November 2007

Interview with Jack Chambers – Part I

Jack Chambers - Sonoma Valley Worm Farm

I first heard about Jack Chambers in a video called “Wine Country Worms” (purchased from Vermico), and remember being very impressed not only with his operation, but also with his warmth and genuine passion for what he was doing.

Since then I’ve read numerous articles and interviews featuring Jack and his Sonoma Valley Worm Farm, and eventually got into contact with him via e-mail. The one thing that stands out in my mind about those early e-mail exchanges was his incredibly friendly responses. He seemed to appreciate my enthusiasm for vermicomposting, and made a real effort to assist me with all my questions.

Not much has changed – when I reconnected with Jack this fall it was as though we had never lost contact at all. He just has a way of making you feel like you’ve been friends for years.

Needless to say, when Jack agreed to take part in an interview for the site I was honoured and excited!

As I mentioned in the last post, I’ve decided to split the interview up into a multi-part series due to the length of the responses I received back (thanks again, Jack)

OK, let’s get to it…

Can you tell us a little about your background and what got you
into vermicomposting in the first place?

JC – The short answer is my love of gardening, and the desire to grow wonderful tasting, healthy produce without using chemicals. The long answer follows.

A friend of mine had visited the ‘Worm Farm’, and said ‘You need to go out and visit this place’. He didn’t really say much more than that. Being a gardener I sort of intrinsically knew that worms were good for the soil, but that was about it. I went out to the ‘Worm Farm’, and met Earl Schmidt who had been running the place since 1970. My first visit with Earl was in the summer of 1992. Earl was an interesting fellow from a small town in Minnesota, who had come to California to become a mink farmer. The mink business went to Russia, and Earl, who loved to fish, thought he would open a bait business.

The ‘Worm Farm’ had first been a small chicken ranch, built in 1959. It had 7 sheds that were 15′ wide, about 90′ long, with low ceilings and open sides. By 1970 the chicken business was gone, but there was a good supply of chicken manure still in the sheds. Earl rented the sheds and inoculated the rows of chicken manure with red worms. He slowly built up a bait business and over time had a nice little business going for himself. The fellow who had the chicken business sold the 5 acre parcel to Earl in the early ’70’s.

On my first visit with Earl I bought a 5 gallon bucket of worms for my compost bins. I went right home and put half the bucket in a bin of almost finished compost, and half in a bin that had cooled off, but was still pretty fresh. I then packed my bags and went off to fly a trip as an airline pilot, not even thinking much about the worms. I was gone for 5 days. The morning after I returned I went out to the garden and couldn’t believe my eyes when I looked into my two compost piles. Worms were everywhere! They had made the almost finished compost black and crumbly, and had turned the fresher material into a much finer looking compost. It was the transformational moment for me. I was hooked.

I went back out to the ‘Worm Farm’ and started just hanging out with Earl. I asked him if I could help him pick worms and just spend time with him. He seemed to welcome the help and I had a great time learning what I could about these amazing little red earth machines.

One day Earl and I were picking worms and I asked him what he liked to do in his spare time. He told me he liked to fish, but never had the time to go fishing. I turned to him and said ‘Then why don’t you sell me this place, and you can retire and go fishing?’. He said he would think about it and let me know. On my way home I thought to myself ‘what are you getting yourself into here’. I had a wife and two young daughters and we lived in a nice home, close to their school and here I wanted to buy an aging, some would say dilapidated, property that needed a lot of work. I guess you could call it blind love. I fell in love with the ‘Worm Farm’ and wanted to have a place in the country. I told my wife, an artist, that one of the outbuildings could become her studio and that we would fix up the house. Earl decided to sell the place to us, and my adventure as a worm farmer began.

I should also clearly state that I had no idea what I was doing, or how I would make this all work. My first inkling that I might have gotten in over my head was when our contractor for the house came down to the worm farm one afternoon and said “Dude, you have a lot of work to do down here.” Then he turned around and went back up to the house. He had no idea how right his words would prove to be.

One thing I would like to interject here is that I think having no background in the worm business turned out to be a good thing. It allowed me to see things with a fresh perspective and new ‘eyes’, so to speak. Mary Apelhof, a dear wonderful woman, had published ‘Worms eat my garbage’, and I thought that worms could have a future in the composting world. Ohio State University and Dr. Clive Edwards was just beginning to publish papers that showed the value of worm castings. So, I felt like I was on to something that might have a good future, and would help people grow better food.

I also found that my other job, as an airline pilot, helped me in ways that I would see later. In flying we do things in a very organized prescribed manner. We use checklists and have procedures memorized so that we can safely fly an airplane with people we have never met before. The discipline I found at the airline has served me well at the Worm Farm. That part of the story will realize itself down the road. I can’t emphasize enough how one career has enhanced the other.

This ends Part I of the interview with Jack Chambers – be sure to stay tuned for future installments.

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Just Some Updates

Hi everyone,
I just thought I would write a quick post to let you know what you can expect from me over the next little while. I’ve been super busy with other work stuff, but there are definitely lots of exciting posts to be added to the blog, and a new section to be launched.

Here are some of thing cool things coming down the pipe:

Interviews with:
1) Jack Chambers, of Sonoma Valley Worm Farm (Jack wrote back with such thorough responses that I’ve decided to devote each question and answer to a single post)
2) Cathy Nesbitt, of Cathy’s Crawly Composters
3) Dennis Copson, of Nature’s Big Bud Worm Castings Inc
4) Shawn Ferro & Tom Herlihy, of Worm Power (RT Solutions)

Topics Including:
1) My new continuous-flow worm bin
2) Update on my winter composting extravaganza
3) Start of the 4 worm population experiment
4) My new European Nightcrawlers

1) Winter-preparation for the outdoor worm bin
2) Time-lapse (well almost) rotting action from one of my bins
3) Separating worms from castings
4) Creatures of the worm bin

And of course there is also the launch of my brand new video section (which is actually a completely separate website) – completely stocked with cool worm composting videos (from other people), plus links to the widescreen, high definition versions of my videos.

I’m sure I’m forgeting some things, but this at least gives you some idea of what you can expect in coming weeks!

I’m hoping to get the first installment of the Jack Chambers interview up by later today.
Stay tuned…

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Red Worm Composting in the News

The Knoxville News, that is. A little over a week ago I received an e-mail from Rebecca Williams – a writer with the Knoxville News Sentinel – requesting a short interview relating to worm composting (my winter vermicomposting experiment in particular caught her attention).

Here is a blurb from the actual article (published today):

Worm composting is a growing trend all over the world, says Sherman. Large-scale worm growers can sell their compost at a premium. Some cities use worms to reduce landfill waste. Farmers use it to process cattle waste, and home gardeners use worms indoors to compost in the winter.

What makes the worm’s body a perfect little composter?

“Scientists really don’t know,” says Sherman. “That’s one the mysteries about worms.”

There is some debate about the best type of worm for a home compost bin, but most experts agree a type of redworm, Eisenia fetida, is best. They are also called bandling or manure worms, or red wigglers. This is not the same black earthworm you’ll find in the garden.

Redworms are surface feeders who like to eat rich organic matter and don’t mind crowding in a compost bin. They can survive in temperatures from the low 40s up to the 80s, so closed garages, porches or utility rooms are all good spots for them indoors.

Gardeners in northern climates keep worms, too. “My goal is to overcome the cold weather and compost outdoors year-round,” says Bentley Christie of Ontario, Canada. He writes the Web site and offers many tips for keeping worms in cold climates.

[emphasis mine]

Pretty hilarious given the long answers I submited to her questions (I replied via email). Oh well! You gotta start somewhere, right? (nice that the website got a mention anyway 🙂 )

Be sure to check out the full article here:
“Classroom experiment demonstrates red wigglers’ ability to produce rich fertilizer”

[UPDATE 2018: Article is no longer on the Knox News website so I removed the link]

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Wooden Stacking Worm Bin

        Image courtesy of Wood Worm Farms

A couple of days ago I ordered a brand new worm bin for myself. I can’t wait till it arrives. This is the first official worm bin I’ve purchased, believe it or not! All my other systems have been do-it-yourself jobs (mostly rubbermaid tubs, but also my large outdoor wooden bin).

Aside from being my first worm bin purchase, it will also be my first ‘continuous flow’ (a.k.a ‘flow-through’) system! It is essentially a wooden version of the various ‘worm tower’ bins out there (eg. ‘worm chalet’, ‘worm factory’ etc).

I bought it from Wood Worm Farms. It is their largest unit (the 5 tray system). In my mind, the more trays the better – this way, by the time I’ve filled the uppermost tray, the lowest one will likely be full of well-aged castings.

Needless to say I’ll be providing a full play-by-play once it arrives!

In related news

I’m also finally going to be getting my greedy little hands on some European Nightcrawlers (Eisenia hortensis) fairly soon as well. These worms are a larger cousin of the red wiggler (Eisenia fetida and/or Eisenia andrei), the only species of composting worm I have worked with thus far. Euros are reportedly slower breeders and not as effective as composting worms, but I’m still really eager to get a firsthand look at them and see for myself what they are like in a worm bin. Should be lots of fun! I may put them in my new system, but not 100% sure yet (may opt for a larger Rubbermaid tub instead).

Stay tuned!

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A Mite is a Mite is a Mite? Not Quite!

worm bin mites

Apologies for the lapse in posts lately! Lots on the go these days, but still aiming to be much more active in coming weeks and months.

Today I wanted to chat about worm bin mites. Pretty well everyone who sets up their own home system is bound to encounter mites at one time or another. Many people tend to lump them together as a group (ie. “I have mites”) and assume they are ‘bad’ – especially when there is an abundance of them.

Well, mites are of course a ‘group’ – they belong to the class Arachnida (along with spiders) and the subclass Acarina – but they are a hugely diverse group, with thousands of species occupying many different niches and serving a wide array of functions. They are found in abundance both on land and in aquatic habitats.

They are among the smallest of the arthropods (the group that includes crustaceans, insects, mites and spiders – among others), and thus are often over-looked. This also helps to explain why people have difficulty distinguishing different varieties in their bins. According to Walter & Proctor (1999) the highest diversity of mites occurs in soil and decaying organic matter – apparently a handful of forest soil can contain as many as 100 different species (and many thousands of individuals).

Mites can be predators, detritivores, herbivores, and parasites. Some (predator) species are widely used as biological control agents, feeding on a wide array of different plant pests. Generally speaking, most mites found in a compost heap (or worm bin) are relatively harmless, simply feeding on decaying organic matter.

Let’s now chat about some of the varieties you can encounter in your bin. This is purely based on personal observation, and thus not scientifically validated. 🙂
My descriptions are based mainly on colour, body shape and speed of locomotion. I’m hoping to study mites a lot more in the future and will hopefully be able to add to this info at some point.

Flattened / Fast moving / Light Brown – These are usually predatory mites. I actually bought some Hypoaspis miles (a predatory biocontrol agent) once in an attempt to deal with a really bad fungus gnat infestation I had in a couple of my bins. They were very small, light brown in colour, and very fast! I’ve seen similar mites in outdoor manure and compost piles, and sometimes in my indoor bins as well. Predatory mites are of course encouraged in a worm composting system since they can feed on other creatures typically thought of as pests.

Reddish-Brown / Slow moving – Mites like the one picture above on the left seem to be fairly common in my worm bins. They seem especially attracted to water-rich cucumber family fruit (or vegetables – however you choose to look at it). The photo above was actually taken on a watermelon rind (during my coffee cup challenge), but I’ve seen lots on squash as well. I’ve actually read that putting some watermelon in your bin is a great way to get rid of them (if you have a major infestation and are worried they are competing with your worms for food). Simply leave the melon to sit for a day or two then remove it (presumably with a huge number of mites attached). For the most part, these mites won’t cause your worms any harm other than potential competition.

White Shiny Round Mites / VERY slow moving – many people report seeing lots of “eggs” in their bins. Most of those who have not yet seen a worm cocoon (which is much larger) assume they are ‘worm eggs’, and I’ll even admit to being fooled into thinking they are the eggs of some other creature. Upon closer examination, you will see that they are in fact mites. This type of mite (which may in fact be a couple different varieties – as the pictures above almost seem to suggest) is sometimes assumed to be a worm predator or parasite since they sometimes found covering worms. The only times I have seen this myself has been when my worms were dying or dead already – the mites seem to be scavengers (like little worm bin vultures – haha). I currently have quite a few of these (or at least a similar variety), but they seem to be attracted to some squash segments I’ve been composting (for an upcoming video).

Those are the main groups of mites I have encountered indoors. In outdoor systems there will definitely be a much greater diversity of species.

One other variety I should mention. There is apparently a ‘red mite’ that is parasitic on adult worms and eggs. Infestations of this mite seem to occur in the beds of worm farmers on occasion. The only (academic literature) records of parasitic mites – on worms that is – I could find were those species that parasitize worm eggs (not adults). Bottom-line, you definitely don’t need to worry TOO much about the parasitic varieties. There haven’t been all that many cases reported from the sounds of things.

Here are some additional thoughts and generalizations about worm bin mites…

They seem to like high moisture conditions and water-rich foods. An population explosion of mites in your system(s) could be an indication of over-feeding, or of your worms dying (which could of course occur if you were over-feeding). Again, for the most part you don’t need to get too stressed out about mites in your bin. Be assured, they are there to serve a function, and may simply indication that your system has shifted out of balance somewhat. In fact, they often appear in abundance early on when systems are not yet balanced.

Ok, thats all for now. Be sure to share any interesting mite experiences you might (or should I say ‘mite’ – yuk yuk) have had as well!

Walter, D. and H. Proctor. 1999. Mites: Ecology, Evolution & Behavior. CABI Publishing, New York. 322pp.

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