A great many of my vagabond childhood hours in the Midwest were spent crouched on the sidewalk examining worms after a rain. The worm is very approachable-they have a rather low ick factor-no hairy legs or abrupt movement like the spider or centipede. Just a fleshy pinkish brownish wriggly thing, almost cute, I thought as I boldly picked it up and flung it back into the wet grass or mud. Turns out I wasn't the only one. "Kate has always been a bug person," Ellen Heath proclaims as she sets out a plate of brownies in front of me during my visit to The High Desert Worm Ranch. "It's true," her sister Kate replies, "I'm always the person who picks up the worms off the sidewalk and puts them back in their holes, whether they want to go or not!" And as Kate brings me a cup of steaming coffee, I suddenly feel as though I've acquired two aunties.
Kate and Ellen Heath moved from Washington D.C. to New Mexico about five years ago. Ellen, whose main occupation is a writer, bought one of those three-tiered worm systems that are mostly used in classrooms out of curiosity and was totally intrigued. "Worms are fascinating. They can take an artichoke and reduce it to nothing," she tells me. "Did you know that worms eat half their weight every day?" The more she researched, the more her fascination grew. It was Ellen who then introduced Kate to the idea of a worm farm. Kate had moved with her life and business partner, Richard, and found a 20 acre parcel of land near McIntosh to retire to. "At first I was afraid to move, after living in D.C. for 29 years, but then Richard was diagnosed with cancer and suddenly you don't worry about those things that much. We moved out here immediately and rented a place." Unfortunately, Richard passed away about a year after the move. But Kate stayed on and continued the business she and Richard had started.
So how does a little curiosity turn into a worm business? Turns out Richard and Kate had a history of creating businesses. Whether it was computer consulting (which Kate still does part-time), construction, or worm farms, they always started out with a larger scale plan than most. Most folks begin with one small worm bed. They began with four 4x8 beds. They were fortunate to meet a young man, Terry, in McIntosh, who helped with the initial set up and work of the farm. He was their first "worm wrangler." "That's what I call my employees," Kate laughs, "since this is a worm ranch." Another of the ongoing jokes around here is "If it's a ranch, do you brand the worms?" (Oh, there are more worm jokes to come, just you wait.) Now there are 26 beds in operation and there is room for 65 if business continues to grow.
Each bed accommodates about 30 pounds of worms and worms will double their population in 6 weeks. The main reason is that they are hermaphroditic. When they mate, both parties lay a cocoon of eggs that hatches in three weeks. When the population of worms grows, like any other farm, there is a harvest time. "Our harvests are really fun. You can harvest the castings themselves, or worms, or both," Kate explains. "We use something called a trammel screen. It kind of looks like a green chile roaster. The worms and compost go up a conveyor belt into the trammel, and the castings (earthy-smelling manure processed by the worms) get sifted through the screen and the worms come out the other end." This type of harvest takes place about once a month through spring and summer. It is, however, a bit of a jarring process for the worms and according to Kate and Ellen, the worms get "trammeltized." (I warned you.)
Though the importance of Kate and Ellen's work with these humble creatures may seem negligible, the advantages of using the Red Wriggler and vermicomposting methods are paramount. Environmental issues can no longer be swept under the rug. "This has been a life-altering thing for both of us," Kate says. "We are starting to hit a critical mass where people are just starting to get it. We are just exhausting the soil. People are starting to care more and more about how the planet is managed." Believe it or not, that little Red Wriggler can make an enormous contribution to undo damage and create more sustainable living. (Cleopatra declared worms sacred.) For example, New Mexico has a big dairy industry and "those cows are pooping like crazy!" Kate explains. "We could use this waste product to replenish and rejuvenate the soil." When worms are cultivated in compost and manure piles, the resulting mixture of castings and decomposing material is vermicompost. This mixture is so beneficial to plants and soil it has become known as "black gold."
Research shows that vermicompost is seven times more effective than regular composting. There's something about a worm's gut wherein what comes out is more valuable than what went in and even the scientists are not exactly sure why. So, what you have in the end is more valuable than compost and you're turning a waste product into something useful. The Nile Valley has the most earthworms per square foot and is the most fertile land in the world. The Earthworm Book, "the bible", Ellen says makes an argument that civilization itself is linked to the presence of earthworms. Vermicomposting is probably the best thing you can do to the soil and it also helps with water management. A farmer in California recently got a patent for vermicompost as a pesticide, because it wards off aphids and maintains such a strong, healthy plant.
To help spread the good word about worms, Ellen wrote a book called The Red Wriggler Teaching Manual, specifically for classroom use that includes activities for social studies, math, and language arts in addition to science. There is also a specific guide to creating your own Red Wriggler habitat. The book is meant to enliven the classroom and get students thinking about and connecting to their environment.
After telling Kate the inspiration for this issue (the book The Earth Knows My Name), which speaks about the farmer's kinship with the Earth, Kate replies, "You begin to feel that all of it belongs to you and none of it belongs to you. We are stewards of it, ALL of it. It makes you accountable." Ellen chimes in, "Kate is fanatic about picking up trash everywhere she goes, so I'm sure the Earth knows her name!"
P.S. Dear aunties:
I recently repotted all the plants in my house, mixing the vermicompost from Kate into the worn out existing soil, and within a day, the leaves plumped out and nearly leapt off their vines to kiss me!