Let me introduce to you the latest addition of livestock to our farm:
What would we keep worms for? It’s not their meat… it’s their poop, which people who practice vermiculture (the cultivation of worms) have given the less crass name of “worm castings”. Ok so you know that we keep the worms for their “castings”, but why on Earth would we do that?
Though their slow movement and simple appearance might cause people to easily overlook or even avoid them, earthworms (like red wigglers) play a crucial part in our lives; they are one of the primary species that create and sustain the living soils that we are dependent on. Like all organisms, worms manipulate and change their environment; they burrow through the ground, making tunnels that can form complex systems running throughout the soil in all directions. These tunnels are important in that they allow for water and chemicals in the air like oxygen to be accessed by plants and other organisms that live in the soil. Also, as earthworms travel through the ground they eat soil particles and organic matter (decaying plant and animal matter) as well as tiny soil particles like grains of sand. As all of these materials travel through the worms digestive system, they are broken down into smaller, simpler, compounds and nutrients and deposited in the form of a “cast”. These casting are small bits of soil that have high concentrations of nutrients that in turn fertilize plants and feed other organisms. By constantly eating and moving through tunnels, worms are circulating soil and nutrients throughout the Earth non-stop, 24/7.
Having worms in your garden soil is an easy and wonderful indication of healthy soils; where worms can be sustained there will be moist, nutrient rich soils which sustain all other plants and animals. The more earthworms you have the more worm castings they are producing that will better fertilize your soil and sustain a healthy soil ecosystem. Worm castings are a boon to farmers looking to sustain plant crops on the same soil year after year, and it’s no surprise that people have started trying to take greater advantage of this phenomenal organism. Vermiculture, or vermicompost, is the process of composting material specifically using different types of worms to create a highly homogenous, nutrient rich organic fertilizer. Composting, the process of utilizing decomposition to break down organic matter into rich soil material known as humus, has been practiced here at Colchester Farm CSA for years. But vermiculture gives us the opportunity to use worms to make decomposed soil humus faster, and have it contain higher concentrations of nutrients.
We have worms in our compost piles but, the pile being just a pile, the worms can come and go as they please. What we have done is create a contained space in which to hold the worms, commonly referred to as a worm bin. There are as many variations on vermicomposting as there are any other type of agriculture, so here we only will discuss the practices and procedures we know and use at Colchester. Having said that, vermiculture is new for us here and we are treating it as a research project until we can learn more from experience and better care for and use the worms.
We built a worm bin out of cinder blocks to house our new workers. We wanted an open bottom exposed to the soil so that proper flow of air, nutrients and water could occur, but we didn’t want the worms we put in the bin to be able to escape the bin. We need to keep the worms contained in order to harvest their castings, so we laid down a small mesh wire netting as the floor of our bin. A removable screen insert allows us to create two different piles to work with without preventing the worms from traveling between the two piles. This will help us to determine when one pile is totally decomposed and ready for use (as the worms will run out of food and migrate out of this pile into the other). We will begin with ~5 lbs. of earthworms in our bin, which were bought from a supplier. In trying to create a home for the worms that contains ready made soil and new food sources, we will be creating a mixture of soil, compost, and food/veggie scraps to welcome the worms to their new home. Once they acclimate we will feed the pile with regular plant waste to ensure the worms have a regular source of food to digest and process.
This is an exciting new project to start with the seasonal apprentices, who moved in just a few weeks ago. A big part of their experience on the farm is to learn about and experiment with different ideas and strategies that could someday help them in future farms or other agricultural operations they will be involved with. They can help plan and maintain this home for earthworms we have constructed, and because it’s new for us too, we can all learn it together. Right now, we see vermiculture as a unique, low-maintenance way to improve and diversify our farming operation. We look forward to learning much more about it and reaping the benefits of worm poop!