Friends with Great Benefits

The work of the humble earthworm is not possible without the hands of many friends! 

Whether you are actively composting or you are just allowing your materials to rot in that special pile somewhere in your backyard, the presence of these moldy, and sometimes spore-like structures might have caught your attention. Their role in the decomposition process is undoubtedly very important.

Organic matter is naturally complex and this complexity cannot be fully unraveled alone by the earthworm, given its lack of teeth or similar functioning appendages.

The rate of organic matter degradation is also dependent in part, on the type and amount of cellulose and lignin which comprise the material. In layman terms the Carbon: Nitrogen ratio.

Saprophytic organisms thrive on dead and decaying organic matter (where would the world be without them?) by solubilizing complex organic compounds into simple sugars, amino acids and nutrients. They ( bacteria and fungi) offer that extra hand which the earthworms need to initiate the decomposition process.

Microorganisms, though small, express themselves in a variety of distinct ways.

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These microbes are able to induce decomposition at the cellular level however without the intervention of macro-organisms to fragment these organic materials decomposition would have been slower. Therefore fragmenting increases the contact surface for microbes and the rate of decomposition.

The grazing activity of earthworms also perpetuates the presence of these beneficial organisms as they are ingested and redeposited throughout the soil or compost via their castings.

All of these beneficial interactions contribute to a healthier soil environment. Furthermore, good soil management practices such as organic mulching will encourage a rich diversity of micro and macro-organisms; whereas bad soil management practices, such as land burning will interfere with these natural processes.

In our subsequent articles, we will take a closer look at how farmers can maintain and promote a mutually beneficial relationship with the soil environment.

 

 

 

 

Applications are invited for suitably qualified earthworms.

Applications are invited for suitably qualified earthworms.

 

What makes a good composting worm?

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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. 

 

M. Martin 

Can an industry be built on farming worms?

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?

M. Martin