In one of our earlier articles about “all earthworms not being created equal”, we highlighted the role of epigeic type earthworms and their importance in managing high volumes of organic waste. Without them, our health and the environment would have been under serious threat.
Occasionally, however, we are often asked by the general public “why can’t I just use the earthworms in my backyard?” We would like to take this opportunity to share some knowledge on the ideal composting worm. As we indicated earlier epigeic earthworms are preferred for vermicomposting because of their habitat and diet preference. However, not all epigeic species are a qualified for vermicomposting. Suitably qualified earthworms should, therefore, possess the following characteristics:
1. The selected earthworm should be able to survive the vermicomposting environment. This is a controlled environment which is mainly characterized by high levels of organic matter. The suitable applicant should, therefore, be able to acclimatize very quickly to slight variations in humidity, temperature, salinity, and pH.
2. The selected earthworm must be able to efficiently bio-convert varying types of organic wastes. Candidates will be exposed to a wide variety of waste streams and are therefore expected to recycle these wastes in the shortest time possible, producing a finished product that is environmentally safe.
3. The selected earthworm must also display adaptive survival strategies such as rapid breeding without the use of any artificial enhancing stimulants. The success and growth of the vermicomposting system are solely reliant on the rapid development of successive generations. It is therefore imperative that the suitable applicant is able to reproduce exponentially. Please note that more rooms will be built to mitigate overcrowding. Applicants who display a slow-growth and low waste-conversion rate will not be considered.
4. The suitable applicant should also demonstrate a high resistance to pests and pathogens that would tend to affect earthworms.
5. The selected earthworm must be culturable, the behavioral traits of selected applicants in response to handling by hand or any form of mechanization is also very important. The selected earthworm should, therefore, allow for easy sorting and separation of worms from castings. Earthworms are also expected to remain at their place of work at all times as mass departures could be an indication of unfitness for the job.
Please be mindful that, it is based on the aforementioned characteristics that three known epigeic species (Eisenia fetida, Perionyx excavatus, and Eudrilus eugeniae) have been reported as most suitable for vermicomposting.
It has been a month since the UWI Tech-Agri Expo and admittedly it has had a positive impact on business for us at the worm farm. The demand for vermicompost, compost tea, and soil amendments has tripled. There has also been a sharp increase in demand for earthworms as well as numerous requests for the next date for our beginner’s course. Furthermore, many of our past students have felt a sense of motivation after seeing worm farming being promoted as a viable agribusiness.
There was also a general sense of curiosity amongst many of our visitors as it relates to the practicality of this ‘worm farming thing’.
It is understandable why many may have some doubt as there is a general lack of knowledge on the practice locally. Moreover, we have also met persons who have tried and yielded minimal success. It also seems like a dirty, yucky job to many.
The deep underlying question is will this survive? Is this another boom and bust type of business? Can you really build an industry on worm farming?
Worm farming is not novel!
It has been in practice for at least 50 years. Thanks to the pioneers who promoted it during the booming years of the ‘green revolution’. Worm Farming and its by-products are very popular in the developed world. Countries such as the USA, Canada, Australia and the UK have some of the most commercialized worm farms in the industry. Some of these popular farms are Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm USA, Worm Composting Canada, M&B Williams UK and The Worm Shed Australia. Several developing countries such as the Philippines and certain parts of India are also deeply involved in this practice. It is also important to mention that Cuba is considered a leader in Research and Development (R&D) in the vermicomposting industry.
Worm farming – a linkage industry.
An effective R&D program has earned Cuba its global status as a model for earthworm farming. Despite its economic constraints, Cuba was able to implement a national policy that would engage every household and other stakeholders who generate organic waste to recycle and reuse. Vermicomposting was no longer a hobby but rather an effective tool to sustainably manage organic waste. Worm Castings were now a value-added product for sale. This also created opportunities for middlemen (agro garden-shops) to earn their share of the market as they increased its accessibility on the local market to home gardeners and organic farmers. The earthworms derived also created a new opportunity as there was a need for protein in the livestock industry. Earthworm flour was then created to combine with local feed-rations. This well-structured and scientific approach created a solid foundation for the upward growth of the worm farming industry. This also attracted foreign revenue as several other countries consulted with Cuba to implement a similar program.
In other countries such as the USA, the enormous demand on the industry has led to specialized production systems which focused only on culturing earthworms in order to supply vermicomposting farms, fish and chicken farmers, pet shops and similar interests. Some businesses have also evolved to supply earthworm eggs in a clay capsule to be used as an inoculum for soil and new compost systems.
Research into the pharmaceutical importance of earthworms is also further dissecting the industry as preliminary studies are indicating that certain human health challenges could be addressed using extracts derived from earthworms.
While this is not an exhaustive description of the diversity of the industry, it is important to note the pivotal role R&D played in strengthening and sustaining the future of worm farming.
Prospects for the Caribbean community (CARICOM)
Agricultural diversification and sustainable agriculture are two terms which have gained political popularity within CARICOM, however, the exact method of implementation is still unclear. Nevertheless, their implications are quite realistic. We see worm farming as a tool that will practically demonstrate its ability to create new entrepreneurs with diverse interests. It will also simultaneously address the issue of sustainable farming as it closes the loop in most farming operations by creating a zero waste system.
The UWI is leading the way in research by identifying suitable local species for earthworm farming in Trinidad and Tobago. Meanwhile, we are also leading the way in developing the industry through education, training and developing suitable value-added products for the agri-sector. The Caribbean community is at a key advantage position where it could learn from the challenges faced by developing countries and therefore take more informed decisions to facilitate growth.
The green impact of worm farming on our local economies will attract special funding from non-governmental sources to local farmers. The growing interest in organic farming will be strengthened with vermicompost as a reliable source of organic fertilizer.
If we appreciate the history of the industry, then we will accept its growth and success. It is, therefore, the responsibility of our innovative entrepreneurs to evaluate the two primary products (earthworms and vermicompost) and decide what’s next?
We join the rest of the world in celebrating Earth Day. The value of our precious environment should never be compromised for the benefit of Man. More and more we are realizing the need for harmonizing our actions with the natural systems that exist around us. At Boissierre Worm Farm our love for the earth is enshrined in or Motto “Our Earth Gives Your Soil Worth”
All earthworms are not the same! Really? Yes really! 🙂 I often find myself clarifying this notion during my encounters with different people but don’t worry, I once held the same view.
There are currently over 3600 species of earthworms reported and they also vary in colour and size. These are further subdivided based on their distribution in the soil profile and how they feed. Epigeic earthworms live in the uppermost 5-10 cm of the soil surface and are considered as phytophagous because they feed primarily on decaying organic matter. They are typically found in areas with high organic matter deposits and good soil cover. They are usually dark pigmented and sensitive to light and touch. They are not considered as the burrowing type because they have minimal direct influence on soil structure. Epigeic earthworms are however highly suitable for vermicomposting. Endogeic earthworms live beneath the soil surface in lateral burrows as deep as 30-40 cm and a are considered as geophagous because they primarily thrive on humus rich soil. They play an important role in detoxing the soil of contaminants and excreting pH balanced soil which helps improve soil fertility. Anecic earthworms live in vertical burrows which go deep (90cm) into the soil profile. They consume both soil and organic matter and are therefore regarded as geo-phytophagous. Their feeding behavior greatly contributes to soil fertility as they continuously pull organic matter to lower soil horizons. Some studies have mentioned their use in the field of vermicomposting, however, the most suitable are epigeic. It is important to note however that not all epigeics are suitable for vermicomposting. I guess you may be asking, “Which ones are the best for vermicomposting?” Well, look out for our subsequent article which will characterize these worms.
Worm farming opens the door to many possibilities. Two immediate products derived are earthworms and vermicompost. Earthworms can be used as fishing bait, fish food, chicken food or it can be processed into a powder as a source of livestock protein (value-added). Vermicompost can be used as a soil amendment and an organic fertilizer. It could also be used for making a liquid plant supplement commonly known as compost tea. This is a great way to start if you are thinking organic food production.
This concept has been embraced by a group of farmers who have something in common, organic farming. OASATT, the Organic Agriculture Stakeholders Association of Trinidad and Tobago are involved in a variety of production activities such as livestock production, bee keeping, herb and vegetable production and composting. They all share the view that foods can be produced without the use of synthetic agricultural inputs. Is that really possible? Can we really grow food without synthetic inputs? Well OASATT believes that if you are serious about your health and the environment, then you should start working with nature.
A key ecosystem service of earthworms in our environment is that of organic waste recycling. The concept of vermicomposting is based on this fundamental service. Our vermiculture course at Boissierre Greens Earthworm Farm has pushed OASATT one step closer to sustainable farming. They will soon be able to transform their crop and livestock waste into vermicompost, which is a natural source of essential plant nutrients, growth regulating compounds and beneficial microbes. They will also have earthworms for protein and to help maintain their soils. Lastly, they will have our support in becoming successful worm farmers 😉
Home gardening tips and tricks are in no short supply these days. Whether you are doing a simple google search for ‘how to grow vegetables successfully’ or you visit the garden shop for a packet of seeds and you end up leaving with a variety of stuff (soil mix, soil treatment, plant booster and fertilizer) and so much advice that you wish you had a notebook! Then you are ready to plant but the odour of the soil treatment causes you to ponder on that advice your friend gave you the other day “…you are what you eat”. We must understand that agro-shops are businesses and increased sales is good business for them. The main challenge, however, is the variety of inputs you need to achieve a healthy growing plant. It is very difficult to find any product out there that would supply an all-in-one effect to your garden.
Vermicompost, however, seems to be just perfect for the home gardener. Vermicompost is essentially recycled organic waste, derived through the actions of earthworms and beneficial microbes. Through this symbiotic relationship between these organisms, essential plant nutrients, plant growth regulating compounds and beneficial microorganisms are returned to your soil. Vermicompost also has the ability to inhibit the effect of certain soil-borne pathogens that are commonly associated with root rot and dieback. Vermicompost when used as a foliar drench, supplies soluble nutrients and help retard certain pests and diseases that often affect plant foliage. As a home gardener you have total control over the quality of your vermicompost and how you dispose of your organic waste, therefore your trips to the garden-shop may be fewer and more specific. If you are considering growing your food organically then vermicomposting is one of your best options. It is important to note that compost richness is dependent on what you put in.
If you are not religiously organic but still want to use vermicompost, then your nutrient application rates should be reduced. Vermicompost is also an excellent source of organic matter for your soil. Organic matter improves water and nutrient retention, soil structure and porosity. It is also a rich source of food for soil microbes. Vermicompost can be easily incorporated into your potting mixtures or even your garden beds. It is highly effective at low concentrations, thereby allowing it to be very ‘elastic’ economically speaking.
In the cover photo, we have on display a few commonly consumed crops that we have grown using vermicompost and vermicompost tea. These plants responded very positively and what is most notable is that the only additional agro-input used was Epsom salt for improved magnesium and sulphur.
The thought of worm farming is no longer abstract in Trinidad and Tobago. Several persons have already received our training and are on their merry way to becoming successful worm farmers. Most importantly we have encouraged all our students to see this as their way of contributing to a healthier environment by reducing pollution.There is money to be made but it should not be the ultimate goal as a worm farmer. We see all our students as partners in promoting climate-smart agriculture and for this reason, we are partnering with our nation’s schools in an attempt to introduce them to worm farming. We look forward to the day when Vermiculture-Technology is taught as a life skill in our locally accredited Tech-Voc institutions. We see its value particularly in our youth because the essence of the old adage “Teach a man how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime” is essentially what we are fulfilling as we “teach them how to farm worms“.
This following video below provides a synopsis of the schools we have interacted with and the progress they have made. A favorable response was not always unanimous amongst all students, however, the engagement and discussion stimulated their minds. This project was accomplished with the kind support of the Ministry of Agriculture, Land and Fisheries, St. George West County and The Heroes Foundation. It is our desire to engage more schools in 2017 and we are open to sponsors in favor of adopting schools.