Technically worm farming is called vermicomposting or vermiculture, and it’s potentially very profitable. It’s also become extremely popular. It is a method of compost production that uses worms to assist the process.
People have come to realize that worm composting is good for the planet and also good for them. We all know that compost making, in any form, is environmentally friendly. By reducing food waste we are reducing the amount of waste ending up in landfills.
This is great in itself but compost making isn’t quick. It can take many months to break food waste down sufficiently to produce a viable composting product. This is where the worms come in. The addition of worms to the mix has many advantages. It makes the process much, much quicker.
More importantly, the fertility of the organic material passing through the worm’s intestine removes harmful pathogens and promotes beneficial bacteria. This means that the food is broken down into elements more easily absorbed by plants.
In some parts of the world, large scale worm composting is now being used as a way to dispose of the waste material from sewage plants. This is enabling harmful, potentially toxic human waste to be converted to organic fertilizer – a fertilizer with enhanced nutritional value and with harmful pathogens eliminated. All these benefits are produced naturally thanks to the humble worm.
In other less well-off countries, worm farming is being promoted as an effective way to raise the fertility levels in the soil. There is often plenty of labor available in such places, but little in the way of disposable resources with which to buy materials. Organic material is always available, whether it is animal dung, paper, leaves, or grass.
There are reports of people setting up worm farms using nothing more than discarded tires and stacking them. Not quite as sophisticated or efficient as our methods but an innovative and ideal way to start the set up initially for no cost and not a great deal of effort.
Vermicompost is an undeniably rich soil-conditioner, and it’s no wonder that it is often referred to as “black gold”. It improves the structure of the soil and increases the yield of the produce. Simple too – no need for chemicals or expensive packaging. It’s a prime example of “back to basics” in action. Lots of employees in the form of worms!
You can make your worm farm as small or as big as you like, depending on the amount of space and food supply available to you. You can start small and, over time, you can extend it.
With low start-up and negligible running costs, it’s an easy business to get into. In less than 6 months, you can start to sell your products to gardeners and fishermen alike – plus of course, you will have your own amazing compost and fertilizer for the garden! And did you know you don’t even have to dig in this super home-made compost? You can simply spread it on the soil, like mulch, and let the earthworms do the hard work for you.
A worm farm is low maintenance and a great way to reduce food waste. The worms offer an enormous benefit to the gardener because they produce both a natural fertilizer and also an effective pesticide. Worm poo, also called worm casting, is a fantastic, nutrient-rich, and organic addition to your garden soil.
Your plants will appreciate the tunnels made by the worms as their roots can reach extra moisture and goodness deeper in the soil.
Steps to Build a Worm Farm
So how do you start a worm farm?
It’s easy, eco-friendly, relatively cheap, and only requires 7 steps.
1. Location, Location, Location
Location is so important when raising worms. If you have the space to raise worms in your house, then that’s ideal because of the steady temperatures. The temperature of most homes will be within the worms’ tolerance levels of between 40-80°F.
If you can raise them in a kitchen cupboard, then that’s convenient for your fruit and vegetable scraps too. If your kitchen isn’t suitable or big enough, a basement is also fine. You do not want your worms in direct sunlight. So if there’s nowhere suitable in your house or it isn’t large enough, perhaps you have an old shed or garage?
If there is nowhere inside, then there is nothing wrong with putting your worm farm outside. You’ll just have to take a bit more care. If you have chosen an outdoor location to raise the worms, you might need some insulation to help protect your worms from the cold during the winter months.
You’ll need to keep them out of the rain too because although you need their bedding to be damp, it shouldn’t be soaked from the rain. You will also have to cover them to protect them from winged prey – you don’t want birds to come and steal all your pampered worms.
Worms will thrive at the above temperatures but won’t breed at temperatures under 46 or over 80°F.
2. A Home Fit for a …. Worm
There are three options here.
Purchase a compost bin. These ready-made vermicomposting bins can be a quick, convenient and easy way to start turning your food scraps into compost. However, remember, although they do work well, pre-made worm bins may not be the right size or shape for your situation, and they can be expensive.
Use a large old wooden drawer or crate. Drill holes in the bottom so the worm juice will drain out of it. This should be collected and saved since it makes a wonderful fertilizer for your plants.
Get hold of two 5-gallon plastic tubs, one lidded and one without a lid. They shouldn’t be transparent as worms are happier in the dark. They need to be at least 12-inches deep. If you have to buy them, they will not be expensive.
Make sure you wash them well even if they are new. Mark and drill out a series of small holes all around the top of one of the bins. Drill about 20 ¼-inch holes in the bottom of one of the bins. Leave the other bin with no holes. On the lid of the lidded bin, mark and drill enough 1/16-inch holes to provide some airflow. Then place a brick or small flower pot upside down in the tub with no holes.
Put the bin you have drilled on top. That way when they are stacked you will be able to keep them separate. The liquid that has accumulated will be able to drain away into the undrilled bin below. It is this liquid that can be harvested as worm tea which makes your excellent fertilizer. This is one of the most important parts of raising worms.
Remember worms will drown if the water doesn’t drain properly.
Here’s a video explaining how to set up a worm farm with plastic tubs:
3. Give Them Cosy Bedding
When creating worm bedding, you are basically making your compost. You can use items like shredded newspaper, torn up cardboard, leaves, other vegetable scraps, and just a couple of scoops of soil. Keep away from glossy color printed paper or cardboard. And if you add dried leaves, avoid any that contain a lot of oil or a strong scent.
The worms need the soil to process their food in the same way that chickens need grit. You need to add just enough water to make it damp, like a moist sponge, but it should not be wet.
A word of warning about using wood shavings. Personally, I don’t recommend the use of sawdust or wood shavings unless you are 100% sure that the timber has not been treated, varnished, or painted. It is difficult to be sure of this, as most commercial timber will have had at least one processing treatment applied to it.
The bin should be filled up about ¾ of the way and make sure you keep it fluffy and airy so the air can circulate properly. Ideally wait a couple of days before including the fruit and vegetable scraps as this will give the worms time to settle into their new environment.
4. Choose Your Worms with Care
A successful worm farm needs worms, of course. However, how many do you need? What sort of worms do you get? Where do you find them? Earthworms are the key to success, but not the ones you dig up in your garden. Some popular choices can eat half their body weight or more in just one day. And they do well in a compost container environment.
You may decide to start with 1000 earthworms which sounds like a lot, but it will only be a large handful. Usually, worms are sold by the pound weight and there are roughly 1000 in a pound. Eisenia Fetida are the worms commonly used as they adapt well to the composting environment. These worms reproduce rapidly and can regulate their reproduction rate according to how much food is available to them.
The recommended stocking density is 1lb of worms for 4-square-feet of bin surface area. It’s important to check that you are getting the species of worms you want. Buy your worms from a reputable supplier. Then you will know that the worms have been grown in a controlled, clean environment and are free from pests and disease. The worms should be clean, so you get the weight you order in worms, not soil.
You can buy your worms here. These are European nightcrawlers; they are the best fishing worm. And you can also use this species for composting. Check out your customer base before you invest in the worms. Will they be gardeners or fishermen? Of course, if you go with the European nightcrawlers, they are fine for both.
Finally, when you have chosen your worms and are ready to add them to the container, make sure you add some moist newspaper over them. Then take a few more sheets of newspaper, roll them up and tuck these sheets around the corners. This will form a seal so that the worms are safe and protected. This will help to protect them and keep them from escaping.
You don’t really need to worry about the worms escaping though. They will be happy burying themselves in the food scraps. They naturally seek out dark places so won’t want to find their way out anyway.
5. Feed Your Worms – But With Care!
Wait a couple of days before you give your worms any of your food scraps. Let them get used to their new home first. Worms have to eat but don’t overfeed them. They’re small, and if you give them too much, they won’t be able to cope. They won’t multiply immediately, and you will end up with a smelly worm bin. This can result in attracting pests to the worm bin.
The temperature of the decomposing food and organic matter can be raised to dangerous levels. This can be fatal to the worms. So one of the most important things to remember is to start gently. For the first few weeks, the worms will be getting used to their new home. It will be traumatic for them, so don’t expect too much at first.
If you have produced garden compost before without the addition of worms, you will know that this heating up process is essential and normal. However, not so in vermiculture. The worms are efficient at processing their food, and you can help them by chopping up their food into smaller pieces.
So what can you feed them, and how much do you feed them? This part’s easy. You want a 2:1 ratio. So for every 2lbs of worms, you need 1lb of food. Some species can even eat up to their own weight in food in just a day, so it’s really just trial and error at first. See how much and how fast the food is disappearing.
The key though is variety. And some of your food scraps like root veg and cabbage will take much longer to break down than overripe fruit. As for what you should feed them, just think you are making great compost because, in reality, that’s what you’re doing. You need all the browns from composting. If you need some help on things you can compost then read our article on what to compost.
Remember: Food scraps yes, but you don’t want to compost any meat, dairy, grains, or oily foods. No bones either. Most people advise no citrus to avoid making the compost acidic. However, there is a school of thought that the blue mold that occurs on rotting citrus fruits is actually beneficial as it helps the worms do their work.
Plant-based kitchen scraps like carrot skins, potato peels, or apple skins are good. Banana peelings are fine too, as are overripe bananas that are being tossed out. However, always chop up bananas and banana peel otherwise it will take the worms too long to get through the skins. Then the fruit will rot and attract fruit flies and other unwelcome pests.
You can also use ground-up eggshells or grass clippings to feed your worm farm. Worms love coffee grounds too. Keep in mind though, like grass clippings, coffee grounds are rich in nitrogen, so they heat up quickly and help to turn the pile into a beautiful dark, rich soil. So grass clippings and coffee grounds should be given in small quantities. Like so many things, balance is key to successful compost.
You’ll be able to see if you’ve got a good mix just by looking in the bin – you’re aiming for a good ratio of carbon to nitrogen. Newspaper, empty loo roll cartons, cardboard egg boxes or trays, leaf litter, and eggshells – all great food for your worms. Just take care not to use coated or colored paper.
You may find that on occasions you have a surplus of particularly high nitrogen matter, such as farmyard manure or grass clippings. It is not a good idea to add too much of this to the worm bin at once. There is a risk of it overheating and if it becomes too hot, this could jeopardize the worms’ survival.
What you can do though is to pile this organic matter up, away from the worm bin for a few days. This should be sufficient time for the heat to be produced and released naturally. At this stage, once it has cooled, it can be integrated into the composting bin safely as it will no longer pose any danger to the worms.
A family of 4 should have plenty of food scraps for your worms so don’t worry about that either. However, if you find yourself with no available food, or you’re going away, just shred up some old newspaper. They’ll be fine with that for a day or two until you have more scraps to feed them.
A useful tip: After chopping or mashing your food scraps, place them in bags in the freezer. The freezing process will considerably speed up the time it takes to break up the structure of the worm food. This makes it even easier for the worms to digest their organic matter. They will eat more. The food will disappear faster. This will result in less possibility of unwanted pests and husbandry problems.
You can choose how frequently you wish to feed your worms. You can feed them daily, every other day, or just once or twice a week. All of their food should be put in one place in the bin. The worms will come to collect it, so you don’t have to worry about spreading it out. Some people like to vary the location of the food in the bin. It really is up to you. That’s it – it’s very easy to meet their dietary needs.
Fluff up their bedding regularly to keep it light and airy. The worms love the dark, but also need plenty of oxygen. This is why we drilled air holes and why we don’t use a clear or transparent worm bin. Remember to keep your worms watered as they need to be kept damp but not wet.
You can always cover with a layer of wet newspaper if you find it is starting to dry out too quickly. Any excess liquid, known as worm tea or worm juice, should be drained off. This is a great organic fertilizer for your plants. If you start to find that you have a problem with worm losses, then you may need to add more protection to your bins.
You can use a sheet of mosquito netting and loosely cover your bins with this. This will eliminate most flying pests and doesn’t make the management of your worm bins any more difficult. If your worm farm is indoors, then make sure that doors and windows are fixed with mosquito screens or netting. This makes it harder for pests to gain entry in the first place.
Covering your food scraps is one of the best and most effective steps you can take regularly to ensure healthy worm bed management. This keeps the worm composting bin clean and reduces the likelihood of overactive pest infestations.
6. Plan an Expansion
The worms will grow fast. In just a few months you will probably need more room. In case you are wondering whether that’s a good thing or not, the answer is yes. It’s amazing how little work and money they require, yet they expand so quickly. And, their expansion means more money in your pocket.
When they need more room what should you do? Well, once again, there are three options:
Option #1: Find a Bigger Box
You can find a bigger box and make another homemade worm bin with holes in the bottom for proper drainage. It takes a little time, but not much money, or effort to utilize this option. So if it strikes your fancy then go for it.
Option #2: Buy a Bigger Box
You can buy the bigger worm farm here. This option can get a little more costly as purpose-built worm farms are more expensive than a plastic tub. However, if you are someone that likes to have something that is not only functional but also is agreeable to look at, then this is a good option for you.
Option #3: Create an Expansion to the Original
If you are satisfied with your original worm set-up, then stick with it. All you will need to do is cut a hole in the side of the box or bucket. You then need to connect a piece of PVC pipe to that hole. You will need to find a second bucket and drill holes in the bottom to make it identical to your first set-up. Then connect the PVC pipe to it.
The worms will eventually realize that the pipe is there. Once they find that, they will crawl through it and into the extension to their home. This will give them more room, and they will keep expanding. You can keep adding extra wings as needed in the future, too.
7. Profit from Your Worm Farm
So now you have learned how to raise worms, how do you make money from this venture?
Thanks to sites like Craigslist, Facebook, and local yard sales web pages it is very easy to advertise that you have worms for sale. It gets even better if you are willing to ship your products to your customers. You can also advertise in local newspapers, set up a road sign, or set up a stand and sell them direct near a popular fishing spot.
If you have a green thumb, you can also raise seedlings and sell them and your worms at a local produce or farmer’s market. You will be surprised by how many people want worms to improve their garden soil. You can also sell compost that your worms have made once it looks like soil and is neither soggy nor smelly.
As you can tell, there are many ways to turn this small idea into a thriving business. You may not get rich from it, but it could become another source of revenue for your homestead.