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Goshen Couple Benefits from Nightcrawlers

by Holly Hahn Yoder

Published: Friday, December 1, 2017

Farmers use fences to keep their animals safe on the farm, but on a small farm near Goshen, all Annette and Bob Webb need is light. Light keeps their "livestock" from escaping the pens or, in this case, 3-gallon-buckets full of soil. Each bucket contains African nightcrawlers that continually eat and generate nutrient-rich castings (manure). The Webbs harvest and sell this worm "poo" to area wholesale and retail customers as a soil amendment.

Every two weeks, Bob and Annette harvest the castings from 130 buckets of worms. Each bucket contains about 250 nightcrawlers. To separate the castings from the worms, each bucket is dumped on a gently vibrating screen. The castings sift through the screen and the worms fall into a bucket of freshly prepared bedding and food to start the whole process again.

The nightcrawlers are fed a diet similar to that of farm animals. Bob mixes pulverized alfalfa, soybeans, barley and wheat into the peat moss bedding material and then adds water. Each bucket contains about 10 pounds of this mixture. Two weeks later, the worms will have turned this food into 7.5 pounds of castings full of soil-beneficial microbes. This amount adds up to about a half ton of castings per each harvest.

As Bob and Annette process each bucket, they keep watch for egg cocoons that are about the size and shape of a BB. Each cocoon usually contains one or two worms. The Webbs transfer the cocoons to a "nursery" so they can raise their own replacement worms or expand their inventory. The nursery area has to be warmer and moist for the baby worms. At the end of six weeks, the babies are old enough to reproduce.

Reproduction is not a problem for the crawlers. Like all earthworms, the night crawlers are hermaphrodites, with both male and female reproductive organs. According to Annette, the worms can live as long as eight years and will reproduce several times each year.

Although African nightcrawlers are superior to other worm species as casting producers, they are finicky about their environment. Bob and Annette remodeled an area in their pole barn to provide a heavily insulated, light- and temperature-controlled room for the worms. According to Annette, the night crawlers begin to die off if the temperature dips below 60 degrees or above 90 degrees for any length of time. Moisture for the buckets is provided by water from the Webbs' well. Too much water can also cause problems for the worms.

The nightcrawlers' room is well-lit round the clock every day.

Initially, whenever the power went out on the farm, Bob and Annette would race out to the barn to get some light back on the room. Now, they have a backup battery system that kicks on if they lose electricity.

With the backup system in place and two weeks between harvests, the night crawlers do not need daily care. As a result, the Webbs can take vacations or short trips and can arrange for someone to come in and do a quick check to make sure all the systems are working.

As an avid gardener, Annette is constantly learning. She was taking classes at the Wellfield Botanic Gardens in Elkhart when she learned about the benefits of worm castings. She became a customer of the previous owner and an advocate for more earth friendly gardening practices. Two and a half years ago, the owner could no longer physically care for the worms and approached Annette about selling the business. Bob and Annette decided it was a good fit for their lifestyle and future plans and made the purchase.

Now, Annette is the sales and marketing person for the business and Bob does more of the physical labor.

Annette gives presentations and samples to gardening clubs as well as to area commercial operations like greenhouses and garden supply stores. As part of her talk, she exhibits photos from a greenhouse owner that shows two ferns side by side. One fern received normal care and the other was given a couple of tablespoons of worm castings. The fern that had the added castings was noticeably healthier, with leaves that were greener and more numerous than the other fern. The two tablespoons of castings will feed that fern in a 6-inch pot for up to two months.

Another point is that the castings are odorless.

"I have heard it said that it is the only animal waste that is completely odor free," said Annette.

Unlike other organic-type soil enhancers like blood or bone meal, pets will not eat or dig up soil treated with the worm castings. The castings will never go bad either. The microorganisms will stay dormant until water is added. These microbes help fix nutrients in the soil so less leaches out. In Annette's view, the best part of using worm poo is that a gardener can never burn a plant if they put too much of it in the soil.

As part of the purchase agreement, the Webbs inherited thousands of plastic bags with the previous owner's label. Unfortunately, these bags were labeled as fertilizer rather than as a soil amendment. A major element of Annette's marketing strategy is to let people know how worm castings benefit the soil—not as a fertilizer but as a soil enhancer. She uses social media to get the word out and makes appearances at area garden supply stores. Annette offers testimonials from previous customers and samples of castings to her potential customers.

Recently, another area of potential growth has opened up for the Webbs. Local organic lawn care businesses have expressed interest in experimenting with worm castings as a more earth friendly way to improve lawn health.

Annette says she still has a lot to learn about how microorganisms in the castings interact with plants and the soil. As part of her quest to improve her own gardening knowledge and network, she is currently enrolled in the Elkhart County Master Gardener progaram.

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