Before anyone starts assuming this interview was set-up as some sort of inside deal with one of my family members, let me quickly point out that Cristy and I are not related!
In the short time (less than a year) we’ve know each other, Cristy and I have however become close “worm friends”, and I’ll be the first to admit that there is also a bit of an interesting back-story here.
As some of you (on my email list) may recall, late last fall I had a small (and very quiet) “pre-launch” for a vermicomposting business guide I was putting together at the time. The small group of people that joined became what is known as the Red Worm Composting “Inner Circle”. As it turned out, while I did not end up getting the actual guide launched (aiming to do so before the end of the year) – [LONG STORY (haha)] – I did spend a lot of time outlining my various ideas/approaches in a series of e-mail lessons. One of my main areas of discussion was website creation/promotion, and in an effort to help illustrate what it was that I was attempting to teach the group, I decided to select a couple of “guinea pigs” – basically, members who were eager to get websites set up – for “follow-along” lessons. Cristy was one of these individuals.
What impressed me right off the bat with Cristy (literally from the very first email she ever sent me – before the group even started) was her infectious enthusiasm, and intense focus on the topic of (entrepreneurial) vermicomposting. I could tell right away that she was the type of person who did her “homework”, and also someone who would put in the “blood, sweat and tears” necessary to get her venture off the ground.
As optimistic as I was, I’ve still been amazed (and inspired) by the progress Cristy has made (including the creation of her own beautiful website: SLO County Worm Farm) in a relatively short period of time, and feel like a bit of a “proud papa” knowing that I’ve been able to play a small role in helping her along. Needless to say, I see a bright future for Cristy in the vermicomposting industry.
Can you tell us a little about your background, and how you ended up becoming interested in vermicomposting?
I’m probably one of the last “type of person” you would think of when it comes to becoming a worm farmer. When those who know me learn of my new venture, they usually just laugh or say something like: “ YOU??? Are you kidding? You’re a hair stylist, a makeup artist and a real estate broker! What do you know about worms!” And they’re right! I knew nothing about worms! I never really lived in one place long enough to even have a garden! I loved living on the road selling real estate in exotic resort areas and even spent a decade living on a yacht, for pete’s sake!
But you know, life has a way of changing on you and you better change with it.
My sister and I had been looking for a business that would add some fun to our lives. But a desire for more income is definitely part of the goal. (And when you’ve passed the half century mark, your options get a bit limited!) Our husbands are entrepreneurs and own their own businesses and we are the office support. It’s great to work from home but bookwork isn’t what I call “fun.”
Patti, my sister, actually started it. I mean the idea of worm farming. We’re a family of creative brainstormers. We opened ecommerce businesses and researched a variety of ventures. Then Patti called one day about a year and a half ago. “Cristy, I’ve GOT it! We’re going into the WORM business!” All I could think of is “Oh no, Patti has really lost it!!”
What led you to decide that you wanted to start up your own vermicomposting business?
Well, Patti sent me some books (what was I going to say? NO????), dozens of emails with internet links and newsletters from Worm Farming Secrets. We know those guys, right? (I love confessions! wink wink). The more I read, the more intrigued I became. I’m an avid recycler and the stress population and industry is putting on the planet is huge, but I really didn’t know about the power of composting worms! I became engrossed in learning, reading and visiting every worm website I could find. And of course I spent hours at redwormcomposting.com! This was fascinating!
I bought a stackable system and accidentally found a resource for worms…an acquaintance who has them to compost their kitchen waste. Ken gave me a 5 gallon bucket full of this dense black gooey stuff loaded with worms and sent me home. (Ken later confessed that he had neglected his stacking worm bin for months, which was why it was in the dense gooey condition it was in!) To that date, I had only read about and watched dozens of online videos. I had no idea what it really looked it until that fateful day. I figured out how to separate the worms from the vermicompost, put them in with some kitchen scraps and the recommended bedding and waited to see what would happen.
For me, I knew I needed to find out 1), if I would even LIKE dealing directly with these squiggly, squirmy little creatures (they looked so fragile!!), and 2) if I could keep them alive. Reading had convinced me it may not be as easy as Mary Appelhof makes it sound. After a few months, some amazing results with personal trials growing vegetables (the broccoli!!! Unbelievable!!) and the fact that they were multiplying like crazy and not dying or mysteriously disappearing, I knew I could take the next step.
Can you tell us about your business? What are your primary areas of focus, and what do you hope to achieve long term?
We live in wine country. Paso Robles, CA has become one of the major wine producing areas in the state. There are also many organic farms here too. I will be contacting some of them through farmer’s markets and our large personal network and see what the response is. It’s kind of a chicken and egg thing right now, as I don’t yet have any vermicompost to sell. I will explain this later. I really think vermicompost tea is going to be big. The data is compelling. I have talked to only a handful of organic farmers. They are excited to know there is a local worm farm and my prospects are very bright.
You are down in California – do you find there is a lot of public interest in (awareness of) the realm of worm composting? Any location-specific challenges you’ve had to face?
This part has been a wonderful eye opener for me. Seems a lot more folks know about worms and their benefits than I imagined! The awareness level is quite high. The environmental concerns are genuine and the desire for healthier lifestyle and better, more nutritious food is growing rapidly. I feel very positive about being in the right place at the right time to fill some big needs.
A challenge I am faced with is easily and conveniently obtaining a feedstock – locally. I want my product to be consistent and of high quality. This can only be obtained with a consistent worm diet. So I’m still working on this and think it will be resolved soon.
I have also learned that many, many people have not had great success keeping their own worm bins healthy and stable. They just give up. I’ve done it so I understand. I’m anxious to be able to lend a hand to anyone who wants to try again or get started for the first time. Next Spring I intend to start a trench vermicomposting garden as Bentley has done so successfully. Maybe I’ll have a “Get Into the Trenches” party! We can all dig a part of the trench and fill it up together in no time! I think this is a great method and eliminates a lot of the reasons I hear as to why people have given up on their bins. I will be able to show people how it’s done. I think it will be great fun and help spread the word.
You and your husband built your own large-scale flow-through worm bed. Can you tell us about it, and how it’s been working for you?
We have an engineer in our family who decided building a continuous flow-through worm bed would be a fun project. After a remarkable effort, it was assembled and filled in early June of this year. I hope to make the “first cut” in early Spring. It is 20 ft long and 4 ft wide. We set it up on our shop/barn. I don’t have to worry about birds and it is insulated with 3” closed cell insulation board. The temperature so far has been very comfortable; they are actively multiplying so they must be happy! Because I named the vermicompost Black Diamond Vermicompost, I nicknamed my worm bed “The Diamond Cutter.”
I really don’t care for “reactor” and the other names given these systems are just too long! There are about 60-70 lbs of worms happily chowing down right now. I base this on the amount of feed I give them weekly. When I make the first cutting, I’ll be sure to let you know how smoothly it goes!
What are your primary food materials, and how are they handled (extra processing etc steps) prior to adding to the bed?
Pre-composted horse manure is the feedstock. Feeding is the most laborious part of the venture. (Because I haven’t really sold anything, I can’t really call it a “business”…yet…) But pre-composting is very important to curtail weed seeds, pathogens and release some energy. The compost bin is 4x4x4 and is covered. It is also aerated and the temperature is monitored. I keep a log to be sure the bin gets to 140 deg. F for several days. This process takes 2-3 weeks, then fed to the worms as needed.
What has been the most rewarding/enjoyable aspect of building your business? What has been the most frustrating or even disheartening aspect?
Learning something so completely out of my realm has been very rewarding. It was also one of the more worrisome aspects. Every corner I turned presented something new and unknown. Many months ago, I remember feeling totally overwhelmed and started having major second thoughts. I felt I needed to be a soil scientist, or at least an avid and successful gardener. Other worm farmers told me not to worry. I should simply let the worms and what they produce do the “talking”. When I relaxed and put this philosophy into practice, a lot changed. There are many vermiculture scientists out there. They are doing great work we can learn from.
Frustrating? I could say I had a love/hate relationship building my website. It was such a learning curve!! But through monumental patience, tenacity and sensitivity, my web guru got me through it and I’m happy with the results. Watching the site traffic grow has been fun too. Keeping up with the blogging part will be another story!
I know you attended this years NCSU Worm Farming Conference in May. Can you share your overall impression? Is this something you would recommend for others already in the “biz” (and those thinking about getting into the industry)? Why?
Being in a room with 120 worm fans from all over the world was simply fantastic. The fact that every one of them would love to share with you everything they know was even more fantastic. I don’t believe there is another forum where you can get such a vast amount of information on the subject in 2 days. The conference was well organized and well rounded. Speakers covered everything from the basic worm anatomy to intense scientific studies. Worm farmers shared business plans and offered advice based on experience. Presenters from around the globe shared their work and dreams. There was plenty of time for Q and A too. The level of work being done in all areas of recycling is exciting and promising.
Should you attend? If you’re reading this, then you’re probably interested in vermiculture, so, yes, you should attend. I love networking and anecdotes. I always learn something. But what is just the best — is listening, really listening. And what a forum! All those people attending that know different things than you do! Doing business just a little different than you do (or think you’re going to do, in my case). All together at the same time and all wanting to learn more about worms and their “magic”! All they do is eat the garbage we don’t want and make the most phenomenal stuff out of it! If you are into worms, small scale or large, for personal or business reasons, then you should attend. Someone will want to listen to your stories and someone will ask you a bunch of questions. Some folks attend every year! If you are thinking about getting into the industry, it is an intelligent investment to help you make good decisions and ensure your success.
What recommendations in general would you offer for those people thinking about exploring the business side of vermicomposting?
Like any business, you need a plan…your plan…not someone else’s plan. And you need money. All business needs capital. Worm professionals have written much about their plans, dreams, successes and failures. Learn from them. What is cool about worms though, is you can start small and grow. Let it get as big as you want, providing you have the time and space. What you cannot do is completely ignore them. They are living creatures. What you cannot do is make them work faster. You can only buy more worms.
Is there anything else you would like to share? (projects, thoughts etc)
I would venture a guess that very few reading this blog are not interested in worms or vermicomposting. Less than 2 years ago I was one of them. I knew nothing about worms or vermicomposting. If you had asked me what “vermiculture” was, I would have no definition to offer. But here I am, fully entrenched in the worm world and see huge potential. Spread the word! We are tired of no-taste fruits and vegetables. We are tired of no-nutrition food. If you don’t want to “sell” or go into business, then help your friends set up worm bins! Or give your vermicompost away as gifts instead of buying something they probably don’t want or need anyway. A lot of people don’t like the idea of growing worms but they know how good their poop is! There’s plenty of need out there; we should be happy we are able to make it available!
As I said earlier, I wanted to find a business that would make money and be fun too. That can be a big challenge, depending on your personal definition of “fun”. So far vermiculture has been a lot of learning and a lot of work. But I’m really enjoying all of it. Besides that, I have met some amazing, compassionate, sharing people along the way. Relationships I will have for a very long time. Dad taught us this: “Enjoy your work, work hard and do it well…the money will follow naturally.” For this venture, I think Thomas Edison really pegged it: “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” Heck…I like overalls!
Thank YOU Bentley!!
Thanks very much to Cristy Christie for taking part in this interview. If you would like to learn more Cristy and her business, be sure to check out the SLO County Worm Farm website.