Worm farmers dig their growing success

Posted June 14, 2012, at 9:05 a.m.

UNION GROVE, Wis. — Tom Chapman has built a big part of his business on worm poop.

Chapman is among worm farmers in Wisconsin who have seen demand for castings — the byproduct of worms digesting organic matter — soar as consumers seek an earth-friendly fertilizer for use on everything from flower beds to golf courses.

“We’ve been growing steadily, but the last three to four years our organic-side existing customers, they tripled and quadrupled their volume without us doing anything,” Chapman said. “It’s been bigger and getting crazier the last three to four years.

“We’ve been crazy, crazy busy.”

Same goes for Wisconsin Redworms in Richland Center, Wis., said Dan Corbin, co-owner of the business.

“This has probably been our best spring, business-wise, that we’ve ever had,” Corbin said. “It’s big time.”

In Neillsville, Wis., Clark County Crawlers owner Kent Luedtke said his business has also wiggled to new heights.

“We can’t produce enough,” Luedtke said. “I started this worm thing as a semiretirement project for just a little supplemental income. Now, it’s turned into a worm factory.”

We’re not talking a few worms. These guys are handling the wiggling masses.

“We’re now moving 1,500-pound batches of worms to our distributors,” Corbin said. Typically, there are about 1,000 worms per pound.

Luedtke is moving a lot of worms, too. “We probably average 30,000 to 50,000 worms a week going out,” he said.

“We wholesale large amounts of worms,” he said. “Other worm farmers who are having trouble getting quotas met, we sell them breeder worms.”

Luedtke is a licensed grower of Tasty Bait and Wiggle Worm brand products developed by Chapman’s company, Unco Industries Inc.

Unco deals in worm poop by the rail car load.

The company has been around for 37 years and its growth has typically hovered around 8 percent to 10 percent a year, Chapman said. As Americans have embraced the green movement in recent years, the growth has jumped by 40 percent.

This year, Chapman moved the company into a building that is five times larger than the space the company previously had occupied. He has had to turn down orders because the company can’t fill them.

“It’s a good problem to have,” he said.

While worms are prolific poopers, “You can’t just double production overnight,” Chapman added.

The company is handling 1.5 million worms a month.

Chapman has spent years building and refining the production of worms and worm fertilizer.

“We developed a process,” he said. “We started with a certain size and age worm. We know what we have in costs. We know how much labor it will take to produce the worm to full size. … It’s a manufacturing process.”

The process is refined right down to the thickness of the metal strands that make up the wire mesh used on machines that sort the worms, the worm eggs and the worm castings.

“There’s a lot more science to it than putting a bunch of worms in a container,” Chapman said. “There are controls that you have to maintain.”

Worms that are comfortable and well-fed produce more and better castings.

Unco, which also developed its own machinery, employs 12 people. Chapman expects to be hiring later this year.

That can be a challenge.

He once had a candidate for an office job turn around and walk out of the building when she realized Unco is in the worm-wrangling business.

“It’s dirt, and it’s not glamorous,” he said.

Growers say raising worms is just like any other kind of farming where attention to the critters has to be paid daily.

“You have to have somebody watching them, especially during the wintertime,” Luedtke said. “If the power goes out or you lose heat, you’re up a creek.”

Worms are generally well-behaved.

“They don’t bite. They don’t bark. They don’t howl at the moon,” Corbin said.

They will eat any soft organic matter.

“If it was once living and is now dead, the worms will consume it,” Corbin said. That includes wastepaper. “They love cardboard,” he said.

Interest in using worms for composting and fertilizer has spread across the globe, said Rhonda Sherman, an extension solid-waste specialist in the department of biological and agricultural engineering at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

Her specialty is vermicomposting — the process of earthworms and microorganisms breaking down organic material and converting it to a source of plant nutrients.

She runs seminars on worm farming and vermicomposting, among the few such conferences in the world.

“It has just continued to expand,” Sherman said. “People in 81 countries have contacted me about vermicomposting.

“It’s just amazing.”

There are 4,000 species of earthworms, Sherman said. Only four are suitable for vermicomposting.

“It’s earthworm farming,” Sherman said. “You have to keep in mind that you are raising animals. What’s really running this system are living beings.”

Chapman has spent decades learning how best to raise and care for worms. “It’s not something you figure out overnight,” he said.

Corbin spent his first two years in business figuring out how to raise worms and testing the fertilizer that the worms were producing.

“We field-tested the worm castings with our plants and, my gosh, look out,” Corbin said. “Those plants really take off. They really do.”

Unco’s product diversification, offering worms and worm compost, is a big part of the company’s strategy, Chapman said.

“You could sustain the business with either,” he said.

The competition is fierce on the fertilizer side, he said.

“Today, everybody and their uncle has a blended topsoil,” Chapman said.

As a fertilizer, it’s tough to top worm poop, Sherman said.

“It’s a terrific soil conditioner,” she said. “It makes your plants grow bigger and stronger.”

It also has shown to help plants resist diseases and insects, she said.

Besides the large-scale worm farmers, the benefits of the worm castings along with the global movement toward anything green have also fueled a do-it-yourself worm farm trend.

Corbin says he hears from do-it-yourselfers all the time. “People are looking for green space,” he said. “A lot of them are going for in-home worm composting setups.

“They’re actually putting their worm boxes under their sink in the kitchen,” he said. “They put table scraps in. The worms eat it and turn it into castings.”

Those castings are then used on houseplants and rooftop gardens.

The worm growers expect the busy times to continue partly because of the trend and partly because of the work they have put into the businesses.

“I made something that was just going to be a little thing into a full-blown business and a successful business,” Luedtke said.

“It’s not all about money,” Chapman added. “It’s knowing you built something.”

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