The Two Acre Worm Farm – Update

Early in August I put together a podcast (and written version) featuring my response to “Tim S.”, who had written in with lots of interesting questions about the potential for setting up a worm farm and castings operation on a 2 acre plot of land.

You can find that blog post here: “2 Acre Low-Maintenance Castings & Bait Worm Operation?” (and I recommend going through it before proceeding with this post)

Well, it seems Tim really appreciated the response…but found that it led to even MORE questions about all of this!

I decided I should post the follow-up responses here as well. Below you will find Tim’s additional questions (in bold) along with my answers directly below each of them.

1. First, does your advice to steer clear of casting and bait production change when I tell you I can get a Patz vertical feed mixer, and 200+ tons a month each of cardboard and purina dog food waste (dog food paste, high in both C and N) from the local factory? I could mix these with leaves, lake weeds, and woodchips to form windrows and feed them once or twice a week. I also have an ample water supply, and compostex covers.

Wow Tim – sounds like this has the potential to be a very serious project!
I guess my response now would be my tried and true “it depends”!

Again, I would strongly urge you to start by looking into local regulations about this sort of thing. Starting a little eco-farm is one thing – but once you’re dealing with many 100’s of tons of waste materials (especially stuff like dog food waste), it’s a whole other ball game.

Assuming you were licensed (etc) to work with all those wastes, my suggestion would be to create very serious hot composting windrows first. Either fully compost the wastes (thermophilically) and simply market the finished product, or “precompost” your mixture (maybe for a few weeks) and then feed it to composting worms for final processing.

With a material like dog food waste, hot composting would be critical since there would be a very high potential for heating, ammonia release, and fly infestation.

Environmental factors would still be a major consideration – especially with castings production. If you were able to at least erect some form of shelters over the windrows that could help a lot. And my hunch is that by law you’d probably be required to do the composting on concrete pads, which would also make a big difference.

2. Is there a problem with my feedstocks? Will it be hard to screen out the castings? I know that many successful operations have very uniform inputs (manure, peat, etc)

Uniform feedstocks definitely help a lot, but I don’t see why you couldn’t just screen the bulky stuff (assuming you can keep everything from getting drenched – again the shelters would help with this) and just recycle it back through the windrows.

3. If Im feeding the windrows in thin layers on a weekly or biweekly basis, should I be concerned about fresh materials heating up? Is precomposting absolutely necessary if I keep the C to N above say 30:1?

Again, with a material like dog food waste I would say that, yes, precomposting would be needed for sure. Even if you’re not using the dog food waste, precomposting would probably help a lot, since it should make the mixture a bit more “worm-ready”. And yes, there is also the heating issue to consider – even large heaps of high C:N wastes tend to go through some form of heating phase.

You should be fine to layer your precomposted stuff on the vermicomposting windrows without the risk of any further (serious) heating taking place.

4. Could I harvest the entire windrow and screen the material out, or would you suggest using a wedge (walking windrow) method?

I really like the wedge concept – at least as far as your vermicomposting windrows go. This way the worms have a safe habitat zone regardless of what’s happening in the wedge zone. Plus it’s more of a “continuous” method so once you’re able to do your first harvest, you should be able to then continue harvesting more frequently.

That being said, harvesting entire windrows can work well too. It would probably leave you with a larger batch of vermicompost that’s more uniform in consistency – and you’d also be able to harvest more worms at once. But it would require more patience (waiting until entire row is finished), and you’d need to stagger the start up of your windrows if you’re after a continuous supply of worms/castings.

5. If you were planting on the side of the windrows would you plant into, or next to the material? And would you till the soil first?

I would plant in the soil right next to the windrow. It’s better if the plants have a sort of “safe” zone for their roots that they can then expand out from. Since roots WILL eventually grow right into the windrow, you probably don’t have to worry too much about tilling the soil.

Hope this helps!

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    • tim
    • September 3, 2015

    Great insight, yet again Bentley!

    Why wouldn’t the compost covers work as effectively as shelters? It should regulate moisture and leaching, and protect from the sun, wind, and birds.

    I have one additional question. Im concerned about harvesting and screening wet material. I want the worms to flourish so I wouldnt want the piles to dry out to enable easier screening. Should I be concerned? Can you think of a method for smooth operation?

    • Bentley
    • September 9, 2015

    Hi Tim
    Sorry for the delay.

    Good question re: the covers. I have not worked with them before so I can’t say for sure. If they are truly breathable, yet will keep most of the precipitation from soaking the beds, then they may be all you need.

    Your second question hits on of the key reason worm farming pros tend to have distinct systems for vermiculture and vermicomposting. The perfect worm castings production system won’t necessarily be the ideal worm production bed (although it WILL obviously need to be pretty worm-friendly, since they are doing the work for you! lol). In your case it may simply be a matter of removing material from main beds and letting it dry out some before screening.

    • PJ Dunn
    • October 2, 2015

    Hi, Bentley and Tim S. Re: Two Acre Worm Farm… funny this comes up. We have what may be the smallest mechanized worm farm in the world! I utilize a 12,000 sq. ft. rehabilitated, used-to-be poultry barn for my worm farm. Started out with a non-functioning partner on 10 acres and HAD to change gears. Our property is 2 1/2 acres with an operating 10,000 ft barn and a 30×70′ manure pit. I process 200-300 yds. of dairy manure annually using the wedge system. (sometimes two) We are in Central CA where temps can go above 110 in Summer down to below freezing in the winter. The worms are in full sun year round and working on a concrete floor from the burned down barn. I use a 5 yd. feed wagon, tractors and a bobcat to manage my materials. I harvest worms with a Honda powered harvester and haul castings with a dump trailer! This is a supplemental retirement project at this time (without the acreage available we really changed our business plan) Our product is a 100% casting that is in production at least a year and my results on testing “aged” products (2-3 years old) has been very favorable to the opinion that castings get better with age… think wine! After 17 years of property rehab we are at a point that a bagging and/or liquid extract operation would be a very viable and sustainable family business. The fact is that physical limitations that come with age are the only thing to hold me back. I love the business, though! To process 200 tons monthly you will probably need every inch of available space on two acres. My wife wouldn’t allow that! She has an acre of landscape all to herself and of course our house, driveways and shops! I love your website and visit now and then for great info. How can I get listed as a worm friend/ No website, but we do have a FB page. PJ Dunn Working Red Worms.

    • PJ Dunn
    • October 2, 2015

    Thank you again for your HUGE informative web site. I am available for tours, consulting, sales to commercial start ups, worms and castings. We host San Joaquin Master Gardener class’, do school presentations K through Jr. college, gardening clubs and whoever will listen in line at the grocery store sometimes!
    Michael Dunn at PJ’s

    • Bentley
    • October 2, 2015

    Wow Michael – that sounds fantastic!
    I would love to learn more (email on the way!)

    • Angela
    • November 8, 2015

    I just found this site yesterday and it has more useful info than any I have found. I live in Farmington, Ca., very near San Joaquin County! I would love to talk more with the Dunn’s or whomever has some time. I first began farming worms in 2006 or 07. I got up to 2 4’x8′ bins and then I wound up donating them to two high school ag depts. due to a long distance move. I have regretted it since and want to come back in a very big way. I REALLY love and respect everything about earthworms!! I currently drive truck with my husband and want to come home to be a full time worm farmer 🙂 But I need to convince my husband it will financially be worth my efforts and career change. PLEASE HELP!! I need info. I have ideas.

    • Bentley
    • November 10, 2015

    Hi Angela
    You had me at “more useful info than any I have found.”!

    There are a couple of free resources you may want to check out if you’d like an overview of my own take on starting a Worm Farming business (an overall philosophy I refer to as “Modern Worm Farming”)

    Tiny Worm Business with BIG Potential

    5 Major Myths & Mistakes of Worm Farming (email list sign up form)

    Hope this helps!

    • PJ Dunn
    • November 12, 2015

    Sounds like Angela is ready to start another worm pile. We are very close by and she can find our number on facebook or the local phone book! I know, I know, no one uses a phone book any more… We ARE the smallest mechanized working worm farm and start up headquarters providing education, Worm Factory kitchen bins, worms and castings for 17 years! I hope that “Tim S.” is up and running; small scale can be a very successful endeavor. Thank you.
    Michael Dunn at PJ’s

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