The 2016 Vermicomposting Conference
The James B. Hunt Library ( pictured above) on the campus of North Carolina State was the venue for the 2016 Vermicomposting Conference. The Conference was held June 2 - 3, 2016. This sleek, modern building seemed to be an unusual place for a meeting of worm farmers. However, the venue did not disappoint and was a very comfortable ( if not grand) facility.
This was my first time to attend the Vermicomposting Conference and I really didn't know what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised by the facility and the organizational abilities of our host, Rhonda Sherman. This was Rhonda's 17 th annual vermicomposting conference and she really has it down to a science.
There were about 100 attendees and most states were represented. There were also a few international participants present. There seemed to be a diverse range of interests represented within the group. Small to large vermicomposting businesses were represented. Several state regulators were present and trying to learn more about the vermicomposting industry. The EPA also had some of their people there. The US Composting Council had a spokesperson in attendance ( more on that later) and there were even a few hobbyist worm growers. I certainly did not get around to talking with all that were present but it appeared to be an eclectic group. The Worm Farming Alliance was well represented and comprised about 10 percent of the entire group.
Key Issues for Vermicomposting Operations
North Carolina State University
Rhonda Sherman welcomed everyone to the Vermicomposting Conference and took care of the usual housekeeping duties done by the host.
Rhonda began her presentation talking about marketing (no kidding). She explained that marketing your products should come first and worm husbandry second. Rhonda has seen a lot of worm growing operations come and go over the years and poor (or no) marketing initially was usually the main reason for failure. You need a place to SELL your products before production can be planned.
Rhonda spoke about red worms (eisenia fetida) and growing systems both large and small. This was all pretty basic information. The worm growers were probably a little bit bored but many people in the room don't raise worms. She needed to cover the fundamentals for them. I am not going to cover everything she talked about but will pick out some highlights of what was discussed.
- Proponent of pre-composting manures to reduce pathogens and weed seeds.
- BEWARE of persistent herbicides. These are becoming more commonplace and can be found in hay, manure, compost, and grass clippings. The worms pass them through to their castings.
- Plan for your feed stock before production begins. You need to have a plan in place to feed your worms.
- Regulations are GOOD.
- they protect public welfare
- protect the environment
- manage waste effectively
- keep your product consistent
Myth - Red worms eat their weight in food daily.
Correct - 25-33% daily
Myth - Landfills are using worms to convert waste.
Correct - Rhonda knows of no landfills using worms. It is a terrible environment for worms.
Myth - Buy Back plans can help your business.
Correct - Buy Back plans are SCAMS and pyramid schemes.
Myth - You can sell (buy) 100% castings.
Correct - There is no such thing as 100% castings. You would have to test every tablespoon.
Myth - Leachate is worm tea.
Correct - That stuff that runs out of your bins (if you over water) is leachate and dangerous. It is NOT worm tea.
Rhonda ended her presentation with a short question and answer session.
Harvesting and Shipping Earthworms
"The Worm Farm" Durham, Ca.
Heather Howland took the floor. She is a very pleasant young lady that handles the office paperwork for "The Worm Farm" in Durham, California. I apologize for not having her picture. The picture on the right is the doors to the Duke Energy Hall (taken from the second floor atrium of the library). This is where the Conference was held.
Heather began her presentation by talking a little bit about the operations at "The Worm Farm". They ship 250 - 300 pounds of worms weekly. This kind of volume requires good organization to make sure orders are getting out on time and you are being paid. Heather's first tip was to keep good records AND back everything up. She recommends keeping a paper file on every customer. When computers crash or are down; you will still have your paper files.
Heather offered some good advice for companies that decide to drop-ship for other companies. These are the basics required:
- Determine your pricing ( is shipping included)?
- Decide your terms - when you ship, when are orders due, how will orders be submitted, billing, when are payments due
- Have a credit app packet for every customer which includes:
- welcome letter
- business credit app.
- terms and conditions contract
- credit card authorization form
- selling permit ( if required)
- small sample (sent to customer)
Heather also stressed that you should NEVER contract for a specific amount of worms. Something could happen (like your worms die) or you could run low on stock for a variety of reasons.
Heather was also adamant about keeping your customer records current and especially contact information.
She felt that it was good business to give your customers as much advance notice of change as possible. Examples: price increases, shipping changes, running low on inventory and not able to fill orders.
Heather finished up her presentation (with relief I think) but she did a great job and offered useful information.
How Vermicompost Affects Plants:
Growth, Disease, and Pest Suppression
University of Hawaii - Hilo
Norman Arancon took the podium like a rock star (he is). If you have never met Norman... He is a guy with a slight build and actually oozes charisma. Norman is one of the world's foremost researchers of worm castings and worm casting's tea. He is also a gifted singer, actor, and a genuinely nice guy. That is probably enough of the "Arancon" commercial, but when this guy speaks, you should listen. He happens to be pretty smart too!
This write-up is just going to be the highlights. I mean; you could write a book (he has) and not cover all the information.
Norman began his discussion talking about soil and it's complex composition of micro-organisms and minerals. Interesting fact: One teaspoon of healthy soil contains between 100 million and 1 billion micro-organisms.
Role of Micro-organisms in Soil (M)
- soil is alive
- M break down organic matter
- M recycle nutrients
- M create humus
- M create soil structure
- M fix Nitrogen
- M promote plant growth
- M control pest and disease
Norman had a lengthy discussion of the importance of minerals and trace minerals in soil. Scientists and researchers are still identifying important minerals and their hierarchy (that promotes plant growth) in soil. Soil is a very complex system.
Vermicompost is stabilized organic matter that is produced by the interaction of earthworms and micro-organisms under controlled conditions.
- fine particulate structure
- high surface area
- high water holding capacity
- high nutrient holding capacity
- High microbial population
- active fungi
- active bacteria
- high microbial diversity
- pH near neutral
- contains plant available nutrients
- contains plant growth hormones
- contains humic acids
Vermicompost application rates show a Bell curve (more is NOT better). 10 -20 percent application rate seems to be the "Sweet Spot". Norman said that this fact had baffled researchers for years. When testing methods became better; researchers figured out that hormones were the probable cause. Norman discussed the hormones that are present in vermicompost (more still being found) and the effects on plant growth. He identified some of the major ones and talked about their respective roles in growth, disease, and pest suppression. Interesting fact: 2-4D and Agent Orange are two examples of herbicides that use excess hormones to kill plants. The excess hormones cause the plants to grow faster than their ability to uptake nutrients.
Vermicompost Effects on Plant Growth Summary
- accelerates germination
- accelerates flowering
- increased number of fruits (not necessarily size)
- best rate of application- 20% on average
- higher application rates do NOT promote more growth
- increased plant growth and production of humic acids (hormones)
- nutrients released slowly as needed in small but efficient quantities
Norman talked at length about disease and pest suppression attributed to vermicompost. The information is beyond the scope of this report. MY takeaway: There is some disease and pest suppression BUT it worked better on some diseases and pests and not as well on others. There was improvement across the board from the control though. There was NOT an eradication of disease or pest problems.
Norman finished up his presentation and it was very interesting and informative. He is back on Day Two to discuss worm tea research results.
Vermiculture as an Effective Tool for Food Security
and the Recovery of Eroded Soils: 13 Projects in Mexico
Francisco Niembro took the floor to speak about his social projects in Mexico. The picture at right shows Francisco (second from left) talking with beekeepers about the benefits of vermicompost.
Francisco is CEO of Aldea Verde in Mexico which is a large-scale worm composting company. Aldea Verde sells castings, tea, worms, and biologics. They also consult and install small to industrial-scale worm composting systems. Training personnel to manage the systems is also part of their business.
Aldea Verde was commissioned by the Mexican Government to design a basic, turn-key system that could be replicated in impoverished villages and rural areas. They have done this and installed 13 systems to date. Francisco laughed and said that each one was slightly different. It depended upon climate, geography, local resources, and end use.
Francisco talked about the goals and benefits of the program:
- recovery of 2200 acres of depleted agriculture lands
- produces: decent and productive employment
- innovative: scalable, replicable, and profitable
- environmentally friendly: turns organic waste into fertilizer
- better life: forms human capital and promotes community involvement
Francisco showed slides and discussed all thirteen projects. For sake of brevity I have picked a couple of examples:
Mexico Social Projects, Example #1:
Aldea Verde installed a worm composting system for a mango farmer. The farmer aspires to get organic certification for his mango crop. This will increase the price for his mangoes 30-40 %. The worm composting system uses:
- 22000 pounds of worms
- produces 80 ton/year worm castings
- produces 120000 liter/year worm tea
After 3 years, the farmer has realized more mango production and healthier soils.
Ten families working together to raise onions. Aldea Verde installed a system that uses:
- 1300 pounds of worms
- produces 60 ton/year worm castings
- 120000 liter/year worm tea
- Onions are ready two to three weeks earlier
- 40-50% increase in production
- onions are bigger, tastier, and nicer
Francisco also showed the overall results of the thirteen projects:
- over 1000 ton/year worm castings
- over 500000 liters/year worm tea
- 2200 pounds/year worm flour
- 100 families benefited with employment and increased income
- 7 communities benefited
- converted 3000 ton/year organic waste
Francisco concluded his presentation and said that he was very pleased with the results of the 13 social projects. He said his company is wanting to do more of these types of projects. He also stated that they were also looking to expand internationally to start more projects like these.
When the speakers were finished for the day; the entire group took a field trip to the Vermicomposting Learning Lab. The picture at right shows several small vermicomposting systems. We were all able to walk around, inspect the systems, and ask questions. This photo is courtesy of Melissa Corichi. Melissa is the owner of Let It Rot that is located in Florida.
The picture on the right shows more of the vermicomposting systems that we were allowed to look at and inspect. The brick bin in the foreground would hold a fairly large amount of worms. This photo is courtesy of Melissa Corichi. Melissa is the owner of Let It Rot that is located in Florida.
The picture on the right shows the inside of the NC State Vermicomposting Lab. There were various larger worm bins and even a section of a large commercial Continuous Flow-thru Reactor. We were able to examine the winches and cutting bar that was employed in the commercial bin. This was an interesting field trip. This photo is courtesy of Kristen Beigay. Kristen is the owner of Earthen Organics that is located in South Carolina.
The picture at right shows the cutter bar assembly on a commercial flow-thru reactor. This was powered by winches that were installed on both ends. The cutter bar is connected by steel cables to the winch assemblies on either end. This appeared to be the system that was generating the most interest at the vermicomposting lab.
Heather Rinaldi (foreground left in white t-shirt) listening intently to a speaker on Day Two of the 2016 Vermicomposting Conference. Heather is the owner of the Texas Worm Ranch and a fellow Worm Farming Alliance member. This photo is courtesy of Kristen Beigay. Kristen is the owner of Earthen Organics in South Carolina.
Effects on Plant Growth and Pest and Disease Suppression Using Vermicompost Aqueous Extracts (Teas)
University of Hawaii-Hilo
Norman Arancon was the first presenter on Day Two. The subject matter was Worm Tea. There were four (4) types of teas researched and tested. The subject matter and research data lends itself to a bullet-point type format for this article. The discussion was lengthy; so be warned, this is ONLY the highlights.
The four types of teas that were researched and tested:
- ACT - aerated compost tea (made with (VC) worm castings)
- ACTME - aerated compost tea with microbial enhancer (VC)
- NCT - non-aerated compost tea (made with VC)
- TCT - thermophilic compost tea (made with thermophilic composted materials) (NO VC)
Norman and Rhonda do NOT recommend molasses or sugar-based products to be used as a microbial enhancer in worm teas. The reasoning appears to be that if pathogens (e coli, salmonella, etc) are present, they too will be enhanced with a sugar-based feed. The recommendations are to instead use something like humic acid, kelp meal, alfalfa, or the like, as a bacterial food source.
Some important points about the worm tea research:
- ACT, ACTME outperformed NCT across the board.
- Compost teas (made with VC) outperformed any thermophilic compost tea whether aerated or not.
- ACTME had more bacterial biomass and Nitrogen than ACT.
- ACT, ACTME had better pest and disease suppression than NCT or TCT.
- ACT stored at room temperature had a decrease of active bacteria in the range of 50-60% by Day 7. It then stayed relatively stable in that range until Day 21. Bacterial levels crashed after Day 21.
- ACT stored in cold storage (refrigerated) had approximately the same bacterial levels at Day 7. Bacterial levels then had about a 50% INCREASE by Day 14. Bacterial activity crashed to near zero somewhere between Day 14 and 21. (Authors note: This fact intrigued me. The research shows that you may get actually get higher bacterial biomass by refrigerating your worm tea for about two weeks before using. If you attempt this, make sure that you have a microscope. You may lose a batch or two of tea until you can find the "sweet spot") The research supports the idea that you can refrigerate your worm tea for up to two weeks without any loss of bacterial activity.
- A one percent (1%) dilution of ACT showed the best results as a seed stimulant across the board. Soaking your seeds for 8-24 hours seemed to yield the best results. (tomato seeds were tested)
Norman also presented some results from an unpublished research study that he has been conducting. The study was based on testing ACT in non-circulating hydroponic systems using various nutrient levels. The research was conducted on non-circulating systems because many growers in remote areas of Hawaii do not have the circulating systems that are the norm in the Continental United States. This produced some very interesting results:
- 25% nutrient level with 28% ACT added gave the SAME production as a 100% nutrient level.
- 50% nutrient level with 28% ACT gave the SAME production as a 100% nutrient level.
These results seemed amazing to me. Will this work the same way in a circulating hydroponics systems? No one knows for sure. Research and results can be counter-intuitive at times, BUT if I were a hydroponics grower (which I am not), the research is certainly compelling enough to undertake some testing. If this works in circulating hydroponics systems; there would be a considerable cost-savings and the added benefit of pest and disease suppression.
Norman concluded his presentation after showing that the research supports the use of worm teas for enhanced plant growth and pest, disease suppression.
Meeting the Needs of the US Medicinal-Marijuana Industry
"The Worm Farm" Durham, California
Mark Purser from The Worm Farm took the podium for his Presentation. Mark seems to be a pretty unassuming guy that is just your basic rancher next door. UNTIL, you consider that he has built a multi-million dollar worm business from the ground up. Mark is the first one to acknowledge that luck has played a large role in his success. Someone once told me the definition of LUCK:
- luck, definition: preparation plus opportunity.
This describes Mark's story to a Tee. When the laws pertaining to Medicinal- Marijuana were passed, Mark was ready. He had his basic infrastructure in place and was located right, ready to go.
Mark runs about a mile and a half of windrows on a 40 acre ranch in Northern California. This is not a high-tech wormery. No fancy continuous flow-thru reactors here! The castings are harvested once a year and stored to make the soil mixes that comprise the bulk of his business.
Mark sells soil mixes: millions of dollars worth of soil mixes. Mark's BIG SECRET: "Give the customers WHAT they want, WHEN they want it." Seems simple enough (probably not).
Mark says he is now the largest buyer of thermophilic compost in California. Soil amendments are a huge component of his soil mixes. He buys them by the truckloads. They include things like the following:
- thermophilic compost
- worm castings
- peat moss
- coconut coir
- lava rock
- glacier rock
- bat guano
- composted manures- cattle, horse, chicken
- rice hulls
Mark sells and delivers his soil mixes to greenhouses, vineyards, cannabis growers, and other agricultural operations. He currently has a fleet of ten dump trucks with trailers that can haul 40 cubic yards at a time. They are on the road delivering soil mixes on a daily basis.
Mark closed his presentation with this advice. Mark believes that soil mixes can be a great value-added use for vermicompost. Most worm castings operations could benefit from the addition of soil mixes to their inventory of products to sell.
Norman Arancon treated the attendees with some impromptu entertainment after lunch on Friday. Norman took the stage and performed the song "All of Me" by John Legend. The sound system did not really do him justice though. However, Norman is a great singer and a born performer. Everyone enjoyed the performance and there were even a few lighters waving around.
Photo is courtesy of Melissa Corichi. Melissa is the proprietor of Let It Rot located in Florida.
Check out his YouTube video that was done in studio:
Selling Vermicompost Products: Market Research and Development
R. Alexander & Associates
Ron Alexander took the podium for the final presentation of the Vermicomposting Conference. Ron is a very good public speaker and cracked some pretty good jokes to lighten the crowd up. His message however was "all business". Ron brought a pretty good dose of reality to the attendees that have or are about to have a vermicomposting business.
Ron talked in length about researching your market and identifying the segments that you are trying to capture. There was a lot of discussion about planning the size of your facilities to meet those perceived needs.
Ron stressed the need to decide whether your castings will be sold as a fertilizer or a soil amendment. This will probably depend on your state's regulations concerning fertilizers. Every state has different rules and regulations. Learning your particular state's rules is very important. These rules may even dictate what you can call your castings. (ie: worm cast, vermicompost, vermicast, etc.) For example: California worm castings producers will not call there product vermicompost because with "compost" in the name; they fall under the purview of the compost regulators.
Ron mentioned that if you plan to sell your castings in other states; you may have legal issues regarding your labeling on bags. Many states have different rules regarding what you may and may not say on labels.
This leads us into Ron's main message to castings producers. He believes strongly that vermicomposters need to differentiate their product from thermophilic compost. Your marketing has to be geared toward educating your customers about the difference between these two products.
Ron pointed out the fact that most states are soon going to regulate vermicompost. This fact was borne out by the amount of state regulators present at the conference. His final message was that vermicomposters need a Trade Organization to help represent them. A Trade Organization would help to keep regulations rational and consistent. Rhonda Sherman entered the discussion and seconded Ron's opinion. There was quite a lot of discussion centered around the Trade Association idea and how it could come about.
Rhonda introduced a spokesperson from the U.S. Composting Council that said the Council would welcome vermicomposters to their organization. There was some discussion about this as well.
This discussion closed out the 2016 Vermicomposting Conference.
What A Great Event
The 2016 Vermicomposting Conference was a great success. The event was well-organized and well-run. Rhonda Sherman and all of the speakers were accessible throughout the entire Conference. Everyone was friendly and questions were readily welcomed.
One personal takeaway from the Conference: Worm growers always stress the fact that worm castings can replace chemical fertilizers and that much waste is diverted from landfills. This is certainly true and helps to sell our products. Our soils are also much the better for it. BUT, the Conference also helped me to realize that vermicomposting can be a tool to improve social conditions in many areas. Francisco Niembro's talk about the small projects that his company has been doing in Mexico was enlightening. He presented pictures and facts that resonated on a personal level. This is a good thing that he is doing. We can all learn something from his commitment.
I enjoyed meeting and talking to the people that were attending the Conference. I especially enjoyed meeting and talking face to face with fellow members of the Worm Farming Alliance. Many of us communicate nearly daily on the various Facebook groups. It was nice to finally meet in person. Heather Rinaldi said it best " The Conference was great but meeting the WFA members was Priceless". I couldn't agree more.
In closing, this report does not replace actually attending the Conference. There is absolutely no way to condense all of the information presented into a summary. Please make plans to attend the Vermicomposting Conference in the future. You will not be disappointed.
Disclaimer: I have tried to be accurate in my portrayal of facts and the "feel" of the Conference. Any mistakes are my own and I claim them.