To hear Christie tell it, a worm farm is a pretty ideal small business. It doesn't require much space because a pound of worms -- about a thousand creepy-crawlies -- needs only a square foot of surface area. They live in bins that are easy to make at home, and they're relatively self-sufficient, too, since they eat food scraps and don't need to be cleaned up after.
Christie sells many of his worms for fishing bait, animal feed and natural fertilizer, but an increasing number are purchased by people who use them at home for composting kitchen garbage.
Christie's interest in vermicomposting started as a "kooky" hobby, he says, back when he worked at an environmental consulting firm where red worms were being used for lab testing. He noticed one day that his colleague kept some of the worms in a bin under the desk to compost her lunch scraps.
"Seeing how they were converting her lunch scraps into beautiful black gold won me over in an instant," he remembers. "She ended up sending me with a bunch of worms that same day."
More Worms, Less Waste
In 2010, Americans produced almost 4.5 pounds of waste per person per day. Worms can help reduce the amount of that waste ending up in landfills by eating garbage such as food scraps, tea bags and even your junk mail, and converting it into rich fertilizer for your garden.
For beginners, Christie suggests starting off with just a pound of worms so that you can see how quickly they eat (they also tend to multiply very quickly, so it's safer to start off small). If kept in an optimal environment, worms can devour up to half of their weight in a day.
Rob Dumouchel set up his first worm bin a month ago and hasn't had any trouble. "Give them somewhere dark and moist to live, add something good to eat, and they take care of everything else from there," he says. He had a few escapees the first night, but he chalks that up to not setting up the container correctly. So far, his crawlies seem to be especially fond of coffee grounds.
Farming Worms for Fun and Profit
For budding worm-preneurs, the business of raising the wigglers can be "quite profitable," Christie says. Startup costs are low, and worms can double their numbers in about 90 days. In Canada, he sells a starter kit containing two bags of worms, cocoons, and culture for about $40 for two bags, and he ships worms all over the U.S. for $36 per pound. "They are pretty tough," he says, though he encourages recipients to keep a lookout for their mail when they're expecting an order, lest the worms get too dehydrated.
Red worms, European nightcrawlers and white worms are all good for vermicomposting and reasonably weather-hardy; Christie keeps his red worms outdoors in protected beds all year round.
When he's not raising worms, he maintains a website, Red Worm Composting, with just about everything you need to know for trying it at home (and quite a few things you'd wish you didn't -- "worm tea," anyone?)
Christie's advice to first-time worm farmers is to focus on the creatures' comfort: "There's no such thing as too much quality bedding."