Day 2 of NCSU Vermiculture Conference. Topic: Raising and Selling Worms, Castings, Compost Mixes and Soil Amendments
Speaker: John Stewart, The Worm Farm
Started in 1994 and now sells over 100 different products. Originally a chicken ranch, then started making compost.
Talk started with a joke: What’s the best advice to give to a worm? Get up late.
Production of worms:
At the Worm Farm, they have lots of windrows — use about 10 of their 40 acres for worms and soils. He showed some photos of the farm.
Bedding and feeding — they use cow manure — it is not precomposted. He advises that for worms you test your feed on small batches before using it in production. They use 60 yards of manure in one feeding — a mile and a half of windrows — a feeder that shoots manure out the side. Apply 1 inch in depth max so it doesn’t heat up.
Watering: they use “blue line” with emitters.
Beds set up before worms are added since they heat up. He has found that in California worms raised outside do better than under cover.
Even on this scale, they do a lot of pitchfork work along with tractor work.
Their biggest pest – robins! Best deterrent — shotgun! Just to scare them.
Harvesting — they use a tromell and a pitchfork. The tromell straddles the row and rolls along it. Harvesters cost $2500 and up – advice if you’re thinking of buying one: make sure you get one that is big enough
Screening — they use a tray filled with peat moss and lay a nylon fishnet 1/4 inch screen on top. Worms go through the screen in 10 — 20 minutes if it is sunny. He says that it works to harvest Monday morning if you’re harvesting less than 20 lbs a day.
Drying castings — in windrows with compost turner. Harvest castings every year. Castings sit for a year and are turned occasionally to dry out. There are no studies that show if there is degradation of the biology of the castings, but they have gotten the same results in plant growth tests (best growth at 20% vermicompost)
Screening castings — after the year they go through a screen trommel when they’re dry
Selling your worms — order taking is a big part of the business. Close the order on the first contact.
Print labels to ship worms — be careful about heat in shipping. They stop shipping when it is hot. Shipping bags are made of Agribond (floating row cover) 1, 3 and 5 pound sizes. A worker zip-ties the bag closed with a tool that closes the zip tie and clips it. They can bag a pallet of bags of worms in 15 minutes. Don’t ship with food in the bedding — it heats up. They ship in peat. (50/50 mix of worms and spagnum peat from Canada). In tray, they start with 4 gallons of peat moss and bring tray to 12 pounds by adding water.
Website: people mainly buy worms from their website. They raise and sell red worms, eisenia fetida (red wigglers).Also there are some online sales of soil-mix components including glacial rock dust.
On their website, they put a calculator for soil mixes that clients use before they come in — they get a lot of walk in customers to their onsite store. He advised that you have some things for people to look at in your store.
Bagging and Labeling: The vermicompost is labeled as worm castings and there is info about how to use it. Your label has to be registered with each state you are shipping to. He emphasized that sellers should test (validate) their products.
About soil mixes:
Soil mix components – you should validate them (have them tested. People come in and ask for x yards of a certain mix.
Compost: If you have a consistent supplier, keep them so you can have a consistent product. They use this in their mixes.
Coconut coir: they decompress it after moistening — you can ship worms in it, but peat works too. Coconut coir is renewable. For coconut coir, you need to buy by the truckload for it to be economical.
Rocks: they sell rocks, pumice, perlite.
Bat guano: mix of 3-6 pounds per yard is enough for improved growth
Manures: make sure you have someone who can supply you year round. The cow manure is used as-is and is not rinsed.
Other aspects of the business:
Delivery and trucking: he advised that sellers subcontract this out unless they want to do it year-round.
Selling castings tea: We don’t give it a shelf life — they advise that it is used the next day. $100 for 25 gallons
Price list — customers like this and they get repeat business from providing this. They have found that people like buying everything for their project in one place.
Advertising: They find freeway billboards effective. Shows and fairs are inexpensive but time consuming. They get their name out through community service and donations to schools. He advised that compost sellers get out to the garden shows.
Giving back to the community — they started a learning foundation. They offer tours at their farm.
Last notes about running a worm composting business:
Pay yourself, pay your taxes, keep good records.
Testing is important depending on how much you guarantee. He gets lots of validation from customers pleased at the results in their gardens.
They have people who are selling worms to them. He advises that if you have a single customer, make sure they’ll take all of your inventory.
Remove the decision-making out of the production process when you’re fulfilling the order. They hire additional help in the spring. He advises that business owners let someone else do the labor and stick to running the business. You can’t do both.
This is a seasonal business — January – July.
Trust is important with customers. Do you really need the ID? Signature?
Make sure you have fun!
Note: Next year this conference may be on the west coast — at the Worm Farm!