Farming for Worms in Oregon

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Cattle, wheat... and now, worms. As of July 27, Oregon is designating worms as a crop along with major farm commodities, acceding to the lobbying of an Oregon City worm farmer. Host Melissa Block talks with worm farmer Dan Holcombe, who owns and operates Oregon Soil Corporation, a vermilculture, or worm-farming company.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

These are good times to be a worm farmer in Oregon. The governor has just named vermiculture an official form of agriculture in the state, so worms will join cows, hay, wool and bivalve mollusks as a tax-exempt farm product. And that has made Dan Holcombe in Oregon City a happy man.

Mr. Holcombe, you are a worm farmer?

Mr. DAN HOLCOMBE (Worm Farmer): Yes.

BLOCK: And tell me about your worms.

Mr. HOLCOMBE: Tell you about my worm. OK. We raise a variety called Eisenia foetida, which is a manure worm or a composting worm. We're not in the business at the time, you'd say, to buy and sell worms; we're in it to process organic waste materials with worms and produce a product called worm castings...

BLOCK: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HOLCOMBE: ...which is a real high-grade organic soil amendment.

BLOCK: Give me a quick sense, if you can, of just how vermiculture works. What are these worms doing exactly?

Mr. HOLCOMBE: Well, they process the material that we put in. Right now we've been using food waste because we tried to introduce vermiculture as a viable alternative to landfill and other waste issues. So we've been using produce, and we mix the produce with compost and try to achieve the cow pie without the cow.

BLOCK: Hmm.

Mr. HOLCOMBE: And then we spread this in a layer over the systems that we've designed and researched, and then they process the material for the biology, for the bacteria, so they control the pathogens. And then their castings are full of beneficial biology, beneficial plant biology.

BLOCK: So the castings--that's what the worms leave behind.

Mr. HOLCOMBE: Right.

BLOCK: OK.

Mr. HOLCOMBE: Right.

BLOCK: I don't know how you'd ever calculate this, but do you have any sense of how many worms you have on your farm?

Mr. HOLCOMBE: Well, in the one system that we have up and running now, there's 640 square feet. So if there was four pounds in the cubic foot underneath the square foot, then four times six--there's about 2,000, maybe 3,000 pounds of worms in the one system that's eight feet by 80 feet.

BLOCK: Two thousand pounds?

Mr. HOLCOMBE: Two or 3,000 pounds, yeah.

BLOCK: Yeah. And how many worms per pound do you figure?

Mr. HOLCOMBE: Oh, there's between 11 and 1,200 worms per pound, depending on the size. You know, you have adults and you have juveniles and...

BLOCK: Am I doing the math right here? Do you have two million worms on your property?

Mr. HOLCOMBE: Oh, probably. We've never actually counted them, but we do core samples occasionally, and we're maintaining a three- to four-pound-per-square-foot population.

BLOCK: Now that worms are considered an official agricultural product in Oregon, how does that help you? How does this law make your life easier?

Mr. HOLCOMBE: Well, primarily, it gets me onto what they call exclusive farm use zoning, so I don't have to locate on commercial or heavy industrial property. So it saves me money on the purchase of a place to do this.

BLOCK: Well, it sounds like this new law in Oregon is pretty much your baby. This was for you.

Mr. HOLCOMBE: Yeah, it was. I was the only one trying to push it at the time, yeah.

BLOCK: How did that feel?

Mr. HOLCOMBE: Well, it feels good. I got something done.

BLOCK: And the worms are happy.

Mr. HOLCOMBE: Oh, yeah, they're always happy, as long as you feed them.

BLOCK: Dan Holcombe, thanks so much.

Mr. HOLCOMBE: You're welcome.

BLOCK: And best of luck with your worms.

Mr. HOLCOMBE: Well, thank you.

BLOCK: Dan Holcombe is a worm farmer in Oregon City, Oregon, a state that has just declared vermiculture an official form of agriculture.

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