Interview With Dennis Copson – Nature’s Big Bud
UPDATE (Summer 2012): It seems that the naturesbigbud.com website has changed ownership, so they may no longer be in business.
My first encounter with Dennis Copson was via a comment he left on the EcoSherpa blog (on one of my “Terracycle Challenge” posts) back in September. He happened to leave a link for his site, and I decided to check it out. As you might guess, I was quite intrigued with “Nature’s Big Bud” and decided to e-mail Dennis to ask if he’d take part in an interview. The rest, as they say, is history!
Can you start by telling us a little about your background? How long have you been in the worm tea business and what was your original inspiration for starting up Nature’s Big Bud?
DC – First of all, thank you for your interest in worm castings in general and Nature’s Big Bud Worm Castings, Inc. in particular. And, thanks for your work in this area, too.
Let me begin by saying I am going to leave out the personal bio stuff and speak in terms of the company. Personal info can be found on our website, www.naturesbigbud.com.
NBBWC, Inc., as a worm castings endeavor, was founded at Legacy Ranch in Campo, California about five years ago. We started with dry castings and started relatively small. As in all new businesses, there were trials, tribulations, and successes. Worms are not so easy to work with on a large scale. Anyone who has tried it can attest to that.
Lonnie M. Sole, the founder of the company, became interested in worms and worm castings basically out of a concern for the environment and convinced that there was a better way than chemicals to grow things both for the home gardener and the commercial grower. He purchased the large ranch with ample space to do something such as this. There were buildings and natural resources such as water available in abundance. (Raising worms in a large scale operation requires lots of water!)
Our original intent was to produce dry worm castings for local distribution. We did this for several years and developed a product that was of high quality. However, logistical requirements for the dry castings distribution process were considerable. And the market was less than it is today as well as the number of competitors selling a similar product exceeded demand.
The process of brewing a ‘tea’ blend was studied. Again, the resources and the market seemed to warrant a change of strategy in our product development. About two years ago we decided to go the liquid route and that was a good decision as it turns out.
As for the worms, we began with red wrigglers but now use Indian Blue for the reasons that they seem to produce more castings and reproduce at a faster rate.
How large is your operation these days? (# of windrows etc)
DC – Our facility is large enough to handle nearly any amount of production. It varies on the time of year and the requirements. But there is ample room for expansion as needed. We currently have three 200+ foot windrows under cultivation and this is providing the necessary amount of castings at this time.
We have a stock of tons of castings available. Remember, this has been evolving for five years. The commercial market (growers of hay, etc.) seems to be catching on so undoubtedly we will be increasing our production efforts as time goes on. For now, we are happy with the current growth and production.
Size doesn’t really matter so much in this type of operation as much as efficiency does. Things such as the worm type, living conditions, and feed are much more in play. But you’d better have water and shelter if you expect to succeed.
Can you take us through the key stages of the process (starting with waste material all the way to the bottled liquid fertilizer)?
DC – The first consideration in our process for commercial production is the ‘food’ the worms consume. We originally started with organic composted cow manure. In the past year or so we have switched to organic horse manure as we were introduced to a situation where a local large horse ranch had a need to dispose of their manure. We are ‘recyclers’ in that the horse manure is delivered to the ranch and composted. Thoroughly composted, it is great food for worms.
The home composter can get by with feeding their worms garbage and newsprint. We are concerned with the commercial producer doing so; it is a fact that ‘garbage in, garbage out’ pertains to worms also.
One problem with the commercial production of worm castings is that there are few restrictions and regulations in place to provide for quality standards. Worm casting may vary considerably in their quality based on what the worms are fed. This concerns us somewhat. We are committed to a quality product and therefore provide the very best food to produce the desired end result.
Next is the care of the worms themselves. We baby them to the extent we have them indoors out of the hot sun, etc., in old converted chicken barns on concrete floors. This provides for an environment which never gets too hot or cold for the worms. Worms are temperamental, sensitive creatures and require much in these types of considerations. We found that out early on.
Our water is probably one of the keys to our success. We are fortunate to have available a natural mountain spring on the property which provides a mineral rich source of water in unlimited amounts. We had considerable problems initially using ‘city’ water since it is treated and has chemicals such as fluoride added. The worms did not like this at all. Few, if any, producers have the ability to use pure, natural mountain spring water in their operations. We are blessed in that regard.
The tea is ‘brewed’ in large tanks for a period of twenty four hours or so and then transferred to a mixing tank where the yucca extract is added and mixed. Bottling is done mostly by hand in the quantity needed to fill an order..
Are your products sterilized prior to bottling or do they remain microbially active? Do they have a limited shelf life?
DC – No, we do not ‘sterilize’ the finished product as that would eliminate the beneficial microbes we count on for the product to work. We do, however, take great care in ensuring that all equipment is ‘sterilized’ to prevent harmful, pathogenic bacteria from entering our system in any way.
We have a ‘bottle as needed’ policy so as not to have our product stashed in warehouses for extended periods. We know our product can remain active after a year in the bottle provided reasonable care is taken to provide for some semblance of reasonable storage or store display. Freezing it or leaving it in the sun is certainly not recommended. But we do not bottle excessive amounts in order to deliver a fresh product to our customers.
What type of worms do you use? Do you sell any worms?
DC – As I said above, we originally started with ‘red wrigglers’ but switched to Indian Blue after some trial and investigation. Experts said we could not grow the Indian Blue here, but we tried it and they thrived. It may be a matter of choice. The “red wrigglers’ are the most recommended for home composting probably because they are the most available. We found our needs were best met with another type and it works well here.
No, we choose not to sell our worms in order to keep expanding our numbers here. And to not be distracted from our primary mission of producing worm castings. We have given some to worthwhile causes.
Have you conducted growth trials with your product? Have you had any independent testing done?
Yes, we are continuously doing so whenever possible and wherever we can. Most notably, and for what we consider our best future alternative, are the commercial growers we have used to test. There are nearly unlimited possibilities for liquid worm castings in the commercial growers’ area because chemicals are not always going to be allowed to be used to the extent they are today. There will be increasing environmental pressure to ‘go green’ in this area.
This is especially true for golf courses which are coming under increasing scrutiny for the immense amount of chemicals they use and the runoff they create. The USGA has been testing worm tea on greens with positive results. It is a matter of time before courses are forced to switch, at least somewhat, to natural organic fertilizers. San Francisco has been doing so for more than five years with excellent results. Change is slow in the golf industry though. Screw up the greens and you have the players all over you!
We have had independent labs work over our product and we use a microscope at the ranch to constantly check microbial activity, etc. We have had such worm notables as Kelly Slocum at the ranch to review our process.
Would you say there is an increased interest in earth-friendly plant fertilizers since you started?
DC – Absolutely! Experts note that this industry and these type products are growing exponentially at an estimated 12 – 15 percent a year. According to Global Industry Analysts, Inc., the world market for garden products is expected to exceed $225 billion dollars by 2010. Organic products will follow the same trend. You see it in the garden centers. I noticed nothing of this nature even five years ago. Now you are seeing increasing numbers of organic fertilizers on the shelves.
There are good reasons to believe this is not a fad and will become even more prevalent in the coming years. We simply must continue to educate the gardening public on their part in using organic alternatives to toxic chemicals. “Go Green” has to be more than a slogan; it has to be practiced. I think kids are getting the word in schools about organic things. People are not averse to switching; they just need information on why doing so is important.
See, you are helping in your own way in this process by getting the word out. The Internet is such a powerful tool nowadays.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of your business? The most frustrating?
DC – The most rewarding aspect in this adventure has been taking a concept, organic fertilizer the natural way, and seeing it through to market. We truly believe we have developed a unique, high quality product now on shelves for the home gardener. We have been proactive in the organic movement to garden in a more ‘green’ fashion. That has been fun and a great experience. It has been hard work, but worth the effort.
The most frustrating aspect has been dealing with the large corporate stores. They are so set in their ways and their buyers are ‘lazy’, in our opinion. They continue on with chemical fertilizers in a big way. I mean, get on board the train, smell the coffee, do some research so as to see what is coming. Provide smaller startup companies some opportunity to get into the larger market. Be fair is our message to them.
I see some movement towards that with them, but they are limited in offering a choice of product. So they stock one worm tea brand! Big deal! In doing so, they feel somehow they have fulfilled their ‘obligations’, but they must go further. I think the public will force them to do so. That is usually the case. Business always lags behind until it becomes commercially necessary for them to respond to the public’s wants. Remember Detroit and the car makers?
Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers? (Interesting projects/trials/news)
DC – I think I have just about covered all I can. Don’t want to bore your readers too much. Suffice to say we are believers: we believe the future includes a move to safer gardening; we believe we have made a good product; we believe that the gardening world is ready for change; and we believe that when sufficiently provided with the facts they will make that change.
Our field trials, especially with hay farmers, have produced wonderful results. Yields have dramatically increased on fields sprayed with our liquid worm tea blend. This has also been the case with other commercial farmers including a local native plant grower. We will continue these type efforts in that we know commercial application is the future for products such as ours.
The latest news is that we are working with a new product which should be out shortly involving shidigera yucca extract. (We use yucca extract in our liquid worm castings now.) This is going to be something new, organic, fun and beneficial. More on that later.
Thanks for the opportunity to ‘speak’ with you about Nature’s Big Bud Worm Castings. It has been my pleasure.
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European Nightcrawler Cocoons
As mentioned at the beginning of the month, I now have a couple of small bins containing European Nightcrawlers (Eisenia hortensis).
The bins I used to house the worms are the same systems I set up for my first two worm composting videos. Even though both bins were very well-aged (in fact, I could no longer find any evidence of food waste in either), the Euros seemed somewhat unsettled when I first added them – almost certainly due to shipping stress (which is inevitable) and perhaps also the fact that they were raised primarily on a manure diet.
In an effort to discourage too much roaming I added a decent layer of shredded egg carton cardboard (my absolute favourite for vermicomposting) in each. This material absorbs moisture very readily, and will create a much drier atmosphere above the main composting mass – gradually over time this cardboard will completely moisten and be broken down (worms love it), but in the meantime the worms seem more than happy to remain in the wet materials down below.
After doing my 4-worm experiment inspection this morning I decided to check out my Euro systems to see how they were doing. I was very happy with what I saw. Not only are the worms no longer roaming around the sides and lid, but much of the waste materials and wet bedding has been processed (I saw lots of worm castings). When I first opened the bin I even caught two worms mating. I tried to get a picture but it didn’t turn out as nicely as I had hoped – I will aim to get some good mating pictures at some point.
Seeing the mating inspired me to dig around for cocoons. As you can certainly tell from the photos above, I did indeed find them – quite a few in fact! Very exciting stuff! I’ve seen (and written about) Red Worm cocoons before, but this is my first experience with E. hortensis reproduction. I’m actually quite surprised to see just how quickly they are producing cocoons. I’ve read quite a bit about the “slow” reproductive cycle of Euros, so I wasn’t expecting to find any evidence of mating for quite some time.
Of course, we’ll still need to wait and see how long it takes for juveniles to hatch (and then mature), but this is good progress in my books nevertheless!
Anyone who has found Eisenia fetida (Red Worm) cocoons should be able to tell from the first photo that these are definitely larger – not too surprising given the larger size of this species (E. hortensis, that is). It certainly made things easier when I tried to find them in the bin.
Rest assured, I’m going to keep close tabs on both my Euro bins from now on and will report back as soon as I find any baby worms!
Four Worm Experiment Update
The ‘Four Worm Reproduction Experiment‘ was officially started back on December 12th so I figured it was time for an update. As such, today I decided to dig around in the new system to see how things have been progressing.
If you have been following along you may recall that I decided to use my new wooden stacking worm bin for the experiment. It is a pretty cool system but as I discovered today it DOES require a little more attention than one of my typical rubber tub bins. One of the advantages of the system is that it is incredibly well aerated – wood itself tends to ‘breathe’ more than plastic, but the trays are also very shallow and have mesh bottoms. This advantage can be a double-edged sword however since it becomes much more important to monitor moisture levels on a regular basis.
When I first started it up I made sure to spray the bedding with water on a regular basis, but given our recent holiday activities away from home earlier this week (visiting with relatives for a few days) it has been more difficult to keep on top of it. I was at least happy to see a fairly moist core zone where I had added vegetable scraps last week, but much of the tray (including the newspaper liner at the bottom) was bone dry. Thankfully I was still able to find all four worms and was happy to see that they actually look quite healthy (bigger than when I added them).
I was hoping to find some cocoons, but given the conditions in the bin I can’t say I was too surprised that I was not able to locate any yet. I thoroughly sprayed down the contents of the tray (after adding some absorbent shredded cardboard) and will get back to a more regular watering schedule. Hopefully we’ll see some new additions (babies) to the system before too long!
I just wanted to take the time to wish everyone well during the holday season! I won’t likely be posting again until later this week (at the earliest)
Tis the season to produce lots and lots of scraps for your worms, but just make sure not to overfeed them! I highly recommend keeping a separate scrap bucket (with lots of bedding) so that you can A) Age your wastes (thus allowing microbes to colonize), and B) Avoid adding too much at once.
Ok, enough nagging for one post!
Stay safe and have fun!
Some of you may have noticed a link to my new site in the sidebar. I figured it wouldn’t hurt to write a post about it as well.
Like the title (of this post) says, it is called Compost Guy, and is going to be a site focused on the entire topic of composting (and related waste management strategies), along with various other green-living/gardening themes.
RWC will remain my home base for all things worm-composting-related, but I will chat about the topic over on Compost Guy as well. In fact, you will find full coverage of my winter worm composting experiments over there (I thought it would be a good way to generate some interest in the site).
I have plans to work hard on both sites over the next few months, so you definitely don’t need to worry about Red Worm Composting falling by the wayside!
Interview With Cathy Nesbitt
As much as I love learning about worm businesses from all over the world, I really must admit to taking a keen interest in those a little closer to home. I would love to see vermicomposting become much more maintream here in Ontario, and in Canada in general. Cathy Nesbitt is certainly doing her part to help make this happen.
I remember being inspired when I first read about Cathy and her tiny (at the time) home-based worm business, and I’m certainly pleased to hear that the business is still going strong. I was really excited when she agreed to take part in this interview!
Can you tell us a little about your background? How and When did Cathy’s Crawly Composters get started – what inspired you to get into vermicomposting?
CN – Established in 2002, Cathy’s Crawly Composters is an environmentally driven vermiculture business. Vermicomposting is simply composting with specialty worms known as Red Wigglers. We educate about environmental choices.
I have been a life-long conservationist and caretaker of the earth. When we moved to Bradford in 1993, I could not wait to start gardening and composting. I worked as a secretary in Toronto. I would take an ice cream pail on the GO Train to collect my colleagues lunchroom scraps. I would add the scraps to my backyard composter. When you compost, the more you put in, the more you get out, the better your garden grows. Several years ago, I took care of a teacher’s worm bin for a summer. At the time I could not touch worms as I found them icky. I have since researched vermicomposting extensively and have come to admire worms. They have a tremendous task on earth – to convert our organic matter into castings or vermicompost for use in our gardens. I believe my mission is to be a worm advocate and let people know about these amazing selfless creatures.
Is CCC a full-time endeavour for you? If so, do you have any employees?
CN – Cathy’s Crawly Composters is a full-time business supporting 2 full-time and 1 part time employee and of course, the worms who work for scraps.
How big is your worm herd and what do they get fed?
CN – Our squirm of worms is currently growing in a barn and throughout our home. It is difficult to know how many worms we have as they rarely show up for roll call.
They are fed food scraps and paper. We have a donation bin at the end of our driveway to collect scraps from community members who do not compost themselves, but want to do the right thing.
What would a typically day involve for you? (picking up wastes? feeding worms? shipping orders? presentations?)
CN – There is no typical day in the worm world. The worms are feed and watered several times per week. We do many workshops for schools and community groups as well as worm birthday parties. In addition, we do compost consulting for corporations to manage food scraps and paper on site. We often visit farms to discuss manure management options.
What would you say is the most exciting part of your work?
CN – Raising awareness is the most fun part. I love meeting people who have never heard of worm composting. Their reactions are often priceless. Educating children about the benefits of worms is one of my favourite things. Children really get the concept and enjoy taking care of the worms in the classroom or at home.
Since starting your business have you seen a steady increase in interest, or peaks and valleys? Does the future look bright for vermicomposting?
CN – Worms are going to play an ever-increasing role in waste management and soil production. Red wiggler worms convert organic matter (eg. food scraps, paper, manure, sewage sludge, etc.) into nature’s finest fertilizer. The solution to our garbage crisis is several solutions … vermicomposting is simply one piece to the complex garbage puzzle. Worms offer a sustainable solution to one of today’s biggest problems – garbage!
What sort of advice might you offer to someone thinking about getting into the worm composting/farming business?
CN – Learn as much as possible about worms and their requirements. If you have not done worm composting before, start small. Get familiar with the worms needs. They are living creatures so things can go wrong. The internet is a wonderful resource for researching. I would encourage people to learn what others have done. No need to reinvent the wheel, as the expression goes …
Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?
CN – There is a Green Reel Film Festival taking place on January 4 & 5, 2008 at the City Playhouse in Vaughan [Ontario]. There will several environmental exhibitors including the worms, of course.
To learn more about Cathy and her squirm of worms, be sure to check out Cathy’s Crawly Composters!
Worm Guy – Mark Yelken
This is a really interesting program (nearly 30 min) about Mark ‘The Worm Guy’ Yelken, a worm farmer (and president of Jonesy Environmental Services) on Vashon Island , Washington. Here is a blurb from his website (link to follow):
Vashon Island’s landfill is full and closed. All waste and recycling has to be hauled off of the island. It is the goal of Jonesy Environmental Services to create a full circle approach and turn the food and yard waste into compost by systems using worms and keep it on the island for use in resident’s yards and gardens. The waste (grocery store food waste, restaraunts prep waste, resident kitchen scraps and, ultimately, clean yard waste). Education is the critical portion to help make this program successful.
Jonesy Environmental Services plans to partnership with Earthcorp, Seattle Tilth, Washington Tilth, King County, Sustainable Vashon, Heifer International and like minded organizations for education opportunities for residents, businesses, schools, civic clubs and fairs regarding the benefit of worms, worm bins, composting and how this can help our environment. A sustainable, full circle approach.
In October 2005, a vermicompost system, that allows worms to compost 200 pounds of food waste per day, was purchased to help eliminate all food waste from the businesses and residents of Vashon Island. The “green” food waste is picked up from the grocery stores, restaurants, coffee and tea establishments, the local country club, Senior Care Center, the Food Bank and any and all residents. Pre-consumer food waste (“prep”) is collected daily at no charge to the businesses. Five gallon buckets with lids are left daily for their use. The full buckets are replaced by clean buckets. The green food waste is composted with worms to provide an end product, vermicompost, which is retained on the island and returned to the residents, at no profit, for their use in the gardens, yards and any other community purpose.
Certainly sounds as though Mark is providing a fantastic service on the island! Be sure to pop by his website to have a look around. It is jam packed with lots of info, photos etc:
The Worm Guy
[UPDATE 2018: Mark’s website is no longer online and he doesn’t seem to be involved in vermicomposting anymore]
His flow-through reactor (shown in the video) looks great, and actually looks like it would be a manageable size for an indoor location.