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Vermiculture at GMC
The buckets, filled with shredded paper and populated with worms, can become mini soil-producing machines with proper care and feeding. A liquid waste by-product the students call "compost tea," a nutrient-rich liquid named for its brownish color, collects in the plastic bottles. When diluted with water, the tea also makes an excellent liquid fertilizer.
In nature, earthworms play a vital ecological role. They consume organic matter on the ground surface and leave behind “castings,” an unparalleled organic fertilizer. Their movements mix and aerate the soil. One scholar has estimated that a single earthworm can produce one-third of a pound of fertilizer in a year. In a healthy garden with lots of worms, this translates into 50-75 pounds of fertilizer a year in a 10’ by 20’ plot.
Vermiculture tries to domesticate this process by turning household waste into a soil that’s richer in nutrients and contains fewer pathogens than that produced by a regular backyard composter. Vermiculturalists most often use species called red wigglers or red earthworms which seem especially adaptable to indoor composting operations and can be ordered online for about $20-$30 per batch.
At GMC, students are grappling with administrative challenges as well as basic biological facts when introducing vermiculture to neophytes.
“Doing it right takes some time,” said Dunn, a sophomore Renewable Energy and EcoDesign (REED) major from Henniker, N.H. who has been practicing the art and science of vermiculture for the past two years. “There’s a certain amount of commitment required. If you add the wrong things to the bins, the worms won’t thrive and you can end up with a smelly mess.”
Nicole Harman, a sophomore from Machias, Me., who has a double major in REED and sustainable agriculture & food production, works as the student manager in the sustainability office. She and her colleagues developed educational signage to help students identify what worms like and what they don’t like.
“Worms do really well with lettuce, fruit, vegetable scraps—the stuff that can get nasty pretty fast,” said Nicole. “But they can’t tolerate really acidic foods like onions and orange peels, or fatty meat scraps.”
The signs instruct students to throw one handful at a time of compost material into the bin, supplemented with a handful of shredded paper (newspaper works well). Individual food scraps should not be larger than the size of one’s thumb.
Dunn and Harmon work as consultants to students interested in adopting vermiculture in their residence halls. “We invite students to come in and learn about the process so they know what they are committing themselves to,” said Harman.
Because the bins needed to be monitored and emptied on a regular basis, she asks that students interested in starting a vermiculture bin volunteer in pairs. Already four pairs of students living on four different dormitory floors have signed up for the program.
Dunn likes the fact that the process is more of an educational exercise for the campus community than a mandatory recycling activity. The design of the bin, which uses clear plastic tubing and plastic bottles, makes the composting process literally transparent.
“In nature worms will rise to the surface in very rainy conditions,” Dunn explains. “They tend to work their way toward the nearest light source. If we see the worms in the bin moving through the plastic tubing and into the bottle, we know the system is too moist. By doing this you can really see how composting works and how it is applicable in everyday life.”
Under the right conditions it takes only 3-4 weeks for the worm population to double. In the same way bakers share their “starter” dough with friends to bake bread, vermiculturists spread their wealth in annelids to start new colonies. The GMC worm bins are populated with red wigglers descended from Witham’s home bin.