FAQ about placing a worm compost bin outdoors

Question: “I am a Surrey resident. If I only use uncooked fruit and vegetable waste, do
I need to be concerned about attracting rats? Also, can this composter be placed outside all winter or is that too cold for the worms.”

“Personally I don’t worry about rats — thinking they are more interested in fresher foods like grains and nuts. The vegetable waste quickly becomes something only fit for a worm. One winter we did have a rat take up residence in a wooden bin, but I think he was there for warmth not food.

Here in Surrey BC, we usually keep our composters outside all winter. Luckily we rarely have a winter that is so cold that the whole compost bin freezes. The decomposing food generates a bit of heat, and the worms will move to the center helping keep each other warm. A full composter is best.

If it looks like we will be getting a hard freeze, I’ll likely move my smaller bin into the laundry room or garage. (If they do freeze solid they will die, but all is not lost as red wiggler cocoons can survive much colder temperatures and when it warms up, new worms will emerge — don’t throw out the frozen castings.)”

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Worm compost planting experiment

Inspired by studies showing the benefit of soaking seeds in a worm compost mixture, I decided to try my own experiment. Being early November, I decided to try red wiggler compost on my cover crop, fava beans. Here was what I did today:

First, I shoveled a small amount of compost out of the finished tray of the Worm Factory. The main inputs were kitchen scraps, shredded newspaper, and red wiggler worms.

First, I shoveled a small amount of compost out of the finished tray of a Worm Factory. The main inputs were kitchen scraps, shredded newspaper, and red wiggler worms.

Next I added worm compost into half of the fava beans. There are 48 beans in each container.

Next I added worm compost into half of the fava beans. There are 48 beans in each container.

Next, tap water was added to both containers and the beans were left to soak for 2 hours.

Next, lukewarm tap water was added to both containers and the beans were left to soak for 2 hours.

The beans were planted in a bed prepared with regular compost. On the east side of the yard, the worm compost-soaked beans were planted closest to the fence. On the west side, the water soaked beans were closest to the fence.

The beans were planted in a bed prepared with regular compost. On the east side of the yard, the worm compost-soaked beans were planted closest to the fence. On the west side, the water soaked beans were closest to the fence.

The soil was tamped over top. Now to wait for the beans to sprout.

The soil was tamped over top. Now to wait for the beans to sprout to see if adding red wiggler worm compost improves growth of this fall cover crop.

Update on Dec. 5, 2013. I’ll have to try this experiment again in the spring. Before anything could sprout the ground froze :-(

Update on January 6, 2014: The beans did sprout after all! We had some mild weather in December and they’re coming up. I should be able to count them pretty soon…

Update on January 27, 2014:

The Fava Beans planted in November as a cover crop (or if the winter stays mild a spring crop) sprouted in December and are surviving the cold rain and frost.

The Fava Beans planted in November as a cover crop (or if the winter stays mild a spring crop) sprouted in December and January and are surviving the cold rain and frost.


Out of 96 fava beans planted in the fall, 61 sprouted. (Germination rate of 63.5 %). Here is the breakdown: beans soaked in worm casting tea: 32 sprouted (66.6%), beans soaked in plain water: 29 (60.4%). Not much difference to speak of. We'll try tomato seeds next.

Out of 96 fava beans planted in the fall, 61 sprouted. (Germination rate of 63.5 %). Here is the breakdown: beans soaked in worm casting tea: 32 sprouted (66.6%), beans soaked in plain water: 29 (60.4%). Not a very significant difference to speak of. We’ll monitor their growth, and also try tomato seeds.

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2013 NCSU Vermiculture Conference topic: Bring Life Back to the Soil: Vermicompost Tea Application

Final speaker of the conference: Dane Terrill, Flowerfield Enterprises.

Here are my notes on the topic as added to this live blog of the weekend:

Flowerfield Enterprises history, was overviewed (it was the late Mary Appelhof’s company — Mary was known as the “worm woman” and wrote the classic book Worms Eat My Garbage about composting with red wiggler worms): They’ve offered many different worm compost related products and have now expanded into spraying with vermicompost teas. Uses include application on lawns, landscapes, athletic fields, gardens, CSA’s, orchards, vineyards, greenhouses, golf courses.

Also compost tea and compost extracts were defined at the start, as a continuation of discussions with other speakers at the conference.

The soil is alive — a slide of the soil food web and illustration of how plants grow was shown. Microorganisms stay by roots to get fed in by sugars and starches produced by the plant. In return, the microbes feed and protect the plant.

Compost tea basics (aerated teas): He thinks that it is important that the food source for the red wiggler worms has been through a thermophilic cycle.

Plant needs: A slide was shown with information on the fungal/bacterial balance required by plants. His philosophy is to select against weeds by increasing fungal content of soil. (weeds thrive with more bacteria in soil, garden plants need a balance of fungi and bacteria, forest species thrive in even more fungi). Another point: tillage wrecks the fungi in the soil, so to increase presence of fungi, reduce tillage.

Making Vermicompost Tea:

Compost Pre-activation at Flowerfield – they add rolled oats, oat flower and kelp later in the process to encourage fungal growth. This is mixed with the thermi/vermi wood chip mix, calcium and fish.
Tea is brewed in a 250 gallon cubic tote. His goal is to get fungi active in tea. He routinely cleans out the mixing tote right after use so no bioslime with anaerobic microbes grow. Aeration: minimum of .05 cubic feet per minute per gallon of water with this size tote — it is roiling! To make tea in this size tote, use 3.5 gallons of compost in a mesh bag submerged in a tube. Using mesh keeps clogging issues in sprayer to a minimum. Dissolved oxygen 9.17 ppm. 75 degrees. Amount of water: 225 gallons of dechlorinated water. They’ve been doing this for 8 years. They also do extracting on site and have a 500 gallon transport extractor.

A video of compost tea in action is at microorganics.com

They aerate the tea in the transport truck so it is aerated until it gets to the customer. They apply 20 gallons per acre on soil, turf – (during application it is diluted in more water) 4 times per year (along with plug aeration, top dresssing with a cubic yard of worm compost per 10,000 square feet. For application on foliage, the rate is 5 gallons per acre. the goal in applying microbe-rich compost is to innoculate the soil: so if one cup is good, only use one cup!

Customers whose soils were treated with vermicompost tea have experienced a reduced need for inorganic fertilizers and chemicals, increased yields and healthier plants.

They look at soil samples under a microscope and measure bacteria, fungi, hyphal diameter, protozoa, nematodes — a chart was shown showing improvements when a lawn is treated year after year. He noted that organic lawn care is particularly valuable when kids are playing on the field or lawn.

Raised bed gardening in community or in schools — he showed sites where they are applying tea 4 times a year, compost and vermicompost. Soil analysis showed dramatic improvements. Gypsum and calcium added instead of lime.

About medical marijuana — it is legal in Michigan and many places, and vermicompost is used by these growers since they’re serious about their medicine. They don’t want to use chemical fungicides or insecticides.

We need to take this information back to our communities to put this knowledge about vermiculture to work. He thanked Rhonda Sherman for organizing these conferences.

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NCSU Vermiculture Conference topic – Evaluating Compost Extract Applications: Reflections from Laguna Blanca, Argentina

Speaker: Eric Carr, Rodale Institute. To start he thanked people from Laguna Blanca, Rodale Institute, and his family. In this presentation he will talk about evaluating compost materials on a large scale.

Here are my notes:

At the beginning of his talk he mentions the goal of process of putting organic materials in water: to extract from a solid and use it differently. He prefers term “extract” to “tea” terminology.

He emphasized the importance of producers doing our own tests on our own products — a benefit is to improve the marketability of the product. Since results of different products are highly variable, widespread adoption of compost application on crops isn’t happening.

At what scale is use of organic soil amendments financially beneficial? On a small scale — yard, hoophouses, yes it is often financially beneficial, but what about when you get into hundreds of acres? This was explored in his project.

Laguna Blanca, Argentina project — they are starting with clay soil but the goal is sustainable organic agriculture. A beautiful aerial shot of the farmland was shown.

Composting he worked with: windrow, vermicompost, liquid extracts, and application on crops.

    Tractor was used for windrows of dairy manure and vegetation. They also have a windrow turner.
    Vermiculture in roof-covered cement beds, harvesting was a challenge — it was done with a tractor. Hand feeding and watering every 3 days.
    Extracts made in large brewers — he designed a simple barrel that didn’t leak. He circulated material but didn’t aerate it. Extract was filtered so it didn’t clog sprayer.

His testing — looking for plant growth:

    Germination test on a small scale first. Data shown on 20% vermicompost to water extract. the only increase for lettuce grown in vermicompost was in shoot length.

    Greenhouse and small plot trials — inconclusive and difficult in this setting since irrigation was limited

    Field trials: On soybean and sorghum using 20% worm compost extract applied by tractor with a sprayer. They did a water control for comparison.

    Soybean trial: Well-diluted extract did not significantly improve growth. Vermicompost was extracted for 10 days then stored for 10 days.

    Sorghum trial: Aerated extract more for this trial and didn’t dilute it as much. Still not much difference in growth in first trial, but in second trial where a second dose was applied, there was a significant difference. One note, plain water might have had the same result as there was no water control in this experiment. Other things that could be evaluated if a trial like this was done again would be the timing of the collection of data.

He concluded by saying that in evaluating a process that a cost benefit analysis would show if you are maximizing your benefits by using a vermicompost extract in your crop production — everyone’s variables are different so results of the processes will vary.

The reference text sold at the conference, Vermiculture Technology: Earthworms, Organic Wastes, and Environmental Management, is available on Amazon.com in hardcover and for Kindle.

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NCSU Vermiculture Conference topic: Effects on Plant Growth and Pest and Disease Suppression Using Vermicompost Aqueous Extracts (Teas)

Speaker: Norman Q. Arancon, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Horticulture, University of Hawaii, Hilo

This work with vermicompost extracts was done at Ohio State University. Here are the key points I was able to take away from his talk:

To start: Differentiation was made between leachate (runoff from incompletely composted inputs) and teas. Caution was given about using leachate from manure based composts or leachate if there are slugs in the system since they can carry disease.

The way the tea was made for his studies — steep/dissolve vermicompost for 24 hours. One processes tested is to aerate the tea (bubble air through it).

Vermicompost tea (done in mesophilic conditions) is more valuable than a regular compost tea (made in thermophilic conditions) since beneficial microorganisms are killed by heat.

Characteristics of vermicompost water extracts:
Aerated teas have higher pH (up to 7.8 at 24 hours of brewing) but this will not affect the soil pH much. Aerating also increases electrical conductivity, nitrates, microbial activity and biomass. Note: if you add sugars to this mix, you’ll have a spike in microbial activity, but they’ll use up all the oxygen and then you’ll have a crash in population and possibly a toxic solution. Ideal temperature for brewing 25 degrees Celsius.

Effects of vermicompost extracts on plant growth:
In plant growth, using aerated vermicompost extracts improved growth (100 ml per plant per week).

Effects of vermicompost extracts for pest control:

    Aphids: Fewest on plants fed at roots with aerated tea at 10% solution (100 ml per plant per week)
    Spider mites: reduced spider mite damage at all concentrations of aerated worm compost teas
    Nematodes were also suppressed by application of vermicompost tea.

Plant disease reduction:
Spraying vermicompost tea on leaf reduced plectosporium, verticillium, rhizoctonia (damping off). There are also studies showing that non-aerated teas can be just as effective.

Tea storage:
Lots of microbial activity at 24 hours, lots less after 7 days for all strengths of tea at room temperature. If they are refrigerated microbial populations stay steady but then spike at 14 days.

Seed stimulation: germination rate was highest with 5% vermicompost tea.

Soaking the seeds in 5% vermicompost tea for over 1 hour had a very good increased germination compared to just soaking in water. If you are soaking for 24 hours, soaking in 5% tea is almost as good as soaking in water. At a high concentration (on the other end of the spectrum,) soaking seeds in a 20% tea at 24 hours, the concentration is deadly for the developing plant.

At an audience member’s request, to summarize results, vermicompost effective:

    growth: up to 50%
    suppress pathogens: 5-20%
    germinate seeds: 1%

There was a discussion about difference between tea, extract, leachate, vermiwash (worm slime!) and “worm wine”. There is a Composting Council and a definition was read. Website: National Organic Standards Board (NOSB)and the NOP program. Extract is vermicompost steeped less than one hour. Tea is steeped more than one hour.

Rhonda Sherman finished the session by cautioning about pathogens from leachate, manure and foodwaste. She also advises against putting sugars in extracts or tea because of the danger of spiking growth of pathogens. We need to be aware of proper handling of potential pathogens and pesticides as an industry.

The reference text sold at the conference with articles by Norman Arancon, Rhonda Sherman and others, Vermiculture Technology: Earthworms, Organic Wastes, and Environmental Management is available on Amazon.com in hardcover and for Kindle.

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NCSU Vermiculture Conference topic: Vermicomposting campus food residues in a Passive Solar Greenhouse in a cold climate

Speaker: Dr. John Biernbaum, Michigan State University Dept. of Horticulture where they have a year-round student run organic farm and CSA. Here are my notes from his talk:

At Michigan State University they are trying to grow local and have several hundred hoophouses at the university. At MSU they are closing the food cycle loop and using food from university kitchens. There are food waste collection containers in the kitchens. 100,000 pounds of food waste was composted last year.

In cold hoophouses in their climate, plant leaves can freeze, but then thaw and taste great. They have covers within the hoophouses (made of agribond or poly) to keep temperatures around growing beds up as much as possible in the winter.

He showed slides of how they plant their seedlings and transplants, and showing results from growing with compost. They recommend top dressing new plants on a small scale instead of mixing a tea. A way to apply: sprinkle compost on transplants with a colandar. In hoophouse, treat ground with compost on top before transplanting.

He has horses at his home operation where he started learning about vermicomposting. One thing he passed on to the group: to get red wiggler worms from horse manure, they set a hyacinth bulb crate filled with fresher horse manure on top of an aging pile containing lots of hungry worms. The worms will move up into the bulb crate and can be taken for vermicomposting other feedstocks.

At MSU they have composting going inside hoophouse and it does stay warm enough in there through the winter. They also have aquaponics with fish in these hoophouses. When it is 0 degrees F outside, it is still 45 degrees in the worm bed.

One note: you can provide hot compost for the worms as long as there are cool places for them to escape to. His ideal is to have windrows in the hoophouse. Worms migrate from one windrow to the other with something like a wedge system. Recommended reading: the chapter from the conference book about vermicomposting in China (Vermiculture Technology: Earthworms, Organic Wastes, and Environmental Management edited by Clive Edwards, Norman Arancon, & Rhonda Sherman).

Other Projects:

    Raised beds with one big agribond cover over top for composting with worms. They precompost in a rubbermaid bin — they have food layered with paper/leaves.

    Growing crops over worm beds — they built a bench system.

    Wooden red wiggler bed 4′ x 8′ with polyethelyne sheet lining. This keeps moisture in and nutrients from leaching out.It just needs to be drainable

    Vermiwash – run water through beds and use . Rubbermaid garbage bin – gravel, etc in bottom, worm composting on top — drain out bottom and use vermiwash for fertilizer

    Bulk bag system — vermicompost in large bags in conduit frame. Stuck in drain tube with holes for an aeration system

    Showed more slides of campus greenhouse projects including basic flow through vermibins with conduit bottom and plywood sides and styrofoam lining. He also made a breaker bar with handles on the sides. Cardboard sheets in bottom, then paper bedding, then red wigglers. He may use a heating cable for gutters to keep it warm. They’ll harvest castings when cardboard breaks up.

    They are also cutting down trees and making charcoal to add to worm compost.

    Sales: sifter frames, Jet Worm Harvester of 1/4 inch screen — then they sell compost. 25lb in 5 gallon bucket for $2 per pound

Mention of Tom Wilkinson. “Beyond compost” shows stacking milk and bread crate systems and uses charcoal as additive to soil mix. Also, milk crates can be filled with fresher compost used to harvest worms, grow worms, grow plants in, etc. May be efficient system.

Information was also presented on certifying an “organic systems plan” (as opposed to thinking you can certify compost). This type of system has to be aerobic and high moisture.

The reference text sold at the conference, Vermiculture Technology: Earthworms, Organic Wastes, and Environmental Management, is available on Amazon.com in hardcover and for Kindle.

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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!

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NCSU Vermiculture Conference topic: The Utilization of Vermicomposts in Horticulture

Speaker: Norman Q. Arancon, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Horticulture, University of Hawaii, Hilo

Much of today’s talk will build on chapters 9 and 10 of book available at this conference: Vermiculture Technology: Earthworms, Organic Wastes, and Environmental Management edited by Clive Edwards, Norman Arancon, & Rhonda Sherman. He started thanking Rhonda Sherman for organizing the conference every year. Here are my takeaways from his talk:

The real goal in vermicomposting is to make plants grow, so understanding the soil created is important. Soil is made up of 5% organic matter including microbial populations. Microbes cause decomposition, nutrient release, pest suppression, disease suppression, plant growth regulation, and soil aggregation. The other 95% of soil is also made up of air, water and mineral particles.

Popular farming methods — burning and pest control — kill important microorganisms.

Vermicomposts are stabilized organic matter produced by the interaction of worms and microorganisms under controlled conditions. With vermicomposting you can produce soil in a very short period of time — 60 days. Vermicompost has lots of surface area for nutients and moisture. It has plant-available nutrients, growth hormones and humic acids.

Results of using vermicomposts: accelerated germination of seeds, increased growth of seedlings, early flowering of plants, increased yields of plants.

    Optimimum rate of plant growth with 10 – 50% worm compost in growing mix. Over 60% decreased growth or even plant death from too much growth hormone. Results are in the shape of a bell curve.

    Rhizome growth — stem cuttings best growth in 20-60% vermicompost.

    Increased plant yield from 10 – 40% vermicompost in soil.

Reasons behind increased growth in plants: nutrition, plant growth hormones, humic acids

Plant growth hormones effective at very low concentrations. Different hormones affect different aspects of plant growth and development. Three of the growth hormones are found in vermicomposts — they are produced by microorganisms in vermicomposts.

Humic acids – organic polymers that can be extracted from humus. They “grab and protect” hormones and act like hormones.

How about vermicompost in a field instead of the greenhouse? Most yields of vermicompost-enhanced fields at 5-10 tons per hectacre outpaced regular inorganic fertilizer no matter how the compost was created (paper waste, cow manure, kitchen scraps).

Vermicompost and suppression of plant diseases: Pythium, Powdery Mildew and other diseases suppressed by probiotics in vermicomposts

Vermicompost and suppression of plant parasites and pests: numbers parasitic nematodes, cabbage caterpillars, aphids, mealy bugs, and other bugs reduced. In general great results with 20-40% worm compost in the growing medium. Why are the plants more resistant? They plants seem to be taking up phenolics from vermicomposts and producing metabolites which are unpalatable to insects.

Tomorrow Norman Arancon will present research on the effects of vermicompost extracts applied to the foliage of plants.

The reference text sold at the conference with articles by Arancon and other researchers in the field, Vermiculture Technology: Earthworms, Organic Wastes, and Environmental Management, is available on Amazon.com in hardcover and for Kindle.

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NCSU Vermiculture Conference topic: Vermiculture in India: Agriculture, Solid Waste Management and Habitat Restoration

Speaker: Peter Ash, StraightAsh Evironmental Solutions

Here are my notes:

Peter showed slides of different vermicomposting systems in India. Precomposting was done before adding worms. Cow dung was often composted. Common plant inputs include coconut husks and bamboo leaves. Showed slides from farms and a zoo.

He did a waste audit on an ashram. They had food waste, cow dung, plant waste and wood shavings so they built a thermophillic and windrow worm composting system.

Next major project: he was called back to India to start a system at a large hospital on an island behind the hospital. The hospital has 3.5 tons of food waste daily. Hospital food waste vermicomposting facility – has a cover and a moat around to keep ants away. But a big problem on the site turned out to be buried hospital waste. It turned into a major cleanup and remediation project of recycling, incinerating and composting. They were composting 8 tons of material a day. Compost was then spread over the soil. Built a windrow tractor, trommel and agricultural shredder. As a part of the hospital project, they also did a trial of composting water hyacinth grown in contaminated water — vermicomposting cleaned out heavy metals.

Hospital projects were successful so they were given government funding for more facilities including greenhouses. There was a huge reduction of heavy metals in soil analysis. Part of the new facility will be a covered windrow system with rain barrels. Precomposted material will be brought to a facility called a worm racetrack.

 

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NCSU Vermiculture Conference topic: Produce Distributor Vermicomposts Produce Scraps in Hand-built Bins

Speaker: Roger Grosswald, Re-Organics, Sustainable FoodCycling with Foster-Caviness

Here are my notes on the talk:

Re-Organics is a composting company that handles freight waste from produce industry freight-waste. They compost produce for nitrogen and food grade cardboard for carbon.

They grind food waste to increase the surface area and get some moisture out and feed it to worms. Precomposting is not being done at this time by Re-organics. They use a chopper for cardboard (in a machine used to chop horse hay) Chop produce with a garbage disposal.

They built a flow through digester to handle their compost with lots of moisture. It has plastic laying on top. They use bars instead of mesh. Use a rake that rakes between bars and compost falls out the bottom. But now they use a new system — see below.

Tricks:

    For startup composter – Use dairy milk crates stacked like a wall with tarp over top to build a compost bin.

    Another startup composter – Wooden cage with a tarp laid inside — zip ties hold the sides up so you can lay down the sides to harvest. You can grow a lot of worms but harvesting is a lot of work.

    Larger scale composting – Now they grow worms inside a refrigerated shipping container in bins. They can dump a whole bin in the trommel. Bins are lined with landscape fabric for easy cleaning. In one trailer — 700 square feet of bins. He recommends this system for up to 2000 square feet.

    For harvesting trommel – Spray vegetable spray on wire of trommel to help with harvesting.

    For fruit flies – spread lot of shredded cardboard on top

    Idea for bedding – use cardboard dust from a manufacturer to apply in later stages of the process so it can be sifted out better.

    To control red mites — fry them with a propane torch or lay damp newspaper on top and throw the newspaper away if they get on there. Red mites are a predator to red wiggler worms

    To add feedstock – grind into a slurry, measure, sprinkle it on. After 2000 square feet, you will want to automate.

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NCSU Vermiculture Conference topic – Construction and Commissioning of North America’s Largest Composting Facility

Tom Herlihy, RT Solutions, runs the largest agricultural vermicomposting facility in North America. Here are my takeaways from his talk:

Company’s mantra for production: That it be consistent uniform and repeatable. Note: they produce compost as opposed to worms.

About vermicompost:

Note related to earlier discussions at conference: he says there is no such thing as a “pure casting”. Worms alter availability of nutrients. What you put in affects what comes out so you have to know your own material. If you take a consistent feedstock, you can have a consistent product. (His feedstock is dairy farm cow manure from animals that are fed consistent feed.) The cows are not certified organic but the compost product is organic because it went through a hot composting process.

His process:

    Demoisturize and compost thermophilically. Vermicompost in flow through digesters (feed from top, harvest from bottom). Beds are fairly deep so the cocoons aren’t harvested and to allow for mesophilic composting. They harvest from the bottom in 45 days because the cocoons will have hatched before then. Note: Worms breed at a lower level if you over-water because they follow the moisture.

    Animal husbandry of worms is most critical. If you treat them like garbage…

    In the compost beds: look for cocoons and reproduction

    They do extensive screening and ship in huge bags. They also do small packaging and liquid extracts. (Their extract is a non-aerated dissolved worm compost.

Other notes:

    About vermicompost extract: it is a stable plant growth product.

    If you want to sell extract or tea, you should know its solubility and test it — these tests can be inexpensive.

    They don’t use municipal water to create an extract or tea or in vermicomposting because it contains chlorine

    You can store vermicompost 18 months

    He has done lots of research including work with Allison Jack on suppression of pythium (damping off) Vermicompost-treated seeds are shown to repel pythium. Results are seen in plants seen with seeds exposed to vermicompost for just a couple of hours. When vermicompost was heated to kill the microbes, the suppression of pythium was lost.

    Plant growth research: they get results with 3-12% vermicompost. This depends on the nutrient density of the particular compost.

    He advises that you use vermicompost next to the plant — not broadcast on a big field. An extract may be more appropriate to spray on a field especially for repeat applications.

    He gave another example of successful results — top-dressing a golf course with nine parts sand, one part vermicompost.

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NCSU Vermiculture Conference topic: Pre-composting: 9.5 out of 10 Worms Recommend It

    Speaker: Dr. Rob Rynk, State University of New York. Here are my notes:

    Precomposting food before feeding it to worms is often done with force-aerated composted bins. This has also been done for years in the mushroom growing industry.

    Reasons for precomposting worm feedstocks:

      Improve environment, prevent overheating, and to heat sanitizes the product

      Pre-composted materials more likely to meet conditions that worms like (moisture level, etc.) It reduces ammonia levels, may neutralize pH, decomposes potential toxins, and reduces volume and weight of feed. It becomes more stable in general and still provides worms the food value.

      Cons of precomposting – effort and number of time materials are handled

      Consideration as to how long to precompost — microbial population is highest when the compost is hot. So you may want to interrupt the hot composting process to put the feed in worm bin in smaller quantities.

      For hot composting heat to 131 degrees F for 3-15 days depending on type of composting process (PFRP regulations). Some people are more comfortable with using heat than worm composting to kill pathogens — there is currently more research on this than on using worms to reduce pathogens.

      You may be able to feed worms materials that are precomposted that you can’t feed them uncomposted (for example — high nitrogen foods that emit ammonia). So you may want to precompost for 6 days. (If you can smell ammonia it is probably toxic to worms).

      Raw feedstocks can attract pests and flies and can smell, so precompost to avoid this.

      Pre-composting can break down toxins and pesticides that can be in produce and other feed.

    How to precompost:

      Passive aeration (in a basic pile or windrow)

      Forced aeration — pipe blowing air into compost pile or sucking air out. Air sucked out can be used to heat a soil bed in a greenhouse. The soil bed is a biofilter to take out the moisture, etc. Or you can use a heat exchanger to use the energy from the warm moist air.

      Turning windrow or compost pile. Now you often see a windrow system with covers and using a tractor to turn.

      Passive aerated static piles — pipes with holes in them going through pile

      Turning the compost pile is recommended — even if it is just one turn.

    The reference text sold at the conference, Vermiculture Technology: Earthworms, Organic Wastes, and Environmental Management, is available on Amazon.com in hardcover and for Kindle.

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NCSU Vermiculture Conference Notes: Market Development, Strategies and Realities

Speaker: Ron Alexander of Alexander and Associates. Rhonda introduced him as the nation’s top vermiculture industry marketer. Here are some of the key points of his talk:

Keys to marketing in our industry:

    Create a consistent product that you can test and educate your customers about.

    Monitor processes, manage your facility and store your product carefully.

    Differentiate your product — in worm casting market there is still alot of work to do and he sees potential in this market. Worm castings dry nicely. Use existing research for ideas of how to test your particular product.

    To promote: Brand instead of commoditize — brand a line of products or individual product

    Key to promotion — look at what is actually bringing sales leads. For example trade shows are often worthwhile

    Education — working with garden writers, garden clubs and professionals is often key. Also vital to be educated about what you’re selling. In our industry Biocycle magazine is a great value.

    “Verified Vermicompost Benefits” — list will be on NCSU website. Remember with compost, claims are dependent on application rates.

    Sales and distribution — build programs based on more technical knowledge and less talk.

    Positioning product — more general means more failure. Specify how the compost will be applied — as a top dressing? Niche marketing — new ideas to raise value and generate interest.

    Basic strategies — key is that the more you produce the more diversified the market needs to be. Create a stable program where if you lose a certain client it is not a problem.

    Another important goal is to get repeat business

    Product positioning — who and for what specific application and how to diversify from other things on shelf. Dependant on geography and population.

    Market investment — 2-3 years of effort are required to develop a sustainable market. Constantly think about what is working and what is not working.

    Distribution options — with industry professionals or selling to homeowners. It often comes down to logistics. It is often better to sell to smaller users in smaller packages. Be careful about promising exclusivity in distribution.

    One great opportunity is derivative products — a lot of products now have worm castings in them. But then you can’t put the claims that have been approved for castings on the product labeling.

    He discussed regulations for soil amendments vs. fertilizers vs. manipulated manures. He suggested that eventually worm castings will be regulated as fertilizers. This would affect labeling. Note: on a label — less is more!

    Conclusion: look at what the market wants, what it needs, and what you can produce.

Posted in NCSU Vermiculture Conference, Red Wiggler Worm Compost

NCSU Vermiculture Conference Topic: Earthworm Biology and Environmental Parameters of Importance

Speaker: Dr. John Biernbaum, Michigan State University Dept. of Horticulture where they have a year-round student run organic farm and CSA.

Here are notes of things that I learned and took away:

    John’s done specific work on worm composting in unheated structures (more challenging than in heated facilities). This is particularly challenging in Michigan.

    Another focus — maximum production per acre

    His focus is on creating compost as a resource (not so much focus on the waste management end)

    There are 6000 species of worms and only 6 are used in composting — the main one being eisenia fetida (the red worm, red wiggler worm, manure worm)

    Worm biology – worms don’t have teeth so depend on other organisms in the soil to break things down. Also worms don’t have lungs so there needs to be moisture so they can absorb oxygen through their skin.

    With bigger beds, they’ve moved to pre-composting the worm’s food for efficiency, as opposed to burying food in the bins.

    Reproduction — worms are hermaphrodites but do mate, then they lay cocoons. They may start to mate at 60 – 90 days depending on conditions and can create 2-3 cocoons a week. Cocoons take 4-6 weeks to hatch. Worms can live 3-4 years in an ideal system. Rates of reproduction depend on conditions and limitations of the system.

    We were asked to raise our hands to indicate our experience by the number of years we’ve been worm composting and the number of square feet of surface area that we operate.

    Population density measurement — he started out managing horse manure composting and can see that cubic feet is a measure for some systems like windrows. Square foot of surface area is also common — 2-3 pounds per square foot would be considered high population.

    Moisture measurement – % moisture content (wet weight – dry weight)/wet weight. 70-90% is a target range, but not if there is too much food in the bin. If you aren’t weighing the bedding, do the squeeze test. If you squeeze a handful and it falls apart — it is below 40% — too low. Ok is if you squeeze it and it stays in a ball when you open your hand (60%) Ideal is to squeeze it and a couple drops of water come out.

    Oxygen – temperature is a factor, as temperature increases, oxygen solubility in water decreases. Also avoid closed containers.

    Food – Carbon, Nitrogen, Minerals. In a feeding systems they need to be balanced. There are lookup tables showing makeup of inputs and available minerals.

    If you have 100 pounds of worms and are giving 50 pounds of food — consider moisture content of the food to know how much you’re actually feeding.

    Feeding trial: Horse manure .5 of weight per day was lowest – 1 of weight per day was mid, plate scrapings were highest.

    Temperature. Range is between 40 degrees F to 85 degrees F. Optimum is around 77 degrees.

    pH: affects nutrient availability for worms and plants. Note: ammonia gas becomes toxic in a high pH system.

    Soluble salts: impacts moisture availability. They accumulate in a system over time and will stress the worms. Not a problem in a flow through system.

    Bulk density — impacts oxygen transfer — indicates if there is too much soil which results in migration.

    Conclusion — quantifying can take away guesswork in worm composting.

The reference text sold at the conference, Vermiculture Technology: Earthworms, Organic Wastes, and Environmental Management, is available on Amazon.com in hardcover and for Kindle.

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2013 NCSU Vermiculture Conference Notes

NCSU site of vermiculture conference attended by Red Wiggler SupplyJust getting an agenda and seat at the conference — it was a brisk but pretty walk to the hall. The introduction will be by Rhonda Sherman, from the Biological & Agricultural Engineering Department here at NC State University who organizes these conferences every year. This is the 14th year and participants are from 7 countries and all over the US. There are 130 people here.

First the participants were given an orientation — parking, facilities, location of recycling and compost bins — pretty important with this crowd. At lunch we’ll compost our paper plates, cups, and napkins of course. There will be a networking evening at the Brownstone Hotel. Conference materials will be posted online after the weekend. See the other posts in this blog for speaker notes.

Posted in NCSU Vermiculture Conference