Commercial Vermiculture

Considering the worm business? Here are a few hints and cautions. Please read our Home Vermicomposting article as a preface to this one. Click here to send us your worm farming and commercial vermiculture questions.

Growing Worms

Methods of growing worms are only limited by your imagination. Some growers have their worm  bedding in windrows inside or outside a building. If you feed one side of the windrow (making it wider), the worms will eventually migrate out of the original bedding. This will take a while because they will go back and forth as the original bedding continues to decompose, making new food available. This method has the advantage of requiring less start-up cost and being less labor intensive than nonautomated worm bins if you have a tractor to feed the worms and scoop up the castings. It has the disadvantage, though, of requiring more space between the beds. This means that if you have your windrows inside a building, you won’t be able to grow as many worms inside.  Some growers have their bedding in trenches in the ground. This is cheaper than building a worm bin, but it makes it easy for the worms to run away. It also makes them easier prey for rodents and other animals. Drainage can also be a problem. Some growers have their bedding in bins that have a screen bottom where the castings come out. These can be expensive to build. Other growers use bins made out of plywood, concrete, or concrete blocks. These can be built so that the bottom of the bin is a concrete floor or a concrete slab. Using a raised plywood floor will minimize heat loss to the ground in the winter. If using concrete blocks, they do not necessarily have to be mortared together.

Insulating a bin, of course, will help keep it warm in the winter.  Hot water pipes can be run through the beds.  Electric heating cables can be used, but this requires quite a large investment.  Like any other business, a worm farmer needs to weigh each purchase very carefully.  There are some things that will seem like priorities at the time, but will seem like less of a priority later on.  Each individual farm has it’s own circumstances.  You will find yourself needing things that you never even thought of.  And you will find that you don’t need some things that you thought were a necessity.  It takes three to five years for most businesses to break even, and a worm farm is usually not an exception.

You will be able to receive feedstocks for free. Sometimes even the delivery will be free. Manure from most farm animals makes a great feedstock.  Be careful with chicken manure, though.  It is very “hot.”  Manure will usually contain some bedding material such as wood shavings. This is a good thing, but try to avoid cedar or redwood shavings.  All manure should be aged.  Other feedstocks should be mixed about half green and half brown, and should be at least partially composted.  If your bins are over a cubic yard, all feedstocks fed during the summer should be completely composted or well aged to prevent heat build up. When you get to the point that you are producing castings for sale, most of your feedstocks need to be hot composted to kill weed seed.  Most farm animal manure is full of weed seeds.

Marketing Your Worms

Successful marketing involves finding the right kind of potential buyer.  Nurseries specialize in plants and not in soil.  You will find a few nurseries, though, that will sell enough bags of worm castings to start getting a few people familiar with your product, and this is a first step.  Most of the sales of bagged castings will come from stores like organic food co-ops where you find the customer who is environmentally minded.  Organic gardeners are more likely to buy castings in bulk than organic farmers.  The organic farmer is just as concerned about cost as the conventional farmer.  Even though it takes over two yards of finished compost to make a yard of castings, the farmer still might not think it is cost effective.  There are a few who will buy, though.  It just takes a little more educating of the buyer.  It doesn’t take very long before a new worm farmer knows more about worm castings than the crop farmers.  Worm castings are a low pressure sell, but it is still a good idea to be armed with information.  Ads are a good idea for selling castings, but contacting people directly is even better.  You need to get out there and start shaking hands.  Before long, you will be known as “The Worm Man” or “The Worm Lady” in your community.  Ads might only generate enough business to pay for the ad, but you will get a few lifelong customers, and you will get referrals from these customers.  This helps to get the ball rolling.

It is a good idea to find a source of feedstock that is consistent and a large enough supply that you can have castings that are consistent in nutrients.  Consistency is probably more important than quality, although quality is still extremely important.  Once you have a consistent product, you need to have it tested.  Then you will have an idea of what you might be able to add to your feedstock or sprinkle on the beds to help balance nutrients.  If you are interested in marketing potting soil, you should be able to come up with a good blend by experimenting with starting seeds and growing potted plants.  Pumice is better than perlite and is cheaper.  Bone meal is very compatible with worm castings.  If you start making enough soil that you are buying large quantities of ingredients, you will be able to resell these as well.  This could turn into a branded line of soil products.

Marketing worms is a little different.  Occasionally, a composting company decides to add worms to their process.  Their business is more vermicomposting than vermiculture.  They are more interested in selling castings than worms.  Commercial vermicomposting is not another method of composting.  It is the addition of another step to the compost process.  It is the completion of the compost process where compost is turned into dirt.  This dirt is very valuable, but they still need a huge operation to make it feasible.  When one of these companies decides to do this, they usually buy so many worms that it takes several growers to supply them.  The compost company usually contracts to buy all the worms from one person who acts as a broker.  This is usually a worm grower.  It’s possible to get in on one of these deals if you snoop around, but don’t count on it.  Another opportunity that comes around every now and then is an institution like a school, hospital, or prison.  Every once in a while, one of them will start using worms to process food waste.  If you visit a few of these operations and see how they work, it might be possible to sell the idea to other institutions.  These are all good possibilities, but it makes sense to hedge your bets.  The most important thing you can do is to create a website.  It’s the cheapest advertising you will ever find as far as the ratio of cost to exposure.  Most of your orders will be from home vermicomposters.  The demand in this sector of the market is growing fast.

The Hype

Beware of the company that makes it sound like worm farming is a surefire way to get rich quick with little effort. Neither are true. There are people making good money at this, but it’s because they are good at marketing, not because they bought the magic beans.  It’s easy to work full time and take care of a hundred pounds of worms at the same time, but it’s a different story when they multiply to several thousand pounds. At the point when you need to quit your job, you should have some money saved to live on while you are out scrounging up business.  Some of these companies will tell you that your worm population will double every thirty days. Not true!  They will double in population at a rate more like every sixty to ninety days. The big scam for a lot of animal breeders is selling breeding stock. Some of them will sell ordinary animals at an inflated price to get the next breeder started. It’s even worse in the worm business. My Eisenia fetida are the same as your Eisenia fetida and the same as the next guy’s Eisenia fetida. They aren’t worth any more for breeding stock than they are for the neighbor who has a worm box in her basement.