Closing the loop

Thursday was a closing the loop kind of day. It started with a monsoon of rain at the Worm Farm, and ended with a fine talk by Michael Pollan. In between were composting moments, food moments and more.

At the Worm Farm, I loaded up lids for the Aerated Composting System that the City of San Francisco had ordered, and that I was going to install for them at noon.

The bins themselves (shown above) had arrived a couple of days earlier. I connected the fan system, the manifold and with a few turns of the screwdriver their new system was in place and ready to receive it’s first load of manure. They are going to compost horse manure from the stables in Golden Gate park. They will use the finished compost for enhancing soil structure and making compost tea. I am hoping their next step is to buy a VermiComposter CF, and make their own VermiCompost!

Next it was off to Marin Academy in San Rafael. It is an incredible school with a beautiful garden and a food waste composting system that is in place. They invited me to give them a presentation on how they might improve their composting and see if worms could be part of the solution. It was great to see involved students, faculty and parents gather around and listen so attentively to a guy talk about worms!

We designed our Aerated Composting System and our VermiComposter CF to help a campus, a small farm, a vineyard, or a horse farm close their organic waste loop and source the nutrients for their farm, from their farm.

Our story comes full circle, by way of scoring some fine seats from the folks at Marin Academy, for a talk that Michael Pollan was giving that evening at the Marin Civic Auditorium. If you haven’t had the pleasure of hearing him speak, you should treat yourself to one of his talks if he is in your neck of the woods. He writes books, and articles about food, and what it means to us as people individually and to the country as a whole.

His talk showed us how our industrialized food system, has created a food mess, an energy mess and a health crisis, all in the way we eat. Yes, our food is cheap, however we more than make up for the savings in our increased use of foreign oil, our increased obesity rates and our lack of good food choices.

He advocates eating more locally grown produce. Eating more of plant based diet. Eating less meat. Growing your own food. He showed us a slide that showed a $70 investment in a garden payed back $600 worth of food. We all know that there is nothing on this earth as tasty as a home grown tomato!

His talk made so much sense, and left us with a feeling of hope. Things can change. People can change. We can grow more of our own food, buy food grown closer to home. Support local businesses. Cook a meal, and then sit down and enjoy that meal with family and friends. Retooling the way we do food can help us rebuild community, both in our own homes and in our cities as well.

There is a growing movement of people who want to grow good healthy nutritious food. There is a need to rebuild not only our soils, but our communities as well. We are happy to be a part of the change.

‘Join the Underground Movement’

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Our New ‘Baby’

It is almost here! For several years now, people have been wanting to use our technology and produce their own Vermicompost. We listened and are now almost finished with our first pre-production model. The ‘baby’ is about to be finished; hopefully this week.

Our first ‘baby bin’ will be 5 feet wide and 10 feet long. It is a commercial unit with a strong drive and motor. It will bring years of service with its tried and true design. A pre-compost phase is also part of our process.

We see the ‘baby’ going to farms, colleges, universities, the Google campus. Anywhere there is a desire to close the nutritional loop. Why haul away compostables when the worms can do the job for you. Use the vermicompost on site to plant trees, gardens or make your own Vermicompost tea. Close the loop we say!

Stay tuned! More soon!

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Worm Farm Red wins Gold!

A friend called and left the following message… ‘Congratulations on your Gold Medal at the Vintage festival for the Lolo’s blend Syrah…….’

A couple of days later, a package came in the mail, and sure enough, a Gold Medal was there, along with tasting notes of our 2006 Estate Syrah, Lolo’s Blend.

In August I had dropped of some bottles to be judged at the ‘2008 Valley of the Moon Vintage Festival, Amateur Wine Competition’. The wines were to be judged by professional wine makers. I wanted to see how our wines would be received.

One judge wrote ‘This wine is awesome, a great effort’, another said the aroma and bouquet was ‘Classic Syrah’. A third said the taste, texture and flavor were ‘Complex and Velvety’.

As any winemaker will tell you, ‘To make good wine, you need to start with good grapes’. The secret to our grapes – Worms, Vermicompost  and Vermicompost teas.

Back in 2002, when we planted our vines, a cup of Vermicompost was added to each vine at planting. 400 vines were planted this way. As a control, we planted 32 vines with no Vermicompost. Of those 32 vines, 8 died, for a mortality rate of 25%. We lost 2 vines in the other 400; a mortality rate of .005%.

Vermicompost teas have been used as a drench, feeding the plants directly at the drip line. We have also used Vermicompost tea as a foliar spray to control powdery mildew and enhance our canopy.

It is my belief that these vineyard practices have led to our great tasting grapes. This fruit then goes on to make award winning wines.

Oh yes, the worms… They are at the core of it all. Processing our organic pre-composted dairy manure, and turning it into nature’s gold – Sonoma Valley Worm Farm Vermicompost. Give some to your vines or garden. They will love you for it!

You might even win an award or two…

Join the Underground Movement !

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Worm Rhythms

The worms are slow to appear this year. They don’t exactly hibernate, but they do ‘go down’ and take a rest.

It usually starts in mid-December. The weather here starts to turn cold, the warmed compost that we feed will just not warm the bed any longer. The worms dive down to the warmest part of the bed. We think of it as their Christmas holiday.

The past several years they have started to become active in the later part of January. Here we are coming up on the third week in February, and they are just waking up. It seems they are not the only one’s to be still. A bee keeper told me that he had lost a hive due to cold this winter. A teacher called this morning and said her turtle was still in hibernation.

The daffodils came up on schedule, but the worms and turtles still need a little time. It reminds me that we are dealing with nature, and the natural world keeps it’s own time.

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Buying the Worm Farm

I recently did an interview with Bentley Christie who has an excellent site on all things worms,  He asked me how I came to be interested in worms. What follows is that story

A friend of mine had visited the ‘Worm Farm’, and said ‘You need to go out and visit this place’. He didn’t really say much more than that. Being a gardener I sort of intrinsically knew that worms were good for the soil, but that was about it. I went out to the ‘Worm Farm’, and met Earl Schmidt who had been running the place since 1970. My first visit with Earl was in the summer of 1992. Earl was an interesting fellow from a small town in Minnesota, who had come to California to become a mink farmer. The mink business went to Russia, and Earl, who loved to fish, thought he would open a bait business.

The ‘Worm Farm’ had first been a small chicken ranch, built in 1959. It had 7 sheds that were 15′ wide, about 90′ long, with low ceilings and open sides. By 1970 the chicken business was gone, but there was a good supply of chicken manure still in the sheds. Earl rented the sheds and inoculated the rows of chicken manure with red worms. He slowly built up a bait business and over time had a nice little business going for himself. The fellow who had the chicken business sold the 5 acre parcel to Earl in the early ’70’s.

On my first visit with Earl I bought a 5 gallon bucket of worms for my compost bins. I went right home and put half the bucket in a bin of almost finished compost, and half in a bin that had cooled off, but was still pretty fresh. I then packed my bags and went off to fly a trip as an airline pilot, not even thinking much about the worms. I was gone for 5 days. The morning after I returned I went out to the garden and couldn’t believe my eyes when I looked into my two compost piles. Worms were everywhere! They had made the almost finished compost black and crumbly, and had turned the fresher material into a much finer looking compost. It was the transformational moment for me. I was hooked.

I went back out to the ‘Worm Farm’ and started just hanging out with Earl. I asked him if I could help him pick worms and just spend time with him. He seemed to welcome the help and I had a great time learning what I could about these amazing little red earth machines.

One day Earl and I were picking worms and I asked him what he liked to do in his spare time. He told me he liked to fish, but never had the time to go fishing. I turned to him and said ‘Then why don’t you sell me this place, and you can retire and go fishing?’. He said he would think about it and let me know. On my way home I thought to myself ‘what are you getting yourself into here’. I had a wife and two young daughters and we lived in a nice home, close to their school and here I wanted to buy an aging, some would say dilapidated, property that needed a lot of work. I guess you could call it blind love. I fell in love with the ‘Worm Farm’ and wanted to have a place in the country. I told my wife, an artist, that one of the outbuildings could become her studio and that we would fix up the house. Earl decided to sell the place to us, and my adventure as a worm farmer began.

I should also clearly state that I had no idea what I was doing, or how I would make this all work. My first inkling that I might have gotten in over my head was when our contractor for the house came down to the worm farm one afternoon and said “Dude, you have a lot of work to do down here.” Then he turned around and went back up to the house. He had no idea how right his words would prove to be.

One thing I would like to interject here is that I think having no background in the worm business turned out to be a good thing. It allowed me to see things with a fresh perspective and new ‘eyes’, so to speak. Mary Apelhof, a dear wonderful woman, had published ‘Worms eat my garbage’, and I thought that worms could have a future in the composting world. Ohio State University and Dr. Clive Edwards was just beginning to publish papers that showed the value of worm castings. So, I felt like I was on to something that might have a good future, and would help people grow better food.

I also found that my other job, as an airline pilot, helped me in ways that I would see later. In flying we do things in a very organized prescribed manner. We use checklists and have procedures memorized so that we can safely fly an airplane with people we have never met before. The discipline I found at the airline has served me well at the Worm Farm. That part of the story will realize itself down the road. I can’t emphasize enough how one career has enhanced the other.

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The Garden

The Mexican Sage is spectacular right now. You can see the Dahlias to the right, and rows of Zinnias to the left. Hummingbirds zipping around. A covey of Quail running here and there. The garden is a riot of color, diversity and health.

The garden beds were originally worm beds. The former owner, Earl Schmidt, had started 90 foot windrows of cow manure. He inoculated the windrows with worms, and they went to work. Over the years they turned the manure into worm castings.

About 1975 a friend of Earl’s returned from Europe with some Yukon Gold potatoes in his pocket. Earl put the potatoes in some of the beds, and they flourished. There are rows and rows of potatoes, which reside in the beds year round. Their flavor is incredible.

Perhaps the most amazing part of this story, is the fact that these potatoes have stayed in these beds consistently for 30 years with no disease pressure. A friend who grows potatoes in Washington has all kinds of disease pressure if he plants potatoes successively in the same field.

We have seen the same results on other garden plants. The peppers, squash, tomatoes, flowers are all disease free. We spray no chemicals. There is just a natural balance and health in the soil.

We now have our worms growing inside in our continuous flow reactors. We have developed a system for making high quality worm castings (vermicompost really). The outside worm beds have all been converted to garden beds.

We shall get our first frost in the next couple of weeks. The garden will retreat into winter. Thoughts of next year’s garden will then start to germinate…

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Fall is for making Wine…

Another of my passions is growing grapes and making wine. We have a small vineyard at the worm farm; 432 vines on about 3/4 of an acre. We grow two different clones of Syrah, 470 and 383. The 470 is a fruit forward grape, that was sold to us for it’s ‘intense’ flavor. We were told to not plant too much, because the intense flavor might overpower the wine! The 383 clone has more traditional Syrah traits; beef and tobacco notes with a depth not found in the 470.

We planted the grapes in 2002. A cup of vermicompost went into each hole. On 32 vines we added no vermicompost and we lost 8 of the vines, for a 25% rate of loss. We planted the other 400 vines with a loss of 2 vines, or .005%. The vines receiving the vermicompost were stronger and more robust in their first and second years of growth.

Instead of using sulfur for powdery mildew control, we use our vermicompost tea. The vines love the tea. The canopy this year was full and even, and the grapes did not develop any powdery mildew. We used 100% vermicompost for our compost tea brew. We also drenched the vines with tea. As you can see in the picture above the grapes looked just beautiful and tasted even better.

We are now fermenting our two batches of Syrah. We will be pressing the 470 this week, and the 383 in about a week and a half. Both wines are full flavored with a nice roundness. These wines will get blended into ‘Lolo’s Blend’, and ‘The Big Dawg’. These are the blends that make up our ‘Worm Farm Red’.

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Trip to the Dairy

Took Big Red out to the dairy today. The dairy is owned by the folks at Straus Dairy. They produce organic milk, and assorted dairy products. Albert Straus is the overseer of the business. A good man with a good heart. Here is a link to their site .

Being an organic dairy, means that the dairy manure the cows produce is also organic. This is the raw material we compost and then feed to our worms.

The truck is a 1968 International Harvester dump truck. It has a flat head six cylinder engine that produces all of 165 hp. We found it at an auction. It had been faithfully maintained on a farm here in Sonoma for about 45 years. She is a good old truck with a wonderful horn. In fact, the sound of the horn was worth the cost of the truck.

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