Califonia Bountiful

It's a bountiful life: The wonderful world of worms

July/August 2016 California Bountiful magazine

Farmer turns waste into fertilizer with millions of helpers

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Jack Chambers is a worm farmer in Sonoma. His millions of "livestock" munch through waste from dairy cows, turning it into rich compost sought by nearby winegrape growers and home gardeners alike. 

Retired airline pilot Jack Chambers has traveled all over the world and could have moved anywhere, he said, but he chose the town of Sonoma in 1984. While the appeal of Sonoma doesn't surprise people, Chambers' choice of second career often does. He's a worm farmer. Since purchasing Sonoma Valley Worm Farm in 1992, Chambers has grown the enterprise into something much more: TerraVesco, where he uses millions of worms to turn dairy manure into a nutritious fertilizer.

What does it take to become a worm farmer?

This is like any endeavor. I think someone has to have a watchful eye. You are dealing with livestock, essentially. We have about 40 million worms that we are taking care of right now. They need to be given an environment where they are well-fed, where they have the right amount of moisture, where they are warm enough in the winter and not too hot in the summer.

At TerraVesco, the worms are actually secondary to their byproduct. How did that come about?

I was really interested in the worms at first, but after a while I learned that the real product is the vermacompost that the worms make. What we do is take separated dairy solids from an organic dairy and we precompost them to get rid of pathogens and weed seeds. We feed that to the worms, and they chew through it for a period of months. We feed that to the top of the beds and it will come out the bottom of the beds as an enriched microbial soup. The soil is alive with these nutrients.

Who comprises your customer base?

We have a wide range of customers—from the largest vineyards in the Napa Valley to homeowners in the Bay Area. Our tagline is "Feed the Soil." We tell people that when they are planting a vine, to put a cup of the product right in the hole next to the roots. It will help change a clay soil into a more loamy type of soil. It helps get these plants off to a really good start.

What kind of worms do you work with?

There are about 3,000 types of worms all over the world. There are tropical worms, burrowing worms. The worms we have are called red worms. They are composting worms, so they need a lot of material to process. That is their role in nature.

How do visitors react when they see all these worms? 

When people come, you can see it immediately: They are either with you or they are not. It goes across gender, it goes across age. We sell to a lot of vineyards, and I remember one day a vineyard manager came over. I put my hand in and scooped up a handful of worms. I asked if he wanted to put his hand in and he said, 'Oh no, no.' And then I have had little girls show up and stick their hands right in, and I have had little boys that don't want to and little boys that do.

What does vermacompost cost?

When someone plants a vineyard, it costs about 16 cents a cup. So, if someone plants a 1-acre vineyard and puts 1,000 vines per acre, it is $160 an acre. When you are spending $20,000 or $30,000 an acre to plant a vineyard in Sonoma or Napa county, $160 to add vermacompost is nothing. For the home gardener, we sell a 20-pound bag here for $25. 

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