to introduce its worm compost fertilizers to professional growers and gardeners nationwide.