I first heard about Tom Herlihy less than a year ago from Rhonda Sherman (Extension Solid Waste Specialist @ North Carolina State University). She informed me that Tom was “one of the big players in vermicomposting” these days. I felt a little silly for not knowing who he was (even given the fact that I had been out of the vermicomposting ‘loop’ for a little while), so I set out to find out! Of course, it took me very little effort to connect Tom with WormPower.net and to find proof that he was indeed a “major player” in the industry. The website alone provides plenty of evidence to indicate the success of the Worm Power line of products, but I also came across a fascinating article on the Worm Digest site (scroll to the bottom of page) that made it all the more evident. What makes the success of Worm Power all the more impressive is the fact that they’ve only been in operation for 22 months!
I’m very optimistic that Tom will continue to see a great deal of success with his business, and that he’ll be one of the people breathing new life into the vermicomposting industry – an industry that has been in need of some bright new stars for a number of years now (something I’ll likely write more about in a future post).
Can you tell us a little about your background and how you got into the business of vermicomposting?
TH – Thomas E. Herlihy (Tom) is the President of RT Solutions LLC with over 20 years specializing in all aspects organic waste management and utilization projects (design, permitting, operations and product use/marketing). He holds a Master’s degree in Agricultural and Biological Engineering, and a Bachelor’s in Physics and Mathematics. His agricultural background includes working as a general laborer on a producing Dairy Farm, serving as an International Agricultural Extension Agent in West Africa, and an agricultural Research Associate at Penn State University. He has authored and been the Primary Investigator on numerous Federal and State R&D project that assessed the environmental impact to plant, soil, and water resources from organic amendments. After 18 years as a consulting engineer, he founded his own firm and has focused all of his professional attention on developing vermicomposting as a viable technology for production agriculture and retail use (patent in review). For the project presented here, he raised significant funds from private investors and secured several Federal and State grants to design, build and operate North America’s largest process controlled vermicomposting operation.
Vermicomposting was a logical progression from my work with organic materials, where I began with wastewater treatment facilities. I have moved through a variety of organic waste treatment technologies from small to large and small to complex. I saw the difficulties of working with the end product raw organic materials, and composts from both the producers and growers prospective and have been working on developing higher value products and their respective systems ever since.
Large-scale vermicomposting systems are by far the hardest and most complex systems to operate in the composting field, but they unquestionably produce the most superior products. Our work has focused on bringing biological system engineering to standardize vermicomposting, and ensure the production of a consistent product.
What made you decide to use flow-through reactors (versus say windrows, for example)?
TH – We do not refer to our units as reactors, but as digesters to reflect their role as mesophillic incubators that further digest and stabilize organic materials with a complex combination of microorganisms and epigeic earthworms.
In my opinion, the single largest obstacle to commercial adoption of composting and vermicomposting is the lack of standards and consistency in the end-products produced. Compost and vermicompost are spoken about in our industry as if they are an elemental material (iron for example), when in fact there is an extraordinary range in quality – from phytotoxic to excellent — and in the physical, biological, and chemical characteristics. All would agree that different finished vermicomposts are produced depending on the initial feed stock (swine, poultry, dairy, human manure, food waste, yard waste, municipal solid waste etc…). Compound this feedstock variability with different processing systems, levels of operator knowledge, and internal quality control and it is easy to see why many serious growers avoid these products. Not surprisingly, this product variability can sour scientific researchers and the market to inconsistent products that produce inconsistent grower result(s).
Vermicomposters often focus and love the earthworms, the process and the craft of production so much they forget that their end product is a starting material for another producer’s process (plant grower).
We have expended extraordinary effort to design, build, and operate a facility that will produce a uniform and consistent product. Analytical testing has shown our materials are behaving in a repeatable fashion, and our growers can rely on our products arriving and functioning consistently. .
How long does it take to produce finished vermicompost from fresh cattle manure?
TH – Our production process is 65 days from cow to consumer.
There has been considerable research (primarily conducted at OSU) to indicate that vermicompost has some pretty incredible plant growth promoting properties. Have you seen similar results with your materials?
TH – After only 22 months of production, we have many excellent examples and testimonials from consumers stating/photographing outstanding plant growth and other beneficial results from using our Worm Power products. As a scientist, I have to state that this information needs to be referred to as anecdotal evidence. This type of field/grower data was not produced in a designed and controlled experiment. Over a beer, I would be glad to chew your ear off and tell you how great the results have been for our growers, but I don’t want to fall into the trap of saying all vermicomposts, will work like this all the time (see my concerns above)
Since construction, we have worked closely with Cornell University in an attempt to determine what in our vermicompost causes these results. The end goal is to identify the key parameters (physical/chemical/biological) that correlate with results. This will allow us to operate our system better, and provide our growers a more guaranteed result. I would inject a word of caution that there are labs in the country that currently claim this level of knowledge, but in my opinion the science is still VERY VERY far from this state. In the interim we feel secure in operating our facility in a consistent manner, and producing a consistent material that will produce consistent results.
What do you see as some of the potential negatives of large-scale vermicomposting (if any)?
TH – Large scale vermicomposting requires a unique set of skills to be done in a professional, profitable and sustainable manner. Please have large facility experience or hire professional solid waste engineers to work out the economics/flow of material handling, animal husbandry, maintaining a controlled environment, and waste management. There is a large difference between being able to “do” large-scale vermicomposting and being able to “profitably do” large scale vermicomposting.
Additionally, the production of significant volumes of vermicompost requires the marketing of all the material(s) at a price that justifies the investment. This requires both (1) an agronomic background, if you wish to speak the same language and market to high value growers (those able to afford your materials), (2) a major marketing effort (money, time, and people).
What sort of advice might you offer someone thinking about getting into the business of vermicomposting/vermiculture?
TH – I truly want to encourage people to vermicompost, but I want to see the industry stop going through its destructive cycles of being overrun with zealots (claim vermicompost will cure the worlds ills), scammers (worm grower pyramid schemes), or false marketers (questionable vermicompost products). In this medium I will not go into more details.
Serious large scale practioners will always be welcomed by those in the field. Those of us with significant investments simply don’t want zealots/scammers/snake oil salesman giving the industry a “black eye”. With that said, there is not nearly enough good vermicompost material being produced and marketed to meet the demand today, let alone tomorrows’. I think I can say that we feel there is not much internal (inside the industry) competition, and that a “raising tide lifts all boats”.
Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers? (exciting new projects/products, general thoughts etc etc)?
TH – Reading back over my answers, I’m sorry for the negatives, as I really do enjoy what I do and feel great about this work and this industry’s potential. As in all things in life “do your home work”, and don’t be surprised that “you will get out of it what you put into it”.
To learn more about Tom and/or Worm Power, be sure to check out the Worm Power website!
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