I’m sure that more than a few of you will be familiar with this week’s interview participant, Heather Rinaldi! She has been an active member of our (RWC) community for quite some time, and is also very active on the Vermicomposters forum. I was actually quite surprised to discover recently that I’ve only known Heather Rinaldi for a little over a year (definitely feels like longer than that). Looking back at our first interaction, I’m amazed we ever ended up staying in touch at all, given how long it took me to get back to her (sorry again, Heather!). Thankfully, she is a kindly, forgiving soul (haha) and decided to overlook my email tardiness, and we’ve been good worm friends ever since!
Heather is the owner of “Texas Worm Ranch“, in Dallas Texas, and has certainly been making a name for herself in the vermicomposting field. I’ve been eager to learn more about her business for quite some time now, so I’m very pleased that she agreed to take part in this interview!
Can you tell us a little about your background, and how you ended up becoming interested in vermicomposting?
I grew up in Northern Oklahoma (just across the border from where Mark from Kansas lives!) That is major farm and ranch country, so I am a country girl who grew up with all kinds of livestock. My parents and grandparents always had huge gardens, and as soon as I had my own home, the first improvement was putting in a vegetable garden. As a mother, I didn’t want my children playing on chemicals in the yard, and my husband and I immediately began doing all of our yard, landscaping, and vegetable gardening organically. I am an organic gardener, and approached vermicomposting as an experiment to see if I could be a better and more affordable organic gardener.
What led you to decide that you wanted to start up your own vermicomposting business?
About 3 and ½ years ago, our neighborhood began a community garden and I suddenly had a lot more garden space…and cost! I investigated affordable means to maintain my increased organic garden space. Of all the options, I was most impressed with vermicompost and vermicompost teas, which are highly regarded by organic gardeners for boosting health and production of plants while maintaining healthy soil. I started my own bin, and within a month of applying worm compost and worm tea, the other gardeners started saying, “I don’t know what you are using, but I want some of that!”
My fellow gardeners literally talked me into starting the business to supply them with what I named “Worm Wine ™”
Can you tell us about your business? What are your primary areas of focus, and what do you hope to achieve long term?
My background and passions are in health and the environment, so I really try to help people make an educated and supported move from chemicals to organic gardening and landscaping. One of the key learning curves is to explain the role of soil biology in successful plant health. Vermicompost and Worm Wine are natural talking points to begin that conversation.
At the Worm Ranch, we sell worms, vermicompost, and a vermicompost mix that I use to start seeds and transplants. Worm Wine ™, which I brew to order, is our most popular product. I also participate at local Farmer’s Markets, where I set up a storyboard showing and selling working worm bins, the VC and Worm Wine products, and my homegrown organic produce. The kids love seeing the worms demonstrated, and the adults become believers when they see the health and size of the vegetables and herbs I sell. A new business endeavor I have is to install organic gardens in homeowners’ backyards, and then provide free Facebook, email, and phone support to them. Last week, I was asked to supply herbs to the all natural taco stand at the health store that host’s one of the Farmer’s Markets I attend. They bought mine at the market and were getting rave reviews. I think I need there to be 8 days in a week, it has been BUSY, but exciting lately! The fact that vermicomposting can also reduce so much waste from the landfill is icing on the cake. It is so cool that the “lowly” worm can help individuals, families, communities and the world become a healthier place. I hope someday there will be a worm bin in every household!
You are located in Texas – do you find there is a lot of public interest in (awareness of) the realm of worm composting? Are there any location-specific challenges you’ve had to deal with?
Texas is really behind in the “green” movement, but it feels like it is speeding to catch up. I have spent a lot of time educating and gaining acceptance for the “crazy concept of worm composting”, but I think word of mouth has spread about its success in the garden, reduction of waste, simplicity and odor neutralization.
The two biggest issues in Texas are heat and fire ants. My outdoor trenches really suffered during the 107 degree (F) heat of August. We had triple digits for over 30 days. My worms in the garage (which is more like a basement, and cooler since it is built under the house) stopped laying cocoons. It was brutal! Fire ants can invade when it is dry, but I can usually solve that pretty quick by removing the nest and adding moisture.
Can you tell us a little bit about your actual operation? What types of systems are you using? Would you consider yourself small-, mid-, or large-scale? Is this a full-time venture for you or something you do for fun on the side?
The Texas Worm Ranch started as something to do as just a little side job, and it has quickly mushroomed into something much bigger than I ever planned. It is now a full time job (plus)! I struggle with needing more space and a part time employee, but am just working with what I have. At this point, I would say we are mid-scale. I have a multitude of different systems—several outdoor “in-ground” trenches that are 4 ft by 8 ft, a variety of Rubbermaid tote systems, and a fabric flow-through. I also did vermigardening trenches October through May last year. I try to maximize my space by having “walls of worms”—bins on shelves along the wall. I try to diversify with my products and services, so I am not dependent on one revenue stream from the operation (garden installations, yard fixes, Worm Compost, Worm Wine, and Worm Sales).
What are your primary “food” materials, and how are they handled (extra processing etc steps) prior to adding to the bins/beds?
Since I am trying to make a good garden product, I like to use a lot of coffee grounds, tea bags, and legumes. This helps up the nutritional content of the VC. All of our family vegetable, fruit, and garden waste goes to the worms, as well as some grain products (if the weather isn’t too hot). Indoor bins get newspaper, office paper, and cardboard as bedding. Outdoor trenches get fall leaves or straw as bedding. We get about 80 lbs of produce scraps a week from a local restaurant, our house is a known refuge for post-Halloween jack-o-lanterns, and I sometimes rescue bagged leaves from the curb and an eternity spent in hell (otherwise known as the landfill). I really get so much waste, that it sometimes incidentally sits a day in a 10 gallon container, so it incidentally gets pre-rotted…but I don’t worry about that too much. It all seems to work out well in the bins.
What has been the most rewarding/enjoyable aspect of building your business?
I have enjoyed sharing time with my kids, teaching them hands on about taking care of the Earth, and developing an understanding of a good work ethic, business skills, and customer service. I get the most satisfaction out of seeing families have a successful organic garden, or a new vermicomposter having success and really getting into the worms. Generally speaking, worm enthusiasts and organic gardeners are wonderful people!
What has been the most frustrating or even disheartening aspect?
I wish I had more time, energy, and less heat!
What recommendations would you offer for those people thinking about exploring the business side of vermicomposting?
Grow your business organically; don’t put yourself at risk by buying into “get rich quick schemes”. Understand that at first you are educating your clientele, gaining acceptance for something they may not understand, and gaining credibility. Deliver more than you promise, and continue to be an educational resource after you sell your “product” or “service”. If you help someone have a successful experience beyond the “sale”, you will be rewarded with personal satisfaction and more business!
Is there anything else you would like to share? (projects, thoughts etc)
I just am so grateful to have fellow vermicomposters to talk with and learn with. There is a great network of people in vermicomposting, and I appreciate all the knowledge sharing and support we give each other. That starts with you, Bentley!
I’d like to take the opportunity to say thanks to Heather Rinaldi for taking part in this interview! If you’d like to learn more about Heather and her vermicomposting business be sure to check out the Texas Worm Ranch website.