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Worm poop becomes fertilizer

For Josh Burnham, raising and selling night crawlers turned into the sale of a natural fertilizer. He hopes other businesses will utilize and grasp the potential of the green movement. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI -- Earthworms are commonly used by fishermen to catch fish, but for Bemidji native Josh Burnham, it's the worms themselves that have the most value. ... It's their poop.

For two years, Burnham, 24, has been raising earthworms on his fourth-generation family land along the Mississippi. Being an avid fisherman, he decided he wanted to go into the worm business. He bought a few thousand worms in Racine, Wis., and began operations.

As the worms digested their food, Burnham and his grandma noticed how big the pumpkins on the edge of the property were. He said they were the biggest pumpkins any of his family had seen. The only thing that has changed on the land was the worm poop, so he began researching the poop as a fertilizer.

"When I first told my family that I wanted to grow earthworms, they looked at me and said 'wow, you're crazy,'" Burnham said. "But after I grew these big pumpkins, I looked into what earthworm castings really are and what could be causing this growth."

The process of creating compost out of organic materials such as earthworm castings (poop) is called vermiculture. The castings are filled with nutrients and bacteria that help plants grow. Burnham said the castings help promote healthy root systems while releasing minerals over time. The minerals released include concentrated nitrates, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium and calcium. He said the "green people" love the product because the worms not only eat the organic waste but then in turn help more organic plants grow, completing the cycle.

In terms of a fertilizer, worm castings also are more convenient because they do not have a smell like cow manure does, making it useful for indoor plants. The worm castings are also more stable than cow manure and do not heat up and kill plants like cow manure can do.

As an entrepreneur, Burnham saw a door open with vermiculture. In the spring of 2011, he expanded his worm farm, turning an old farmhouse into a home for 50,000 earthworms. He bought out Tom's Tackle in Baudette, which was starting to look into vermiculture, but did not know what kind of market there was in the area.

To collect the worm poop, Burnham created a ladder system, where the worms started in the bottom by eating the waste. The system was separated into three bins, each separated by a screen. As the worms digested their food and the castings collected in the bottom stage, the worms were lifted up to more waste to eat before reaching the top, leaving all their castings below them for Burnham to scoop out.

To separate the worm castings from the actual soil and the worms themselves, he created a shaker system, which looks much like a screen door laid flat and connected to a swing at an angle. To separate the poop from the dirt, Burnham used a ¼-inch screen, which allows the particle size of the poop to fall through and pushes the worms and the dirt off the end of the shaker. Initially, the system had to be shaken by hand but after Burnham found out how much work it was, he rigged a reciprocal saw and wired it to a light dimmer switch so the shaker would work on its own with an adjustable speed.

"I am kind of an inventor on the side," Burnham said. "That is what comes with being a farmer; you learn to jimmy rig and get by."

Within six months of collecting the castings, Burnham had collected more than 10 tons of worm poop.

The problem he ran into was the cost of keeping the worms warm enough to stay alive. He walked into the house one day and said it looked like spaghetti on the floor because the worms had died trying to escape and find heat.

"Worms are very resilient animals, they want to live, "Burnham said. "If their environment is too cold or they are not comfortable, they will get out."

Burnham was heating the farmhouse with a 250-gallon tank of diesel fuel, but at $4 a gallon, he had to make a choice between heating his own home and keeping the worms alive; he made the obvious choice. He saved 15 to 20 thousand worms by allowing them to become his roommates, taking over his bathtub.

The 10-plus tons of worm castings have not gone to waste, however, as he markets and sells the product in five-gallon buckets at both Lueken's Village Foods locations, Harmony Natural Foods Co-op, K&D Floral and Nature's Edge Green House. The buckets have "Headwaters Castings" written on the label and Burnham encourages people to return the buckets for a $3 refund. Originally the product was packaged in plastic bags, but because of the market and concerns about "'being green" by consumers he decided to package it in something that could be recycled.

Burnham said the castings can be used by mixing with regular potting soil or simply by top-feeding plants with it, spreading it around the base of the plants.

"It's more of a soil amendment," Burnham said. "A lot of people want to be able to take a product out of the bag, put it in their plants (and) put in their pots. One step all, but earthworm castings is an amendment; it's really an organic fertilizer and it releases nutrients over time."

He said the product should be used at a ratio of 30 percent castings and 70 percent soil.

Burnham said he is not getting out of the earthworm business, but he is looking for ways of educating people about vermiculture and creating partnerships with places that can make more of an impact than he can.

Two of those places are the Lueken's grocery stores and Bemidji State University. Burnham was using waste from BSU, which has a grinder that allows for vegetables and other materials to be broken, allowing for the worms to eat it easily. BSU produces 25 to 35 pounds of waste per day. The Lueken's stores produce anywhere from 150 to 200 pounds of waste per day.

Burnham has worked with the Sustainability Office at BSU, which hopes to have a vermiculture facility installed below Walnut Hall by fall semester. Burnham said the projects can be sustained essentially by themselves as soon as the staff is trained in. He does not intend on having any direct responsibilities with the operations but would like to find a bigger market for the poop so he can buy some of the estimated 40 tons of castings from the school and continue to market it.

"I love educating people and I love being around that environment," Burnham said. "I guess it's one thing for me as a person to take in waste from so many people, but I am really not making a big impact on the waste stream."

He also is looking for a way to expand the worm castings' use to include lawn care by creating a worm poop "tea" for the lawn.

"The bad thing is that it makes everything grow," Burnham said. "So if you have a dandelion problem, you will have a worse problem."

He is hoping to implement a system into golf courses that have their weed problem taken care of. The tea can be run right through the irrigation system as a natural fertilizer.

Burnham has been experimenting with the brewing system by getting the microorganisms from the castings into the water and giving them something to eat so they can continue to grow. This mixture of water and worm castings makes up the tea or fertilizer.

"The idea is to practice and get a good knowledge base of this on the five-gallon bucket scale and then take it to a 250-gallon tank."

Burnham said it is a win-win scenario to step away from the production of worm poop and instead educate people and find ways to market the product on a larger scale.