I thought I would share a quick update on how the worms and I have fared this holiday season. In December we composted 1,368 lbs, a little bit of a drop, but natural as dishes of the season often become meatier and milkier.
The outdoor worm bed is looks promising thus far. When I heard the temperature would be dropping to the single digits with one day having a "real-feel" of -30°F (I mean come on, seriously??), I nervously waited to see how the beds would fare. I'm still in the process of building so I laid on a thick layer of food waste and tried to minimize any gaps that could cause drafts. I was iced-in at my parents' house for a few days and returned to find the bed under a layer of snow. When I pulled back the lid I was amazed to see worms at the top of the pile and the thermometer reading 40 °F, which is still a little chilly for the worms, but by no means is insurmountable.
I have yet to experiment with meat and dairy with the bokashi, though I did ferment my first batch of EM (effective microorganism, a mix of helpful bacteria).
Unfortunately, December hit me hard. Though, I decided to mask for the winter season, I've still been around more people than I have been in years...ah, covid... and my immune system seems to be making up for lost time. I had two upper respiratory infections and the stomach bug, which left me barely able to complete the basics of running the business. It reminded me of my limitations as one person, which is always a source of frustration for me. I have so many things I want to get done, but so little time and manpower. I have to accept the slow for now, however, and let my body rest up.
I've also decided to be a little less "one-woman" show and have officially hired my brother, Zach, on as a compost cabbie. If you see him and the Prius picking up compost, give him a wave!
Happy Holidays from all of us at Back2TheDirt! We are excited to see what's in store for 2023.
Katie & The Worms
Fun Fact: Worms are cold blooded creatures and cannot survive below freezing temperatures. So how do worms survive the winter? Some species burrow below the frost line to avoid the cold. While others lay eggs which can survive freezing temperatures. Though theses worms die off in the winter, their babies emerge in the spring.
In the month of November, we composted 1,675 lbs. With a steady supply of food and the recent issues with the current worm bed. I am making a major pivot. With the fly problem coming to a head, I've decided to design a new bed system. This time outdoors. For people new to vermicomposting, starting a bed outdoors in the winter time might seem like a daunting task. Worms do not like temperatures to get below 60 degrees Fahrenheit and they cannot survive in below freezing conditions. However, with the volume of food waste I receive, I've realized it is easier to heat up a bed than to cool it down, since decomposing food releases heat. Therefore, with the cold weather and freezing nights moving in, I'm excited to begin.
The plan is to make a "Worm Pit" out of cinderblocks with insulated roof panels as the top coverings. I plan to make 3-5 separate pits, totaling around 250 square feet. With previous experience as my guide, I'm sure this plan will change and develop as I build and observe the pros and cons.
I've also started experimenting with Bokashi as a pretreatment method for the food waste. Bokashi is the technique of fermenting food scraps using lactobacillus (the same bacteria used in preparing yogurt) before burying them and letting them decompose fully. The fermentation occurs under anaerobic conditions and creates an acidic environment, which kills weed seeds and fly larvae. It also leads to the food waste being colonized by beneficial bacteria. After the food waste ferments for two weeks, it can be buried in trenches or placed in soil factory (in my case, the worm pit) where it can fully breakdown. Due to the bacteria already present on the food, the food waste breaks down faster, is easier for the worms to digest, produces less heat while decomposing, and is less attractive to animals.
However, like worms, bacteria are living creatures. I will need to have a consistent supply of lactobacillus or EM-1 (a commercially sold mix of lactobacillus, yeast, and phototrophic bacteria for Bokashi systems) ready for processing food and incorporate the food fermentation into my waste processing flow. Still a big learning curve ahead, we'll see where it leads! If it works, though, I can finally start receiving meat and dairy which would be a big plus for my non-vegan members.
In October, we composted 1,899 lbs of food and paper waste, a little under one ton. October is also the month of our worm casting givebacks. Unfortunately, because the harvester situation is still not figured out I had to hand harvest over 30 gallons of worm castings. It was a workout, but my members are worth it! Though we are going into cold season, worm castings are still a great addition to winter bed routine or for use on indoor plants.
Dan Katz, owner of Caps and Trade (look him up on Instagram for some beautiful plant and fungi pics), gave me a bucket of spent mushroom substrate to try feeding to my worms. From what he told me and the cursory research I did, myco-vermicompost produced should have higher levels of beneficial fungi, so we'll have to keep an eye on that and see what happens.
I also was able to find a place for Montgomery members to drop off post market. Although it's not the most ideal, Gorman Heritage Farms agreed to host a drop off shelf. A drop off shelf was also added to upgrade our Granville drop off location. These shelves are intended to make compost drop off easy and organized. Members come with full buckets and place them in the shelf (filling from the bottom upwards, no need to heave buckets onto the top shelf) and then grab their empty buckets. This differs from most compost drop-off stations, where companies leave a larger compost can and people empty their buckets into it. I want to make the drop off station friendly to people who may not be able to clean their own buckets at home and who want to have their weights tracked. If you live near Gorman or Grailville, come check our shelves out!
It's harvest time! My tomato plant is producing a small carton each week of tomatoes and my black bean plants produced about a quarter gallon of black beans, which I'm planning to save and plant again next year. I've also been growing amaranth (a South American pseudo-grain), okra, and carrots.
In regards to the worm beds, I emptied out the conveyor belt and moved it into the other beds. My plan next month will be to build four new 40 square foot beds to accommodate the extra food we've been getting. The harvester's motor blew, brining worm casting production to a halt. I bought a replacement harvester, the Worm Sifter, but the results have been subpar. Each 5 gallon bucket of castings results in a few cups of harvested worm castings and I'm finding cocoons in the harvested castings! Maybe, there are adjustments needed on my end, but I'll need to figure out those soon or look for another option, since worm casting production is half of the operation.
In September, we compost 1630 lbs of food and paper scraps, steady from last month.
In August we composted 1,630 lbs. I've been moving the worms beds around (see pic below of my worm bed with the sidewall removed). I need to build more beds to accommodate the increase in food waste. I had been experimenting with building a worm bed on a conveyor belt so that it would dump into the harvester. However, the experiment has not been going well. The food waste is so heavy that the motor is unable to move the load. In retrospect, this makes sense. Food waste is mostly comprised of water. Have you ever tried to carry a 5 gallon bucket of water? It's a workout.
Unfortunately, I've also been developing an issue with flies. A lot of the food waste I have coming to me has already been infected with fly maggots, presumably from members leaving their buckets outside and not sealing them all the way. In these cases, I try and let the buckets sit a few extra weeks with the lid sealed to kill off the flies, but it seems some survived any how. All this to say, I have some troubleshooting ahead of me.
On a positive note, the plants are doing well. I've been propagating my Golden Pothos plant in my Indoor Jungle Mix and it's been shining.
This month I had a leak in my bathroom that soaked through my floor board into the basement and rehydrated a pile of coconut coir. When coconut coir is exposed to water it expands from small compact bricks into a loose "soil". In other words, I went from a nice, neat stack of bricks to an 100 square foot garden bed. Thankfully, I have extra 5 gallon buckets on hand (perks of owning a compost business?) and was able to shovel it and carry it outside, where I'll make a temporary outdoor garden bed. Ayaya!
I met a really cool worm farmer at the Farmers Market from California. He runs a larger operation than mine.. I was surprised to hear he had excess worm castings! I have the opposite issue. Currently, I'm only producing a few gallons a week and I seem to sell out within a couple hours of the market each week. To be fair though, it sounds like he has a much larger operation. I hope I can scale to his size one day. He hot composts his inputs first before feeding it to his worms. This has a multitude of advantages. It kills weed seeds, fly larvae eggs, and can break down other chemical additives. If your hot compost pile gets hot enough, you can even compost meat, dairy, and bioplastics. However, I would need to be a bigger space in order to do this.
He also showed me his hat with the logo he designed to represent compost. "Blue" for water, "brown" for carbonaceous materials, and "green" for nitrogen rich materials, the three essential elements to composting. He said Kanye West on a visit to his worm farm gave his approval.
In the month of July, we composted 1,438 lbs. A huge jump--nearly double of what we composted last month! Plus, we broke the 1,000+ lbs. in a single month barrier. I now have enough food waste to be dangerous. Look out world.
The sun is out and my plants are soaking it up and leafing out! I built a cattle panel trellis and two raised beds out of corrugated metal roofing panel in my backyard, The whole set up was under $100 and will hopefully provide some yummy backyard groceries this summer. Right now in the beds I have lettuce, beans, basil, and cantaloupe growing. I'm excited to see how far up the cattle panel the plants will make it.
In the month of June, we composted 783 lbs of organic waste. I've been working at the Loveland and Montgomery Farmers Market and am starting to feel like I know what I'm doing. It's been a great way to practice my answers to common questions like "so...what do you do?" and "tell me how your system works." If you see me at the market, stop by and say hi!
In the month of May, we composted 474 lbs. From May until October, Back2TheDirt will be a vendor at the Montgomery and Loveland Farmers Markets. My hope with doing the markets is to sign up more compost members and get more food waste. I'll also be selling worm castings and soil mixes. Hopefully, it will be a good chance to connect with people in the area and see if there is interest in my business model and whether or not it could be viable as a true career or whether it will have to remain a side hobby. Only time will tell...
In the month of April, we composted 304 lbs of food and paper waste. With the weather beginning to warm *sorta*, I prepped for the growing season. This involved building two raised beds and constructing a hoop house out of PVC pipe (see below), as well as starting some seedlings. We wrapped up our worm casting seedling trials, but have yet to finish analyzing the results, so stay on the lookout for those.
I visited Anderson Urban Farm, a neat community garden space owned by the township's Historical Society. They have 36 garden plots that townships residents can rent and a chicken coop cared for by community members. They are planning to reinvigorate their worm bin and agreed to partner with us as a drop off spot in the coming months.
If I had to sum up April in one experience it would be selling worm castings. Between March and April, I sold 100 gallons of worm castings--my whole stock. Thankfully as long as the worms keep eating, they keep pooping, so more worm castings are on the way. However, I was shocked to sell out! I expected the worm castings to take at least a few months to gain interest, like the compost collection service did, but this was not the case. I figure it's a good problem to have, since it means I need more food waste.
Next month we will be selling castings, potting soil mixes, and offering compost collection at the Loveland and Montgomery Farmer's Markets (Tuesdays and Saturdays). If you are in the area, come check us out!
Fun Fact: Eisenia, the genus name of the European Nightcrawler and Red Wiggler, is also the genus name of a brown alga.
Happy Spring everybody! With the changing of the seasons, work at Back2TheDirt has picked up. This month we composted 305 lbs and added two new compost members (welcome!). March marked tax season and grant season for us. Thankfully after many hours and one very late night, I was able to finish all the paper work--whew! Nothing like living for a deadline.
With the paperwork out of the way, I was able to focus on getting our soil products ready for spring. At the end of the month, we launched our new line of potting mixes. Check them out on our "Soil Mixes" page. They all use coconut coir and worm casting as their base and are hand mixed to give your plants the best start. It's been fun turning the office into a soil testing lab. Next up will be developing a compost tea recipe and dabbling in worm breeding.
We also have worm castings available. I've had worm casting orders coming in every week now, and it gives me such a sense of glee to have an order pop up on my phone. Although this inevitably comes with it's own set of unknowns. I will have to figure out how much I'm producing worm-casting wise monthly and figure out a sustainable rate of harvest. I am also planning to use next month to better quantify the effects of my castings. I've set up an experimental seedling trial comparing different rates of worm castings (0%, 25%, 50%, 100%). I'm excited to grow plants again and to see the castings in action. They are set to wrap up by the end of April, so be sure to check back in to see the results.
This month I also had the opportunity to speak at Gorman Heritage Farm about vermicomposting. Not only was it good to return to a place that taught me the joys and healing of farm work, but it made me smile to see a packed room of people that chose to spend their Sunday afternoon learning about composting with worms. My hope is that in the next decade composting at home will become the norm and worms are a great option for those with limited space. For anyone thinking about trying it, go ahead give it a shot!
Fun Fact: Earthworms are not native to North America. During the ice age, many native worms were killed off. The worms we find in our backyard today were brought over during European colonization.