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.