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June 07, 2010

Vermiculture Conference attracts 116

vermicompost conference
Participants crowd the room at the 10th annual Vermicompost Conference. (Photos by Natalie Hampton)

When N.C. State’s Rhonda Sherman started her large-scale vermiculture workshop in 2000, there were only a handful of attendees. But at this year’s 10th annual Vermiculture Conference, the room was filled to near overflowing with 116 participants from 28 U.S. states – including 49 from North Carolina -- and five other countries.

Sherman, Extension solid waste specialist in biological and agricultural engineering, hosts the conference each year, bringing together experts from around the world to share information on vermicomposting, the process of using earthworms to break down organic wastes. As the only conference of its kind, it has a loyal following of participants, ranging from backyard gardeners to entrepreneurs to municipal waste managers.

This year’s international participants came from Guatemala, India, Thailand, Israel and Canada. In addition to providing a means of reducing organic wastes, vermiculture has the added benefit of producing a vermicompost -- earthworm castings – that is valued as fertilizer. Research shows that plants raised with vermicompost produce greater yields and have stronger disease resistance.

Sherman urged conference participants to look for opportunities to profit from a vermiculture operation. Such opportunities can include sales of earthworms, vermicompost and teas – liquid fertilizer made with vermicompost. In addition, Sherman said that composters and soil blenders are adding vermicompost to their products, which will bring new market opportunities.

Some participants at the conference were already making a living in vermiculture. Linda Leigh of Tuscon, AZ, has been in the earthworm business for three years. Her business, Vermillion Wormery, uses food waste from grocery stores and restaurants, as well as horse manure for vermicomposting. In Arizona, horse manure is a fire hazard, so providing a means of disposing of the waste helps reduce the hazard, Leigh said.

Leigh, whose grandfather also raised worms, says that her business involves selling earthworms and vermicompost at local farmers’ markets. She learned about the Vermiculture Conference three years ago, but this year was the first she was able to attend.

Vince Ivory of Los Angeles and Kirk Sudheimer of Wake Forest represented those considering starting an earthworm business. Ivory, a teacher laid off in California’s budget crisis, said he was “looking for something to do.” He was attracted to the conference because of the agenda. “This vermiculture is very complex in terms of looking at a business model,” Ivory said.

Rhonda Sherman
Rhonda Sherman speaks at the annual conference.

Sudheimer, who was raised on a farm in the Midwest, said he and his wife were interested in returning to some type of agriculture, possibly vermicomposting. Like many at the conference, he found Sherman’s resources on the web and was thrilled to discover she was so close by.

Maria Rodriguez of Guatemala, one of the conference speakers, is the founder of a small sustainable development group – Byoearth – that is helping extremely poor women in Guatemala to begin small-scale vermicomposting businesses of their own. These women, who live near Guatemala’s garbage dumps, receive a small bin and earthworms they can use to generate vermicompost and earthworms to sell.

Rodriguez also found Sherman online, and Sherman asked her to speak to the conference. “In Guatemala, there’s not this level of scientific knowledge about vermicomposting,” Rodriguez said. Rodriguez’s presentation was so moving that conference participants flocked to ask how they could contribute to her organization, Sherman said.

Conference speakers discussed issues such as effective large-scale biosolids vermicomposting and the effects of vermicomposts on plant growth and suppression of pests and diseases.

Mark Purser of Durham, CA, told the group about his 40-acre earthworm operation. Sherman said Purser had attended the conference for several years before she learned about his extensive operation. Now he is a regular speaker.

Purser told the group that he started the Worm Farm in 1994, as a way to transition out of chicken production. The operation now includes earthworms raised outdoors in windrows 300 feet long and 20 feet apart, earthworms raised indoors and storage for vermicompost, which is harvested once a year. Compost mixes make up about 75 percent of the Worm Farm’s business. The company also sells earthworms for $26.50 per pound, plus shipping, and the Worm Farm Learning Foundation hosts hundreds of school groups each year.

In addition to speakers, conference participants toured the Harris Worm Farm in nearby Mebane. Owner John Harris has 18 outdoor, on-ground earthworm bins that are bordered by railroad ties. He feeds his earthworms horse manure from a neighbor’s farm.

At the conference opening, Sherman announced that the first scientific book on vermicomposting, Vermiculture Technology: Earthworms, Organic Wastes, and Environmental Management will be published by CRC Press in October 2010. This 35-chapter book is edited by Dr. Clive Edwards (Ohio State University), Dr. Norman Arancon (University of Hawaii-Hilo) and Rhonda Sherman (N.C. State University). Contributing authors are from Australia, Belarus, Brazil, Canada, China, Cuba, Hong Kong, India, Mexico, Philippines, Spain, Switzerland, United Kingdom, and United States.

-N. Hampton

Posted by Natalie at June 7, 2010 10:19 AM