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3:51 AM   August 22, 2014
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They might seem an inventory stretch, but wormeries and under-the-counter composters could be a money maker in the right market.

By Wendy Bedwell-Wilson

Got Worms?Red wigglers typically fall under pet retailers’ “live food” category as tasty treats for meat-eating fish and reptiles. But these beneficial worms can bridge the pet segment into the garden—and possibly give feed, farm and pet stores an opportunity to capitalize consumers’ growing interest in vermiculture.

The practice of using worms—specifically Eisenia fetida—to transform fruit and vegetable scraps into rich fertilizer has enjoyed a surge, thanks to more consumer interest in organic gardening, said Steve Little, owner of D&S Worm Farm in Lexington, N.C. He supplies local growers with worms by the pound, and he sells worm castings wholesale to his local garden center.

“[The garden center] bought 1,200 pounds of worm castings twice in early spring, and I expect I’ll get another call from them any time,” Little said. “People use the castings quite a bit for organic gardening. And if they want worms, they just come by with their 5-gallon buckets, I shovel the worms in, and off they go with them.”

It’s a nice market, said Gordon Vadis, president of The Bug Co. in Ham Lake, Minn., and it’s getting nicer.

Sourcing Worms
So where in the world does someone find bulk red worms?

At worm farms, such as D&S Worm Farm in Lexington, N.C. There, owner Steve Little grows red wigglers—and their resultant compost—and supplies them to a handful of local outlets as well as selling them direct to the consumer.

Because shipping costs and mortality rates all but prohibit Little from distributing his worms nationwide, he sticks to his local market, though he said he does ship to a few bait shops across the United States.
“When I send out worms or worm castings for worm tea, people are reluctant to buy it because the shipping costs are more than the product,” he said. “I can send a 10-pound bag of castings from here to the West coast, and it’ll cost me $10.70 to ship. That’s the cheapest way.”

And if they’re sitting on a scorching tarmac or in a hot mail truck for any length of time, the worms and the living compost will die, said Matt Worley, a designer and customer service representative for Nature’s Footprint Inc. in Bellingham, Wash.
 
“Oftentimes there can be complications in shipping worms through the mail,” he explained. “You have to be careful about how long they sit in the box and temperature issues, especially in the summer when they can cook sitting in the back of a mail truck. That’s never good.”

Kate Waldo, co-owner of WormFancy.com in Antelope, Calif., said  retailers interested in selling worms should find a local grower or supplier that will circulate the shelves. “It’s kind of like your milk distributor,” she advised. “You’d have to have someone in your area maintaining the stock in the store, feeding the worms and taking care of them.”  —WBW

“When I was young and had a couple of retail stores, I sold a lot of composting worms, and I was able to sell them for $8 a pound,” he recalled. “Now, they get a pretty good whack: You can get sometimes $30 to $50 a pound for them. So there’s certainly an opportunity there for any retailer who wants to get involved with them.”

But in the retail environment, Vadis said, the challenge in selling bulk worms is space.

“I’m not sure there’s room in a retail shop,” he said, adding that composting worms are sold by the pound. “It’s one of those direct-to-the-end-user products. The retail stores are really set up to do pre-packs to go out the door.”

Not a Vermiculture Venue

In addition to their space constraints, pet and feed stores also contend with a lack of consumer demand as traditional pet retailers aren’t the first place that gardeners visit for their vermiculture supplies, said Larry Martin, president of VermiTechnology Unlimited Inc. in Orange Lake, Fla.

“There are a lot of people doing vermiculture, but the worm bins, castings and worms are sold more in the garden centers,” he said.
 
Indeed, after calls to retailers across the U.S., few reported stocking bulk worms for composting—or even being asked for them. Hoffer’s Tropic Life Pets in Milwaukee, Wis., Elk River Farm and Feed in Steamboat Springs, Colo., and Northwest Pets in Eagle, Idaho, for instance, have had no requests for worms or wormeries.

“We’re more dog- and cat-supply focused, so I can’t say that I’ve have any requests for worms,” said Del Peterson, owner of Northwest Pets. “Farm and feed stores might get that request because they have a stronger agriculture and farming element to them. And there are some pet stores that are a combination nursery and pet store in one, so they might get asked because of organic gardening.”

One farm and pet supply retailer—Douglas County Farmers’ Co-op in Roseburg, Ore.—described some consumer interest. Sales associate Eugenia Lloyd, who works in the garden department, said her customers mainly request worm castings rather than the red wigglers.

“We’ve had some requests for worms for composting, but we don’t have the worms themselves or anyone to refer them to at this point,” she said. “But we do carry the worm-castings compost, and there’s definite interest in that.”

Shelf-Ready Wormeries

Space constraints and lack of consumer interest may prevent retailers from growing their own worms or worm castings for resale, but there is a way for pet and farm shops to tap into the vermiculture market: They could offer wormeries and ancillary products, and then direct buyers to local worm farms to stock their system.

Popular among gardeners, the compact wormeries house thousands of red wigglers that gobble up kitchen scraps and turn them into a mild fertilizer prized by fruit, vegetable and flower growers. When fully assembled, the units can fit in a space as small as a below-the-sink kitchen cabinet, and many designs include a spout, making it easy to make nutrient-dense worm-casting tea for houseplants.
 
Matt Worley, a designer and customer service representative for Nature’s Footprint Inc. in Bellingham, Wash., said commercially made wormeries fit nicely on store shelves, too.

“The units themselves are pretty compact,” he said. “They have a footprint of about 18 inches by 18 inches in the box, and about 15 inches tall. And our models come with a full-color retail sleeve, so it looks really nice on the shelf.”

Kate Waldo, co-owner of WormFancy.com in Antelope, Calif., said retailers could even set up working wormeries and sell them ready to go.

“If it were set up already populated with worms, then the consumer could just go home with it,” she said. “People have the best intentions, but they’ll often buy the unit and never get around to setting it up and adding the worms. With one that already has worms and has been composting for a week or so, it makes it easier for them. They can just walk away with one.”

And retailers shouldn’t overlook add-on sales, like the coir for the worms’ bedding, an aquarium pump and airstone for aerating the worm tea, and books and DVDs about the art of vermiculture and worm keeping.
“There’s a ton of books out there about composting,” Worley said. “One that we recommend is called ‘The Earth Moved,’ and it’s more about just worms in general.”

Creating a Market

Retailers who want to delve into the world of worms and vermiculture will be happy to know that they’re very easy to keep, Vadis said, as long as they’re kept in a cool, damp environment that’s not too wet or dry.

“They’re real simple, as long as you keep them at a reasonable temperature,” he said. “And there’s really no odor, unless you add a lot of meat products, which you shouldn’t be adding to the compost pile anyway.”

Waldo said that all worms require is good drainage, air flow, some food every two to three days, and “a little stir once a week to turn over the material,” she said. “You’ll want to make sure there are no pockets that have been compacted or anaerobic and that the worms are eating.”
 

Care for a Spot of Worm Tea?

It may not sound too appetizing, but plants love it. Worm-casting tea is—simply enough—an aerated mixture of worm castings and water. The combination is a mild fertilizer that can be used on houseplants and in the garden, said Kate Waldo, co-owner of WormFancy.com in Antelope, Calif.
 
But the compost must be properly stored and the tea must be made on an as-needed basis, she said.

 “You can store compost, but if it dries out, it’s dead,” Waldo said. “The idea is that the microbes in it are equally as valuable as the phosphorous, nitrogen and potassium that’s in there. They help the plants and the soil structure.”

When gardeners make the tea, its maximum benefit is immediate, so Waldo recommended retailers sell the tea in a ready-to-use kit.
 
 “Give them the ingredients and instructions to make it themselves,” she said. “Here’s your bag of compost; dump this into a gallon of water, and agitate or let it soak overnight. Because the tea, once it’s made, doesn’t have a shelf life. It’s alive, and if you’re not aerating it, it’s dying.”  —WBW

In the right environment, they’ll thrive—and divide, Vadis added.

“The worms are terrifically prolific; it takes three to four months to double their population,” he said. “So you start with 10 worms, and in a few months, you’ll have 20. It’s exponential after that.”

To generate interest among consumers, Martin recommended that retailers set up a working wormery for people to see.
 
“They need to get one themselves to see how it works so they can be ready to field questions about it,” he said. “And then just keep it in the shop and do promotions. If people see it with the worms in it, they’ll be more apt to buy it.”

And it can be a way to educate consumers—even the young ones—about composting.

“They’re so easy, children can take care of worms,” Waldo said. “They’re very quiet and they eat garbage, so they’re very inexpensive to feed. And they’re great for kids and teaching them about composting. You can even name them; one can be Larry and the rest are Darrel.”

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