Peek inside the 10,000-square-foot barn of Felicity Farms near Hallsville and you’ll see several long, dark mounds of cow manure, but nothing that would indicate what kind of farming goes on.
Beneath all that manure, however, are thousands of pounds of red wiggler worms, whose primary purpose is to eat, then excrete a nutrient-rich compost material called castings that is used as an additive to soils.
Gerald “Poo” Gaylord and his partner, Laurie Trask, who own Felicity Farms, began raising the worms in December 2003 after they were told it would be a good business opportunity.
“A friend of a friend saw it on the Internet as a fast money-maker,” Trask said. “We didn’t really study it at all. We just jumped in.”
To accommodate the worm-raising operation, Gaylord and Trask built an extension to their existing barn. They then began accepting shipments of cow manure from the MU Dairy Farm. The manure is free, except for the hauling charges, and it has been washed to eliminate excess salts and urine.
“We take the manure from the university that they don’t want anyway,” Gaylord said, “and turn it into a marketable product.”
But Gaylord and Trask admit that in the two years of what they call “the institute of global worming” has been in business, the market has been sporadic at best. The worms go for $18 a pound, and Gaylord and Trask will even deliver them to your door.
Still, production costs continue to exceed the couple’s profits.
“We have a few buyers that buy 100 pounds of worms at a time,” Trask said. “And local people buy some here and there.”
Part of the problem is geographic. While vermicomposting — the official name of composting with worms — is big in California, Texas and a few other warm-weather states, it’s still a relatively limited practice in Missouri, where the climate is less than ideal.
“The weather is the limiting factor for Missouri,” said Dennis Hansen, planning unit chief of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources’ Solid Waste Management Program. “It is hard to create a controlled environment.”
The optimal temperature for red wiggler worms is 70 degrees, forcing Gaylord and Trask to heat the floor of their barn in winter. If not happy with their environment, Trask said, the worms will attempt to escape. Once, Gaylord recalls, he overheated the barn, with predictable results.
“The worms were jumping out of the beds,” he said. “I found some six feet up on the wall.”
Other than manure, the worms’ only other need is water. The worms are fed and watered every week in the summer and once a month in the winter. Gaylord and Task pump water out of a nearby lake and lightly mist the mounds before or after feeding. A large slotted, metal machine in the shape of a tube, called a separator, is used to harvest the worms. The separator sifts out the worms and unwanted material, while shaking rich compost onto the floor below. The worms are then sold or returned to the mounds, and the compost is bagged or stored.
Gaylord and Trask sell five-pound bags of compost for $7.50, although bulk purchases are cheaper by the pound. The financial future of the farm will probably rest more on composting sales than worm sales, Gaylord said.
“It’s really more of a composting business than a worm business,” said Gaylord. “If it ever starts moving, I think the compost will be the money-maker.”
Paul Hepperly, a research manager of the Rodale Institute in Kutztown, Pa., which specializes in organic agriculture, said a worm operation is similar to other small businesses. It requires patience and time.
“It takes about five years before you actually start making money,” said Hepperly. “The success depends on the markets for the end products.”
Vermicomposting is increasing in popularity in the Columbia area, said Kristine Gardner, a volunteer coordinator with the Columbia Public Works Department.
“I think that as landfills become fuller,” Gardner said, “there will be more focus on worm production and vermicomposting.”
Although Gaylord and Trask said worm production is hard work, they don’t see that as a negative.
“There is a lot of manual scooping,” said Gaylord with a knowing nod. “We don’t really mind manual labor. It keeps you healthy.”
And even though they aren’t making much money, the couple see several advantages to having a barn full of worms.
“I always have castings on hand, I have worms to go fishing any time I want, and I get to stay on the farm,” Gaylord said.
The business has also helped Gaylord and Trask understand a rare agricultural sector in Missouri. As far as the future of worm selling, they’re taking a wait-and-see attitude for now.
“We’ll try it another year for sure,” Gaylord said. “If they don’t boom, I’ll move the worms out and do something else in this building.”