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Finding beauty in worm poop
It’s dark brown and looks like coffee grounds, or a rich, earthy compost. And it comes from worms: more specifically, their rear ends. Vermicompost is the digested waste of worms that have eaten their fill of organic scraps, and processed them into a rich, natural nutrient mix ideal for boosting soil quality for growing plants. Nestled in the green countryside of Gran Couva, there is an enterprising small business dedicated to producing just that substance. It is the Boissierre Greens Earthworm Farm, operated by landscaper/farmer Dexter Ragoonanan, and Micah Martin, an emerging soil, worm and vermicompost expert from UWI.
Vermicompost, or worm poop, improves soil structure, increases yield and can even improve the taste of fruit and vegetables. It’s a natural fertiliser which contains five times more nitrogen, seven times more phosphorous and 11 times more potassium than ordinary soil, according to gardening writer Fred Bove in the US magazine Modern Farmer. You can even make your own “black gold” yourself without using any fancy chemicals. And unlike many artificial fertilisers, gardeners say it will not burn your plants.
The humble earthworm’s rare ability to create value from waste matter is not widely known or appreciated in T&T. But worm farms have existed for decades in other countries—vermiculture happens now in Canada, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines and the USA on a large, industrial scale, with many specialised products and opportunities. In the Caribbean, Cuban farmers have long practiced it, and are regional experts in the field, growing their own worms and making their own compost for agriculture.
If the thought of raising hundreds of slimy pink wrigglers by yourself makes you squirm, however, then Boissierre Greens can help. They are the leaders in vermicomposting in T&T. The business not only farms worms, but also makes bags of vermicompost ready for use, as well as a blend of liquid fertiliser extract (compost tea) and soil amendments to help grow healthy plants.
The two-man team also offers training in how to make your own vermicompost. They have even designed their own worm bin model to make it easy for the backyard gardener. The duo has reached out to schools, too—on June 6 they started distributing worm-farming units to schools to promote healthy organic farming through vermicomposting, as well as to encourage good waste management practices; the worms can eat most vegetable kitchen waste or plant-based matter, including old newspapers. The beauty of it is that they can help you recycle your waste while creating something useful at the end.
The Guardian visited Boissierre Greens Worm Farm in Gran Couva to find out more about the business. The Ragoonanan family farm is the headquarters for the worm farm, which exists in a roomy, dark covered area next to the family home. There, over 500,000 worms munch away happily in the dark, in big containers of well-prepared mixed organic matter.
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. At first, Dexter Ragoonanan tried importing a batch of “starter” worms from abroad. But by the time they reached him, they were all dead. Then his wife, a wise woman, suggested he try local worms. So he collected 1,200 of them in one week of devoted worm hunting on his family farm land. He then put them in bins of earth to live, and mixed in some “growing mash” – chicken feed – with organic matter which included horse manure. But less than two hours later, he discovered most of them had perished, melting to death: the heat generated by the mash and manure mix was simply too much for the little guys. He managed to rescue 485 survivors from that batch (yes, he counted every one). Disheartened, he thought that might be the end of his worm farming quest; until he decided to reach out to UWI for better technical advice in 2012. There he met Micah Martin.
Micah Martin, originally from Dominica, is an agriculture graduate at UWI, St Augustine, currently doing his Masters in researching local worms for vermiculture. He commented that he’d originally wanted to do his final year undergraduate project in vermiculture—only to discover it was impossible, because there was virtually no local expertise here to enable it. So he changed his undergrad research topic to hot composting.
But worms soon became Martin’s subsequent Masters in Soil Science study area: identifying local worm species, and which ones might be good for making local compost. He’s been going to international conferences on earthworm ecology and vermiculture, where he met a pioneer in the industry, Rhonda Sherman, an extension specialist in Solid Waste Management in the Department of Horticultural Science at North Carolina State University—and from all reports, a virtual “goddess” of worm culture and composting, who teaches vermiculture methods to students from across the world.
“We were fortunate to both have met her (at different times). We now can identify worms by name… Currently in our business we use two main worm species, and are exploring others. Locally, in TT soils, the most common types are African Nightcrawlers (Eudrilus euginiae) and Indian Blue Worms (Perionyx excavates),” says Martin.
Boissierre Greens Earthworm Farm takes roughly three months for one cycle of compost to be made by their hardworking worms, which can breed rapidly from egg to sexually mature young adult in that time. And what’s their diet? Worm food can include animal manure, grass clippings, cardboard, office paper, newspaper, leaves, and vegetable wastes. The quality of your worm compost will depend on what you feed them, making it possible for the organically-minded farmer to eliminate all pesticide-tainted ingredients for a more wholesome fertilizer.
“If you manage your wastes properly, your end product can be another person’s first product,” commented farmer Ragoonanan, who is very motivated by the sustainable, waste recycling aspect of vermiculture. “That can help our environmental problems; rather than send organic material to the dump, compost it instead.”
Boissierre Greens has trained a number of people in vermiculture, and is running its next workshop on earthworm farming and vermicomposting next month, in July, at the farm site in Gran Couva. It is open to all — practicing and aspiring worm farmers, and backyard gardeners.
Earthworms, with the help of microbes, play such a vital role in decomposition and recycling of nutrients in the soil that both Martin and Ragoonanan consider themselves fortunate to be running such a green business.
So the next time you see a little wriggler in the earth, say a little thank you. Without the humble worm, there’d be far less tasty, nutritious, healthy plants for us to eat.
Boissierre Greens Earthworm Farm is in Gran Couva. Its next vermiculture course is in July. Book a place by calling the farm at 367-6388/271-8567, or emailing [email protected].
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