Worm casting business is alternative to dairying for former Watertown farmer

Gloria Hafemeister
Linda Meitner and Dan Trzinski check out the worms that have been separated out of the media and are ready to go back into a new mix of peat and grain to start the process of creating worm castings again.

WATERTOWN –  "Lush Farms produces organic worm castings which is a fancy way of saying we raise worms and sell their poop,” says Dan Trzinski, describing what he does for a living at his Watertown farm.

It’s not just any ordinary poop though. It’s odorless for a start. More importantly worm castings are regarded as the richest natural fertilizer known to humans. 

“Our worm castings and worm tea are great soil enhancements and the best way to grow plants organically,” Trizinski said.

Worm castings, he said, are officially called vermicast. After worms digest organic materials, they release waste from their bodies called castings. Vermicast is nature's organic fertilizer for gardens, lawns, fruit trees and house plants and they help strengthen plants against pests and disease.  

According to Trzinski, worm castings contain more nutrients and bacteria than any other fertilizer. This includes minerals such as nitrates, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium and calcium. The worm waste also contains manganese, copper, zinc, cobalt, borax, iron, carbon and nitrogen. The castings also contain enzymes and humus.

Besides producing and selling the castings, Lush Farms also sells composting worms for people desiring to raise worms for home composting or fishing.

Worms: No milking required

Trzinski grew up on a dairy farm in the Stevens Point area. When he and his wife were looking for some sort of farming business to get into he decided on worms because they don’t require a person to be there twice a day for milking. And the harvest season is ore flexible.

The idea for raising worms presented itself to the Watertown couple a few years ago while attending the Governor’s conference on tourism where they met a man who had horses and operated his business just three months out of the year. 

The gentleman was looking for ways to extend his income on the farm and came up with the idea of using horse manure as the basis for a composting mixture for the worms. At the same time, the concept of urban farming was starting to get attention and the horse owner discovered that those doing roof-top gardening were realizing better yields from gardens grown in limited amounts of soil by using worm castings.

The idea fascinated Trzinski and they began investigating how they could create a business that would work on their small farm and allow him to continue his work in the advertising world.

Dan’s wife, Leane Trzinski, and  Debi Arbvcias own the business. Debi’s husband, Anthony, and Dan enjoy working with the worms. Lush Farms also has help from neighbors and retired dairy farmers Richard and Linda Meitner. Linda says she never thought she would enjoy working with worms but has found it to be a fascinating business.

Linda Meitner retired from dairy farming and now spends several days a week helping at her neighbor’s worm farm.  Here she is monitoring the separation of the compost material, worm casting and worms.  Worms will then go back into the compost and begin the process of creating worm castings all over again.

“Our farm was originally an apple orchard that used typical herbicides and pesticides on a yearly basis," Trzinski said.  "We purchased the property and are committed to caring for the trees and fruit organically using worm castings and worm tea."

The farm sells its vermicast in 15-lb. bags all the way up to a semi-full using 1-ton bulk bags sold to commercial growers and wholesalers. 

Packs a nutritional punch

Worm castings contain more nutrients and bacteria than any other fertilizer. The nutritional powerhouse includes minerals such as nitrates, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium and calcium. It also contains manganese, copper, zinc, cobalt, borax, iron, carbon and nitrogen. Worm castings also contain enzymes and humus.

While plants derive nutrients and water from the soil, a single tablespoon of worm castings is able to feed a small potted plant for over 2 months. Trzinski says worm castings increases garden yields by as much as 25%.

Worms also remove toxic heavy metals from the soil, meaning their castings are heavy metal free. Trzinski says everything is laboratory tested to check for heavy metals and pathogens and verify it is a low pH.

Proprietary mixture

In order to feed the worms, workers begin with proprietary mixture of crushed grain containing 11 different grains that is added to a medium of peat. The worm feed mix sometimes contain a corn or wheat seed that is not crushed, resulting in sprouts. 

Within just two weeks time, the seed sprouts reach a height of 8-9 inches, assuring them of a healthy mixture, Trzinski says.

“We grind the grain so it doesn’t sprout,” said Trzinski, adding that worms need small pieces of feed to digest. "Compost worms typically eat the top two inches of the soil."

Metal bins specially made for the mixture are relegated to the remodeled barn that is kept at 72 degrees year round. While the old dairy barn is heated, the composting mixture also gives off some heat. The hatchery area inside the facility is kept at a warmer temperature.

Tracking worms

Worms will live 2 to 3 years and begin to breed at 16-18 months. Just like in the dairy business, the owners keep track of breeding dates. Worms are both male and female and to breed they simply need to touch up against each other for a period of time.

Worms produce cocoons which contain multiple fertilized eggs. Each cocoon can result in two to seven worms.

“At worst they will double in production and at best they will multiply seven times the original number,” Trzinski explained.

Quite the appetite

Each production bin holds approximately 6800 worms. Bins are heaped full of the feed mixture, and Trzinski says the worms eat 85% of the content.

“Worms eat 1–1 ½ percent of their body weight every day. If too many worms are in a bin they eat less and breed less, so we monitor the environment and keep it at the amount that works best.”

Special metal bins are filled with a mixture of peat and grain and then monitored for temperature to help the worms multiply and produce the valuable worm castings.

The lights are kept on in the building in order to keep the worms below the surface.  

“If it is dark in the barn, the worms will crawl out and cover the barn floor just like the night-crawlers come out at night, Trzinski said. "Unfortunately that would bring birds into the building.”

Harvesting castings and more

After the worms have consumed grain for two weeks, the bins housing the worms are dumped onto a conveyor that takes them through a screen drum, separating out the leftover over material (which is saved to start the next bin) and the worms. A fine screen below sifts all of the castings which are then elevated on a conveyor and dropped into a large tote for shipping out. 

Trzinski says there are two totes in place at all times. When is filled they can remove it and replace it with an empty one while the other one is filling.

The worms gathered in the process are placed in a plastic tub and used to re-seed in the starter and start the whole process over again.

Linda Meitner’s job is to separate the worms that go back into the mix. 

“Worms huddle together when they are cold. If they get dry they will suffocate because worms breathe through their skin," she said. "That’s why we sometimes see dead worms on the sidewalk because they come out at night but don’t get back under ground where it is moist.”

When the process is started over again part of the recycled compost is placed in the bottom of bin. Worms are scattered in clumps inside and then covered with the mixture of grain and some compost. Though the worms are clumped together and lying very still, as soon as they are covered they begin moving around, even causing the surface of the mixture to move.

A conveyor system carries the composted mix through a separation tube that sifts out worm castings and separates the worms from the remaining material.

Meitner weights and records the worms as they come out of the sorting process keeping careful records of the process.

While they have the capacity to run every day, the harvesting process runs just two days a week. However, the equipment is in place that would allow them to increase production as sales increase.

“The equipment is costly and very specialized. We can process 8-10 bins and hour as we are now operating,” says Anthony Arbvcias, who is credited for helping to plan out the whole processing system.

“When we started, we laid out the plans for the old barn and changed and altered them 10–12 times before actually designing and installing the system,” he added.