Worm Composting on a Large Scale: How it Works

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.

Worm Composting on a Large Scale: How it Works – A Look at the Business of Worms

Guest post by Patricia Riedman Yeager, Freelance writerRedworms for Compost

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.

Worm Composting FacilityJust 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.

5 Comments on Worm Composting on a Large Scale: How it Works

  1. It takes a lot of patience and interest to pursue the task of vermicomposting, an interesting site for all supplies is http://www.happyworms.ca , wanna share !

  2. hector guerrero // June 12, 2014 at 7:52 pm // Reply

    I have a worm farm bussines and it takes time ,,,i bought land 8 acres in mexico and the worms are all over .,,been doing vermiculture for 4 years.,,i been learning day by day the behavior of worms .,,i go to the locals cattle farms .,they give for.exchange all the manure that i need.,,i dont sell it to the people ill give them the worms .,,the casting .,,this is the only way we can help mother nature .,,i am starting a worm farm in Sacramento. ,only for organic farming .,the soils areto intoxicated. I need all the castind to help detox the soil anDbring it to balance

  3. can i start a small scale worm farm in my climate in upstate ny too? my altitude is about 1500′ and my zone is #4. i have plenty of grass clippings i can use from my landscape business, is it still possible. i dont have much manure.

    • You’d need to keep them from freezing in the winter. We move ours into our garage in the winter, so something similar would likely work. They will do most of the work of composting in warmer weather, but they do eat and reproduce slowly in colder months. You don’t have to have manure, they will eat anything and generate compost. they just need air, water and food.

  4. Is it possible on 2 acres to create a profitable bonifide agriculture operation in a designated Urban Expansion area that will not stink? The site was a former tree nursery with some 6 to 8 inches of good topsoil. We live in a rainforest in the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island, Canada. Thanks for any helpful advise. Our elevation is 43 feet above sea level.
    PS Because we are close to the ocean we can buy cheap ship containers if they can be useful.

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