Entrepreneur feeds home growers’ market with organic worm castings

The microbe-rich fertilizer is product of a composting effort that includes 300 homes and businesses.

Using food scraps collected from over 300 households in Grand Rapids, Wormies produces organic, microbe-rich fertilizer for gardeners and an emerging industry of cannabis home growers.

Eight years ago, owner Luis Chen Aguilera was looking for a lifestyle change that included gardening and agriculture. The search got him into backyard composting, where he began to experiment with vermicomposting, or feeding food scraps to worms to produce an organic fertilizer.

“I figured, OK I’m going to try worms,” he said. “I did that for myself. I learned a lot. Soon I was doing it for my family and neighbors.”

Aguilera then was introduced to SpringGR, which encouraged him to turn his passion into dreams. The organization helped him form a business model and gave him a platform to share his idea with the community.

Aguilera began offering a food scrap pickup service for households and communities in 2017. The food scraps are fed to worms, which then turn them into probiotic-rich worm castings. Once he had a finished product, he started selling the worm castings as organic fertilizer at farmers markets.

“It was all about, ‘why isn’t our system of waste management done this way?’” Aguilera said. “Why is there a landfill having all these gases and methane and emissions? Why isn’t everyone composting?”

Wormies focuses on regenerating soils with animal waste, in this case the castings produced by worms.

Benjamin Oliver, who heads up business development and strategy for Wormies, said Aguilera’s approach is unique because it is richer in nutrients than other composting companies. Oliver became involved in Wormies because he was launching his own cannabis business and began using Wormies products for the soil.

“Anybody can make a pile of compost in their backyard, and yeah, if you do it right, you can get some good quality compost. But through Wormies … what you end up with is a product that’s much more rich in microbiology, fungal content and nutrients,” Oliver said.

Conventional composting is thermophilic, Aguilera said, meaning the bacteria thrive in extreme temperatures. Wormies uses thermophilia, but to add value to its product, it adds a mesophilic, or moderate-temperature step to the process, so the worms can survive in the pile.

The probiotic bacteria in the guts of the worms comes out through their castings, including growth hormones and enzymes to protect the plants from predators.

Additionally, keeping worms for composting comes with many variables, Aguilera said. Climate, source materials and inputs all factor into the quality of the finished product.

“The way I keep my worms is not the way someone in Florida would keep their worms,” Aguilera said. “I figure that’s one reason why this industry is not very big. It’s not standardized.”

Oliver added vermicompost already is in practice, but many large composting companies only feed their worms one raw input, like cow manure from large farms. Wormies carefully sources its inputs to avoid pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics and microplastics.

“We carefully source our other inputs, like manure from small farms that are organic, or if they use antibiotics, we know when they’re going to do that, so we don’t contaminate what we’re doing, which is very different from these large composting companies,” Oliver said.

“Because waste is so abundant nowadays, that’s why we can pick and just make high quality soil,” Aguilera said.

Wormies has diverted 750 cubic yards of waste, including food scraps from over 300 households and businesses in Grand Rapids, from landfills in the three-and-a-half years it has been operating.

Because of the potency of the worm castings, Aguilera said, users only need to mix one part vermicompost per four parts soil, or about 20%, for it to work, whereas conventional composts may require up to 50% or 70%.

“It’s a lot more expensive, but you only need a little bit,” he said.

Vermicompost also is a time-consuming process, and it takes at least eight months to produce worm castings. But in addition to its worm castings, Wormies offers a subscription for a weekly or bi-weekly food scrap pickup, which brings down the price of the finished product.

Products include half-gallon, four-gallon and 15-gallon bags of worm castings, as well as living soil, potting and gardening mixes, all available on thewormies.com.

Subscribers also receive a four-pound bag of worm castings for every eight pickups and 20% off all Wormies products. Customers also can choose, if they aren’t going to use their bag, to donate it to local organizations with which Wormies is involved, including Our Kitchen Table, Dwelling Place, Wormies Cascade YMCA and New City Neighbors.

Wormies still is in the startup phase, but Oliver said the company is at the point where it’s figured out its product lineup and is ready to introduce more products. Additionally, the company is excited to tap into an emerging market of cannabis home growers.

“We have people coming to us now, fairly frequently … wanting to have not just our castings, but also some of the soil mixes that we’re doing, in their small home grows,” Oliver said. “And we’re starting to get bulk orders, even, in that area as well.”

The end game is to hopefully get into large-scale farming once Wormies grows large enough to meet that scale.

“We started small, and with home growers that’s a great place to build your reputation,” Oliver said. “Those people are getting in the nitty-gritty, are experimenting and are passionate about it. So, as we establish ourselves in that market, we certainly expect to see larger operations also.

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