Guest Blogger Wednesday: Worm Poop Doesn’t Compute


This week’s post is written by Josh Banner, Eighth Day Farm board member, CSA member and avid vermicomposter.

Wendell Berry, the lovable, cantankerous, prophetic, novelist, poet, agrarian essayist, and Kentucky farmer writes in his poem, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,”

So, friends, every day do something

that won’t compute. Love the Lord.

Love the world. Work for nothing.”

Eight months ago I finally took the step of taking some of our savings and investing it in a few Roth IRAs and some other mutual funds. I needed my father’s help to make sense of it all. Income funds? Growth funds? Diversification? Aggressive versus moderate investment strategies? Once the money was put in each of its respective places, I kept checking the accounts on the internet to watch how the markets were affecting our money. Up and down. Back and forth. A seesaw. A tide pushing in and pulled out not by lunar movements, but by global economies and politics, and consumer buying habits, all behaviors that I can’t wrap my heart and mind around. I don’t watch the money online any more. It’s the long term growth after all, so Dad tells me.

Instead I’m excited about my worms. Red Wigglers, eisenia fetida, a worm just a bit thicker than the width of pencil lead that in the most ideal conditions can eat almost its total weight in a day. In ideal conditions the wigglers can double or triple in population every three months. They eat my produce scraps: banana peals, wilted lettuce, carrot tops, watermelon rinds…our trash. Bacteria breaks the food down to edible sludge that the worms can imbibe. In turn they poop out the richest organic fertilizer. Will Allen, the 2008 McCarthur Foundation Genius award recipient, founder and director of Growing Power in Milwaukee, explains: “I measure my wealth in pounds of worms.”

I grew up on a farm but have very little understanding of what makes plants grow let alone how to detect and treat various deadly fungi and threatening insects. Joel Saltin, owner and operator of Polyface Farm, says in his book The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer, that the trouble with modern farming methods is a focus on high yields, on the fruit of the labor, rather than on biomass that can replenish the soil’s nutrients. In essence we have come to see the soil as a kind of container that is used to prop up a plant’s root system and stem. The plant is then merely a straw that sucks out of the ground the sprayed on chemical fertilizers instead of the natural nutrients that would otherwise be abundant in healthy soil. In other words, the land is just a bank, a container that contains the chemical wealth that the plants withdraw in season.

Wendell Berry continues in his poem:

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

I’m not a good gardener though we had a better yield of tomatoes this year than last. A nice amount of raspberries, a few strawberries, pole beans, lettuce, peppers, some basil, but the production was meager compared to a few other backyard gardens I’ve watched flourish with a fraction of the space we have. I do and don’t care about this failure. The worms seem like a good place to start, a good investment. How can I hope to understand plant growth if I don’t understand soil quality?

I started with a bin of about 1000 worms, a pound. In a month I realized that I’d almost killed half of them. If I were patient like a good gardener, I would have slowed down and read the right information, and I would have learned that it is possible to overfeed. Worms can drown in the extra moisture of the food scraps. To save what was left I took the bin outside and in two hours I’d picked through the mass tossing aside the sagging, slimy bodies of the dead. I added some extra peat moss, some more bedding and slowed down the feeding. Now over a year later the worms must be in the numbers of 4-5000.

The worms need very little attention. I add food scraps. I drain the bin of leeched fluids, a worm compost tea ready for houseplants in the winter. I add bedding and in April I harvest the worm castings.

Worm poop. It doesn’t “compute” for a lot of people. Saving compost material seems gross to some let alone worms. Yet, there was a day when most people had to butcher their own chicken roasters. Now in our pre-packaged, plastic bagged and colorfully boxed foods, our shopping aisles and hygienic stores, worms don’t make sense especially for a person who doesn’t even know yet how to use their fertilizer well. It’s my feeble attempt at investing in the millennium, of trusting in plants that rot and mold and create a whole other kind of profit.