Family business turns to processing organic waste
By TIM HEARDEN
DURHAM, Calif. -- It started as a way for an aging poultry farmer to diversify a little and keep his hand in agriculture.
As it turns out, two sisters helped their father get in on the ground floor of what appears to be a booming industry -- the wondrous world of compost.
The Worm Farm's sales of red worms, worm castings and soil amendments have taken off in recent years, enabling the business to double its production capacity in the past year, said Melissa Lasell, the farm's marketing director.
Contributing to the increase, she said, has been interest in worm castings among some traditional almond growers and other larger-scale commercial farms looking for ways to gain healthier soil.
"I think in today's society, the commercial agricultural farmer is pretty hip and savvy as to the need to put as much organic material into the soil as possible," said Lasell, whose sister and brother-in-law, Arlita and Marc Purser, started the business in its present form.
"Three or four years ago, we didn't have any agricultural customers," Lasell said. "We no longer have no commercial agricultural customers. That is significant."
Compost is organic material -- such as from garden or agricultural waste -- that can be used as a soil amendment or as a medium to grow plants, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency explains on its website. It can suppress diseases and pests, increase agricultural yield and reduce waste and air pollution.
By 2000, nearly 57 percent of yard trimmings were being recovered for composting or grass recycling compared to just 12 percent in 1990, according to the EPA. Once dominated by public-sector operations, the composting industry is increasingly entrepreneurial and private-sector driven, the agency states.
Compost has long been an integral component of organic farming, said Amber Tippett, manager of Peaceful Valley Farm and Garden Supply in Grass Valley, Calif. The business purchases bagged castings from the Worm Farm.
"It's sort of one of the backbones of organic farming -- that and cover crops," Tippett said.
The reason, she said, is that soil quality is a main focus of organics, and compost adds nutrients that enable plants to withstand pests and diseases and give them more vitality.
The nursery has seen an increase in customers' interest in compost teas, which enable the nutrients from composting mixes to leach into water used for irrigation. A few growers in the area have purchased 100-gallon brewers, Tippett said.
She said she doesn't know the extent to which conventional farmers are turning to compost as an alternative to chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
"I think it would be definitely beneficial," Tippett said. "Some farmers are seeing a depletion in their soils of life. When that happens, it's just infertile soil. Compost would turn that around really quickly."
The Worm Farm was created 20 years ago, beginning with "just a small batch of worms and a huge investment," Lasell said. Today the business sells worms and castings to customers throughout the United States, and it has many different types of soil mixes on its farm in the northern Sacramento Valley.
Castings are essentially the nutrient-rich excrement that worms produce as they consume waste products, including common organic kitchen waste. The EPA asserts that yard trimmings and food residue together constitute 23 percent of U.S. waste.
Compost material is created by combining organic wastes, adding bulking agents such as wood chips to speed the breakdown of the wastes and allowing the finished material to stabilize and mature through a curing process, the EPA states.
Lasell said it's best to be careful when purchasing compost, as some could contain debris such as plastic bags, syringes or big chunks of wood.
She said worm castings are a "primary ingredient" in practically all organic mixes, and growers are catching on when it comes to their benefits.
"Our client base does span the whole spectrum," she said. "I don't think it's really a niche product anymore. Everyone wants a garden, and if they don't want a garden they're interested in composting the waste they have inside their home. We basically satisfy all of those needs."
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency composting page: www.epa.gov/epawaste/conserve/rrr/composting/index.htm
The Worm Farm: www.thewormfarm.net