Compost business grows as the worm turns

By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Griswold - posted Tue., May. 17, 2011
Dean Fontaine pulls a handful of earthworms from their covered bed. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.
Dean Fontaine pulls a handful of earthworms from their covered bed. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.

It all started as a Father’s Day gift that was, to put it mildly, a little unusual. After all, how many men would be expecting 500 earthworms in a gift box?

But that’s how Dean Fontaine of Griswold got started in vermiculture – the care and feeding of earthworms. From that small start, his operation has grown to over two million of the creatures, which he’s raising for their “by-products” – castings that are rich in nutrients for plants and in high demand for organic gardeners.

“A worm will eat its weight in a day and they’ll poop out almost the same amount in a day,” said Fontaine. “It’s probably the only poop that’s almost odorless. It smells like dirt.” The castings serve as a soil amendment, not only adding plant nutrients but improving the texture, or tilth, of the soil, he said.

Many gardeners make compost in backyard bins, and this is a variant of that process. “To create compost you have to keep adding oxygen to it,” Fontaine said. With worms, “you don’t have to. The worms do it.”

Fontaine’s worms aren’t the common night-crawler variety, but a type called red wiggler, or eisenia fetida. Most native earthworms tunnel deeply into the ground, but not these. “These stay on top of the soil surface,” he said. “They’re not native to this area.” That behavior makes red wigglers ideal for compost production, he said.

Fontaine feeds his worms the same thing many gardeners “feed” their compost piles – any organic material that isn’t meat or dairy. He started using his own table scraps, but as the worms’ numbers grew he sought further afield. Now he collects outdated produce from grocery stores and eggshells and coffee grounds from Charlene’s Diner in Jewett City.

He grinds everything up in his garbage disposal before feeding it to his earthworms. “If I don’t grind it up, they would not be able to eat it,” he said. Grinding “creates more surface area for them to eat,” he said.

Raising earthworms has been a learn-as-you-go process for Fontaine. He kept his first batch in a covered (or so he thought) bin in his kitchen. “When I first got started, I forgot to read all the directions,” he admitted. “I went out one night and turned the light off. When I came back, they were all over the kitchen table. They’ll go for a walk if no lights are on.”

Since then, he’s done a lot of research on worms. “Thank God for websites,” he said. “And books.”

The worms are hermaphroditic – meaning all worms have organs for both sexes. “When they mate, they’re both pregnant,” said Fontaine. As a result, they multiply dramatically – in an optimal environment, their numbers can double in about three months.

As his earthworms multiplied, Fontaine expanded his operation to a dug-out insulated garage at his father’s house on Norman Road. He constructed several shallow 20-foot-long bins to serve as worm beds and lined them with mesh screening. The beds are covered with tarp-like sheets of building paper.

“As they eat, the [compost] gets finer and finer and it drops out the bottom,” said Fontaine. He uses a tubular device that he built himself, called a trommel screener, to filter out the remaining sticks or rough pieces and separate out the worms from their castings.

The finished worm compost contains 60 trace minerals and won’t “burn” plants, as do some animal manures, Fontaine said. It can be mixed with water to make a “worm tea,” which is useful as a spray for foliar (through the leaf) feeding of plants. “I’ve used it and I haven’t had to use any pesticides,” he said. “Worm castings produce a chemical that bugs don’t like.”

Fontaine said that while worm compost is widely used in California and Canada, and vermiculture is even practiced on a household scale in places like India, it’s a fairly new concept in the U.S. He’s beginning to market his compost commercially to organic farmers and gardeners via his website, www.dtwormfarm.com.


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