Families Venture into Vermiculture
Cleopatra called it a “sacred creature,” and Charles Darwin proclaimed it likely the most important animal on earth. Most people wouldn’t guess the creature described with such reverence and acclaim is three to four inches long, has no eyes, no lungs, and is essentially one long digestive tract: the humble earthworm. For centuries, humans have recognized the value of worms in creating fertile soil that produces abundant, high quality food. During her reign from 51-30 BC, Cleopatra even made a royal decree that removing earthworms from the soil was a crime punishable by death. Aristotle, who has been called the “father of biology,” noted earthworms’ importance, calling them “the intestines of the earth.” Dave Royal and John Stewart, owners of two Butte County worm farms, are clearly in very good company alongside these legendary fans of the earthworm, and both agree that worms are all that, and more.
HOW WORMS WORK
Eisenia fetida, also known by many common names including red wigglers, tiger worms, manure worms, and trout worms, are regarded as the best composters on the planet. These worms are integral to vermiculture, the process of utilizing worms to assist with decomposing organic matter and transforming it into nutrient rich compost. Compost and the resulting worm castings generated by red wigglers create nutrients and beneficial bacteria and protect growing plants from disease.
“Use of worm castings causes pathogens to be repelled by a plant, creating a safe crop,” said Stewart, owner of The Worm Farm, in Durham. Castings also assist with soil drainage to help prevent root rot. Dave Royal, owner of The Earthworm Soil Factory, in Butte Valley, emphasized that creating a natural, chemical-free growing process is the best way to healthy plants and high yield. “There are plenty of nutrients available in most soil, but they’re locked up due to the addition of chemicals. The more fertilizer we add, the more we take away from health,” he said. Though each man took a unique path to his career as worm farmer, the two share a common passion and vision for creating natural, sustainable growing processes and educating our community.
During her reign from 51-30 BC, Cleopatra made a royal decree that removing earthworms from the soil was a crime punishable by death.
THE WORM FARM
In the early 1930s, Sam Lasell, Stewart’s great grandfather, originally purchased the forty-acre property in Durham where The Worm Farm is located. Lasell was a poultry farmer and, at the farm’s peak, had close to half a million birds, according to Stewart. He remembers working summers on the chicken farm as a child. “It was so hot in the summer, we would work all night and sleep during the day,” he recalled. In 1990, the chickens became too much work for Lasell, so they were sold. Lasell wasn’t ready to retire, and with help and guidance from his daughter and son-in-law, Arlita and Mark Purser, he found himself farming earthworms instead. Eventually, Arlita and Mark relocated to Durham from San Diego, because The Worm Farm was thriving and demand was soaring. In 2010, son John, who had been working as a computer programmer for decades, became a third-generation worm farmer.
The Worm Farm is one of the larger worm producing farms in the country. Marking its thirtieth anniversary this year, The Worm Farm serves mostly commercial clients but welcomes individual gardeners. The family has developed two diverse products, Great Worm Castings and Gwen’s Mix, that serve as the base for developing healthy soil. They also sell sixtyfive amendments from coconut core and peat moss to perlite and blood meal. The creation of the right recipe for each growing situation is the goal. “People come in with a particular need, and we help find the right ingredients, make the mix, and deliver it,” said Stewart. He shared the story of an onion farmer from Durham who said his stalks were coming up yellow instead of green. Stewart advised him to run a bead of worm castings down his rows. The onion farmer returned, very pleased with great results, and said the addition of the castings was “the best thing since sliced bread.”
Home gardeners who are interested in setting up a backyard composting system can find everything they need at The Worm Farm, including of course, the worms. In addition to selling gardening accessories and books, customers can purchase bottled worm tea, which is what Stewart calls “biology by the billions.” Worm tea is something that can also be made easily at home, best done in early spring. A sample recipe uses 1 gallon of castings with 25 gallons of water. Stewart said that you allow the mix to steep like tea, providing plenty of aeration or using a premade activator. “If you put it under the microscope, you can actually see all the microbes,” marveled Stewart. The brew has a high count of good bacteria and puts nitrogen back in the soil. The liquid also makes the nutrients immediately available to the plant, while manure or worm castings release slowly.
The Worm Farm Learning Foundation was started in 2008 with a mission of “assisting individuals in achieving a higher awareness and better means of producing healthier plants and food, while affecting the environment in a positive manner.” Stewart intends the foundation to help people develop a connection with the land and understand the ecological and health benefits of growing naturally. Workshops and tours are given to the community, university students, and other interested groups. Dozens of free presentations are provided annually to schoolchildren across the north state. Stewart laughed when he talked about the schoolkids who love digging for worms out in the field.
“The highlight is when they get to climb the hills of compost.” He smiled. “They go home with worms and compost in their pockets and grins on their faces.”
The Worm Farm is located in Durham, at 9033 Esquon Road, and open 8-5 Monday through Friday and 8 to noon on Saturdays. Thewormfarm.net.
“The highlight is when schoolkids climb the hills of compost. . . . They go home with worms and compost in their pockets and grins on their faces.”
EARTHWORM SOIL FACTORY
Karen Royal was an avid gardener who knew the value of worm castings for her garden. In 2001, she talked her husband Larry into starting a worm farm. Soon, son Dave joined the business, with a guiding principle of “producing soil amendments to achieve healthy soils that will promote healthy plants and healthy people.” They began on 300 leased acres off Neal Road close to where the family lives. “We live out here and saw a need. We wanted to be as local as we could,” said Dave.
The 2018 Camp Fire had a huge impact on Earthworm Soil Factory (ESF). The Neal Road location burned in the fire, which destroyed their production facility, a classroom, and about 50% of their worms. Fortuitously, they own property and a building on Clark Road in Butte Valley and had been running a portion of ESF from this location since 2014. A newly built production facility opened six months ago on this property, putting ESF into full motion once again. In fact, there are major expansion plans on the horizon. In addition to worms and compost, the Royals’ plan includes a garden center and nursery, a True Value hardware store, and a gift shop. “This area needs something, and now that we are on our own property, we can provide it,” said Dave.
The Royals have a strong scientific orientation in running their business, including a research foundation called Micro Miracle. They spent two years doing research, specifically studying the symbiotic relationship between the earthworm and its castings. They have begun plant trials to research and document the effects of their products.
“I’d like to take credit, but it all goes to the great almighty earthworm.”
Dave emphasized the importance of natural processes. “Plants bought at a standard nursery are grown with chemicals. It’s hard for plants to adjust and sustain in a natural setting when they are used to chemical fertilizer,” he stated. This is one of the motivators for the family to operate their own nursery, offering all chemical-free plants. In addition, using his expertise, Dave has been working closely with the Oroville Dam project as a biological consultant. The hope is to utilize native plants to secure and restore the hillsides.
Sharing the knowledge is a key component of ESF’s business model. Their customers range from rice and orchard farmers, landscapers and viticulturists, to backyard growers. ESF offers classes many times each year, open to all their customers, as they learn when visiting ESF. “The reason I started the education part is because people would come in to buy soil and ask what they needed to add to it,” Dave recalled. “It’s a fertilization mentality.” With a chuckle he said, “Sunshine, water, and soil, that’s all you need.”
In addition to providing compost, worms, and other soil amendments, ESF offers a unique version of worm tea called Worm Juice Plus. Regular worm tea has a short shelf life since it’s composed of living microbes in water. Dave developed a stable concentrate in a sleeper solution that allows the tea to last. This is good news for those who want to use worm tea in their garden regularly.
Butte County is fortunate to have two worm farms ready to help our gardens grow. The owners are passionate in their expertise. “You have to be all in for a business like this,” said Stewart. Dave echoed the sentiment: “It’s exciting to see the success, and it hasn’t felt like work in eighteen years of doing this.” As the door to winter closes and spring blooms begin, thoughts of lush gardens, bright flowers, fruit laden trees, and bountiful vegetables fill the minds of plant lovers everywhere. Clearly, the lesson here is to garden as naturally as possible, gleaning the benefits of what nature has provided, Cleopatra’s sacred creature. Dave concurs. “I’d like to take credit, but it all goes to the great almighty earthworm.”
Earthworm Soil Factory is located at 2552 Clark Road, Butte Valley, 530.895.9676. It is open Tuesday through Saturday, 8:30 to 4:30 during the week and 8:30 to noon on Saturdays. Earthwormsoilfactory.com
FASCINATING FACTS ABOUT RED WIGGLERS
Although Red Wigglers are a type of earthworm, they are rarely found deep in soil as they are top dwellers. Red Wigglers are photosensitive, have no eyes and work in complete darkness.
Two Red Wigglers are needed for reproduction, but they are hermaphroditic (each having both male and female sexual organs).
A healthy Red Wiggler can eat half its body weight in food each day. Baby Red Wigglers mature within nine weeks and begin reproducing after just 3 months.
When handled roughly, Red Wigglers excrete a foul-smelling liquid. Their average lifespan is two years.
Bonnie and Ken Chapman are partners in many of life’s great endeavors including marriage, raising two children, global travel adventures and writing for Edible Shasta-Butte. Both are avid trail runners and you can find them enjoying Upper Bidwell Park or wherever the trails take them.