R.I. Worm Farmers Look to Build Soil, Local Economy

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

Monique Bosch checks on the quality of each member’s vermicompost at the nonprofit’s monthly meetings. (Rhode Island Worm Farmers Cooperative)

Monique Bosch checks on the quality of each member’s vermicompost at the nonprofit’s monthly meetings. (Rhode Island Worm Farmers Cooperative)

PROVIDENCE — Jim Porter has been addicted for three years. He blames a family member. He said he started using “to grow pumpkins for my grandson Jack.”

He’s since gone from raising worms in a plastic-bin setup dubbed the “Worm Factory 360” to building his own worm-growing contraptions in his basement. Porter and his wife, Madeleine, are among the members of a new vermiculture cooperative called the Rhode Island Worm Farmers Cooperative. Its members are passionate about worm farming and sustainability.

The couple presented at a workshop about the new cooperative during the recent Rhode Island Compost Conference & Trade Show, held at Rhode Island College. Cooperative members began meeting last fall, and now meet monthly. The cooperative officially became a registered nonprofit earlier this year.

The Rhode Island Worm Farmers Cooperative is operated by worm farmer members. The organization’s mission is to improve the local environment by using worms to compost organic matter that would otherwise end up buried in the landfill. Members say they are dedicated to creating healthy soil and economic opportunities.

The cooperative’s products are castings — worm waste — and worms. During monthly meetings, members share strategies, resources and experiences.

Porter said he started raising worms like most people, in a bin underneath the kitchen sink. He originally wanted to keep the bin in the bedroom, but his wife preferred the kitchen idea. Like most people who start vermicomposting, the Porters were concerned about flies and smell. They haven’t been bothered by either.

Both Jim Porter and fellow cooperative member Bob Sabo told those gathered at the March 10 workshop that there are many types of worm bedding, such as newspaper, cardboard, egg cartons and coconut coir. They also both use a food processor to grind up the organic matter they feed their worms. The finer the better.

“Worms have small mouths,” Porter said. “If you throw in egg shells they’re going to stay in the bin for a while.”

The worm farmers differed slightly on how often they feed their workers. Porter feeds his worms weekly; Sabo, every three to four days. Both, however, put the chopped-up food into a hole or channel and then cover it up.

“You don’t want to overfeed the worms,” Sabo said. The chemical engineer also said he uses a spray bottle, filled with collected rain water or dehumidifier water to avoid chlorine, to keep his worm bins moist.

They both stressed that worms need oxygen to live, that the bin can’t become too wet and that the pH balance is important, because if it’s too acidic the worms will die.

Monique Bosch, a founding member of the cooperative, said vermicompost is much richer in microorganisms than compost, providing plants and soil with more nutrients.

“It’s important that we do this work to make it possible for soil to come back to life,” she said, referring to society and not just the cooperative. “It takes a hundred years to create an inch of soil, and we’re running out of good soil. Worms are a solution — indoors and year-round.”

For each cooperative meeting, Bosch brings a microscope, so members can check on the quality of their vermicompost. “You want a nice combination of bacteria and fungi,” she said. “It’s really important to know your compost is alive and well.”

Bosch said a single drop of vermicompost is teeming with life. She said it’s good to see nematodes and microarthropods under the microscope, but ciliates are a bad sign. She noted that some insect larvae is OK.

The following are some tidbits that were offered during the hour-long workshop:

One to two worm bins is typically enough to handle the average amount of household food scrap.

Worm castings hold a lot of water.

Worms self-regulate their population.

Worms eat the bacteria on food, not the actually food.