2 Acre Low-Maintenance Castings & Bait Worm Operation?

I received an interesting e-mail (and follow-up with more details) from Tim S. It seemed like the sort of topic others would find interesting, and Tim seemed to be hoping for a pretty in-depth response…

…so I decided it would be a good opp to create a mini-podcast of sorts.

Here is his original question:

I have a question about sheet composting with shredded leaves in a field. Are there any reasons that a 12-18 inch layer spread over 2 acres wouldn’t produce a good casting after screening it? What are the drawbacks to a low maintenance system like this? Is it really necessary to keep adding food? Thanks!

Along with some additional info (and a bunch of questions) he sent in another email…

The location is a vacant 2 acre secluded field on the edge of town. I have enough wet compacted leaves to spread a 2 ft layer on the whole area. I also have access to a big tub grinder and a bobcat loader. Currently there are numerous native soil worms and red wigglers on the edge of the pile. I figured with a minimal investment in some Euro’s, along with the natives, I could populate the 2 acres.

I was wondering if there was any reason why I shouldn’t shred the leaves, spread them out, and leave them until the material was processed enough to contain a majority of castings? Is there any reason you HAVE to use windrows, or feed them regularly?

I’m intending on having a commercial product (castings and bait worms) so the material must be in a decent condition to screen out the worms and castings. So are leaves alone enough to make this work?

Is it neccessary to pre-compost them? What are the drawbacks compared to a standard windrow and regular feeding system?

If it won’t work, would mixing the leaves with grass, food scraps, etc before spreading work?

Would compaction be a problem for finely shredded leaves? Would added wood chips help with that?

Here is my response:

Written Summary

– Very promising opportunity…BUT, would be incredibly challenging to make it work as a highly-effective worm castings AND bait farming operation.

– Nice piece of land in a good location.
– Great supply of starter materials
– Helpful equipment
– Starter population of Red Wigglers

Key Issues

1) Lack of Control – Tim is in a decent location for outdoor worm farming, but still too many variables outside of his control (especially true for a serious castings operation).

2) Castings/Bait Combo – Can be challenging to create system highly effective for BOTH castings and vermiculture, especially with so little control over environmental factors.

3) Logistical Headaches – Without separation of worm zones and (worm farmer) working zones, how do you harvest without damaging the bed?

4) Not Enough Nutrition – Leaves alone won’t provide enough nutrition for top notch castings, let along castings AND fat bait worms.

My Recommendations

– Based on the resources available and location, seems like a great opportunity for some sort of “eco-farming” operation.

– Vermicomposting trenches or windrows with crop beds running along both sides.

– Fantastic potential for demonstration project and profit from selling top notch, naturally-grown produce.
See “SPIN Farming

– During spring and fall, likely lots of composting worms that could be harvested a sold as well

– Boost the nutrition in the beds with aged manure and – even more beneficial from an education standpoint – urban organic wastes (food scraps, coffee grounds, grass clippings).

– DO make sure to do everything “by the book” (permits etc), especially if working with manures (and of course when involving the public in any way)

UPDATE: Tim wrote in with some additional questions and I added a post with my (written) response to those as well. You can find it here:
The Two Acre Worm Farm – Update

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  1. Wind? Leaves tend to blow into heaps. Even damp, they will dry out?
    IMHO that’s the major block to it working?

    • Bentley
    • August 7, 2015

    Hi Dave
    I figure that’s kinda lumped in there with the environmental factors that lead to a lack of control. And with the leaves being shredded, and rained on a fair bit it might not be quite so bad. Especially if he mixed them with aged manure (or other wastes in general).

    • N. Davis
    • August 7, 2015

    Also check the regulations in your area. I know in my area to sell compost it has to heat up to kill pathogens for 30 days or it cannot be sold.

    • John W.
    • August 8, 2015

    A good read/listen

  2. Let me start by saying I haven’t listened to Bentley’s podcast (yet…tomorrow on the drive to Baltimore the wife will be treated to it…hehehe) he may have covered this.
    I use leaves as mulch in my garden and flower beds (1/3 acre). To stop the drying/blowing issue I use FRESH grass clippings as a cover. Dried clippings work ok, when they’re fresh it’s MUCH easier to spread. Put at least a 1/2″ cover, you shouldn’t be able to see the leaves below, they will dry and create a nice “thatch” cover. (If you have enough leaves to cover 2 acres, I’m assuming you can get grass cuttings in equal amounts…I’m jealous of the amount of leaves, I can’t hoard enough). It’s a delicate cover, if anything (man/woman/child or animal [birds – “cat birds” work my beds like…ahhh, well, keeping it PC…very hard) disturbs them things could start to blow around. IMHO

    • Pieter van den Kerkhof
    • August 15, 2015

    Change your objectives.
    With 2 acres of land on the edge of town and so much leaves i would
    Plant a foodforest and use the leaves to mulch.

    • Bentley
    • August 15, 2015

    N. Davis – Great advice.

    JOHN – Thank-you good sir! (And who knows – you MAY even “see/hear your name in lights” in the new Worm Farming series! Wink wink)

    P.S. “Hearing your name in lights” – now there is a novel concept! LOL

    HINZY – I thought the idea was to get your wife to actually LIKE me?! LOL
    Good news is that the podcast is less than 15 min so she shouldn’t suffer too long – haha

    PIETER – Great alternative idea, and definitely something a lot closer to “natural”. Would make for an excellent long-term demonstration project.

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