The problems with nightcrawlers

Worms: an underground look at worm farming

Don Newell of G & M Worm Farm in El Cajon: “People’ll just drive out and harvest all the castings they’ll need."
  • Don Newell of G & M Worm Farm in El Cajon: “People’ll just drive out and harvest all the castings they’ll need."
  • Image by Tom Voss

The breeding of earthworms is one of the most popular agricultural phenomena in recent years, and for good reason. Earthworms not only fill a need in today’s changing marketplace of young organic gardeners, but the breeding of earthworms offers a way for landowners to convert their unused land into a profitable second business.

Appreciation of earthworms goes back a long way, certainly. Aristotle referred to them as “the intestines of the earth,” and Charles Darwin concluded, “It is a marvelous reflection that the whole of topsoil . . . has passed every few years through the bodies of earthworms. It may be doubted if there are any other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world as have these lowly creatures.”

Currently, vermiculture (earthworm breeding) is a $50 million a year industry in the United States. And the 400 San Diego families involved in it are as gung ho on worms as any. While the earthworm’s usefulness to live-bait fishermen is obvious, the worm's contribution in the field of gardening, including indoor potted plants, offers solutions for several ecological problems.

To the gardener, the most beneficial species of earthworm is the red worm (Lumbricus rubellus). The ways that this worm helps are numerous. Worm tunneling aerates the soil; the body fluid emitted during tunneling is rich in nitrogen; and dead worms are a good source of protein. Worms ingest their own body’s weight in manure and kitchen waste each day and excrete a like amount of worm castings (that’s a polite term for worm manure). These castings are super-rich in almost everything a vegetable or flower garden needs: the castings have five times as much nitrogen, seven times the phosphorus, eleven times the potash, three times the magnesium, and one and a half times the calcium of untreated soil. For every pound of red earthworms placed in the soil, the gardener can expect a pound of such castings each day.

But the worm doesn’t stop at producing soil nutrients. The worms produce egg capsules every seven to ten days. Two to three weeks after that, there are between two and ten worm offspring hatched from each capsule. Sixty days later, the new worms reach breeding maturity. In a healthy worm environment, with plenty of manure and moisture available, red worms can live as long as 15 years. Since worms are bisexual, every worm reproduces himself (itself?) by that factor of two to ten each week for the entire 15 years. So, for every worm bred, there could eventually be as many as 40,000 offspring.

Since worm reproduction is so rapid, why has there been such a push by the large-scale worm breeders to get other people started as worm growers through a system of worm breeding distributorships? Well, to date, the worm supply has not kept up with the consumer demand. That means two things: a pound of earthworms with castings is expensive ($5 to $15), and the breeders have found it very profitable to help other people get started in the breeding business by selling them starter bins.

Starter bins appear to be a very attractive business proposition. While the initial investment of around $250 isn’t cheap, the average monthly profit, after a few months of breeding, is said to be about $25. After a year of worm breeding, the novice grower will usually be making his investment back.

The starter bin, a three-by-eight foot load of worm castings plus 80 thousand to 100 thousand worms, is set up in the novice breeder’s backyard, and many of these part-time breeders rapidly convince themselves that they’re on their way to riches. A nice dream. Unfortunately, some of these small breeders will lose their investment, and their failure will probably be due to a combination of the following reasons:

  1. Worms have very precise needs. While they require relatively little cultivation on a day-to-day basis, they do demand a little attention. And if the food supply is depleted or the worm bin is allowed to become dry or become in any way inhospitable, the worms will either escape, die, or become dormant and not reproduce.
  2. Wholesalers, the businessmen who stock a lot of store shelves with live bait, often buy red worms at a much lower rate than the breeder had thought he would (prices fluctuate seasonally), and the small-time breeders’ profit might not cover the cost of the feeding of the worms. Sometimes, those first losses are enough to discourage a new breeder.
  3. The initial investment in breeding stock is often put into the wrong kind of earthworm. According to a UC-Coop booklet, Earthworm Biology and Reproduction, there are over 2,400 species of earthworms. The red worm is the best one for breeding. While almost all worm breeders in San Diego County stock red worms, amateurs too often set up a starter bin and try to gather free worms in stables or open fields. When this is done, manure worms or nightcrawlers are often found, and these species are either too small or too erratic in reproduction to be a good vermiculture stock.
  4. The introduction of a pesticide or herbicide—indeed, any suggestion of a harmful chemical in the worm’s environment—will deplete the worm stock.

Much of the vermiculture literature tells the beginning breeder simply to set up his starter bin, sprinkle a bit of water on it, and start collecting a huge profit. But the only people making a big profit out of this type of earthworm breeding are the ones who are able to sell distributorships to the uninformed consumer.

The county Farm Bureau’s Earthworm Commodity Department at 1617 East Valley Parkway, Escondido (call 745-3023) is a good place to begin an education in vermiculture. Approximately 60 of the county’s 400 worm growers are actively organized, and they operate a continuing educational program that’s available to all. The Department’s Executive Secretary, Mr. Woods, concedes that, “The sale of the starter bins isn’t the serious breeder’s real market. The members (of the Earthworm Commodity) do their big business to retailers and wholesalers, for live bait and to gardeners . . . Mostly, though, it’s the live bait market.”

The G & M Worm Farm in El Cajon is fairly representative of the county’s worm farms. Don and Diana Newell have worked full-time for a year to expand the red worm stock to the present size. And, while they’ve only been open to the public for the last two months, their business is going full blast in all areas. The worms are sold as live bait, through the mail, to wholesalers, gardeners, and in starter bins. In the future, the G & M Worm Farm plans to make areas available for those who want to house their worms at the G & M Farm. “That way,” explained Don Newell, “there’s no problem. People’ll just drive out and harvest all the castings they’ll need for their gardens and front yards.”

The G & M Worm Farm’s best asset seems to be the “eager to please” quality of the Newells. Like most of the reputable worm breeders, they will help the new breeder with his first cultivation. And they are very willing to demonstrate the breeding process with a tour of their own farm, from the long rows where up to five million worms are raised, to the separation process where a five-pound “brain” of worms is packaged for air freight shipment. (If you’ve ever seen a five-pound ball of earthworms, you’ll realize why it’s called a brain.)

The G & M Worm Farm is researching the feasibility of selling worms in Asia where human sewage is often used in gardening. There’s no reason why human sewage couldn’t be given to the earthworms and the rich, odor-free castings harvested for fertilizer. According to Frank Carmody of North American Bait Farms, Inc., such a sewage treatment center would require over 100 tons of earthworms for a city of 70,000. And there are four million worms per ton. Yet the lucky city with the foresight to implement such a sewage system would be constantly converting all sewage and bio-degradeable garbage into a usable fertilizer substitute. North American Bait Farms, Inc., is now developing such a pilot facility.

G & M Worm Farm and North American Bait Farms, Inc. are examples of the potential successes in vermiculture. By contrast, a recent San Diego Evening-Tribune article, “Worms: A Fortune or Folly?” (June 15, 1976) chose to center on the California Golden Giant Worms bred by Hy Hunter Industries as an example of the earthworm breeding business. The Evening-Tribune indicated that Kimball Brown, the regional distributor in San Diego for Hy Hunter, had sold some 150 San Diegans small starter bins, or bed runs (1,000 worms as opposed to the more traditional starter bin with up to 100,000 red worms). These small bins from Hy Hunter were sold for $175 each, while the more accepted price for red worm starter bins is around $250. The Hy Hunter-Kimball Brown sales pitch is that they’re offering “Superworms.” But according to Harper’s Weekly (May 31, 1976), many people, including the Federal Trade Commission, feel that those “hybridized giants” are nothing more than African night-crawlers (Lumbricus africanus). The characteristic that makes the nightcrawler different from the red worm is that the crawler will stay alive underwater longer; hence, it’s a better fish bait. It’s a type of worm with a breeding rate similar to the more commonly sold red worms; however, the breeding requirements of night-crawlers make them anything but a “Superworm.” They’re very sensitive to temperature changes, require a more careful breeding regimen, and do not breed well in containers.

People thinking about breeding earthworms would do well to obtain some of the vermiculture literature before they approach an earthworm breeder. A good source is that free booklet mentioned earlier, issued by the UC-Coop. It presents a lot of technical material in a fairly readable text. The UC literature is critical of the uses of the commercially bred earthworm in the garden as well as the business potential of the small breeder-farmer. Other, more pro-vermiculture information can be found in two books: Harvesting the Earthworm ($4.95) by Dr. Barnett, and Earthworms for Ecology and Profit ($4.95) by Ronald Gaddie, president of North American Bait Farms, Inc. The San Diego County distributor for NABF is McCune’s Bait Farm, 11866 Lakeside Avenue, Lakeside (561-0748).

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