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Vermicompost takes root


Keith O'Dell sits in his basement before a pile of worm compost, a nutrient - rich waste by-product in which plants and vegetables thrive. - MIKE ALLEE
  • Mike Allee
  • Keith O'Dell sits in his basement before a pile of worm compost, a nutrientrich waste by-product in which plants and vegetables thrive.

Keith O'Dell lives in Fishers, Ind., with his wife, two daughters, dog Jake and an estimated 50,000 worms. Keith is a vermicomposter; he feeds his garbage to worms.

Keith's worms eat Keith's garbage and excrete waste, waste that can be used as a nutrient-rich compost used to fertilize plants and vegetables. Vegetables grow and are harvested, eaten, more garbage produced and the worms go back to work. Hakuna Matana. The circle of life.

Castaway Compost, Keith's home-based company, provides information and product for budding vermicomposting pioneers. It targets small-scale urban or first-time curiosity farmers interested in raising a tub or two of compost for personal use. He established the venture after working on solutions to soil fertility problems in Africa.

"A good friend of mine adopted a village in Kenya a few years back as part of the Jubilee Village project," Keith said. "The farm productivity in the village was awful. Poor soil, poor processes and year-round heat attributed to this."

Because of Keith is an engineer by trade and interested in science in general, his friend had him help explore different processes to enrich the soil.

"Vermicomposting was one of the processes we investigated," Keith said. "Everything kind of snowballed from there."

Keith gives frequent vermicomposting workshops throughout the state for those wishing to learn more. He maintains a booth during summer months at the Fishers Farmer's Market. He talks worms in children's classrooms and at health fairs. Keith has given demonstrations on local television and he maintains a blog on the Castaway Compost website where he sells worms, worm compost, and tubs for new colony establishment.

Still, Keith considers himself far from a vermicompost expert. He said he is constantly learning more and conducting new worm-related experiments.

Vermicomposting is experiencing a recent wave of popularity as urban dwellers attempt to move toward more sustainable lifestyles.

According to some estimates, the average person produces three to five pounds of trash per day — a lot of free worm food, to be sure.

"They love cantaloupe," Keith told an audience of 20 at a recent workshop. "They'll eat anything that used to live — most paper, fruits, vegetables, egg shells, coffee grinds and filters. It's best to avoid meat and dairy — they don't break down as quickly and sometimes go rancid before the worms can get through them." They apparently like pumpkins, as well.

Keith went door to door the day after last Halloween collecting neighbor's pumpkins to feed to his hungry team. "I had close to 40 pumpkins collected," he told me, "before my wife told me it was time to stop."

One frequent question Keith encounters during workshops involves how to keep a worm colony wrangled.

"Keep the lid on your tub or keep a light on," he says.

According to Keith, following simple rules can assuage visions of worm tubs overflowing with rotting food.

"Don't overfeed them, and don't mess with them too much," he said. "Unlike most species, worms will not overpopulate their environment. If there's too many to sustain life, then they quit reproducing."

Raising worms for vermicomposting is not difficult. It is something the average person can do for very little money. It is an environmentally conscious way to dispose of your trash, and the byproduct is a premium-quality fertilizer.

Plus, some people just find it fun.

When introducing worms into their new environment, one should leave the lid off of their tub for the first few days but keep a light on. Worms don't like light. They will burrow into the dark compost and begin to make themselves at home.

One popular YouTube video features a young Norwegian girl telling the tale of her first vermicomposting experiences.

She had followed the "light-on" instructions carefully, then left town for a few days. While gone, her landlord had stopped by for a rent check, saw the light on and turned it off as a way to conserve energy. When she returned days later, the walls and ceilings in her laundry room as well as hanging clothes were completely covered in small red worms.

When asked for her opinion of Keith's border-line obsession, his wife Shelly thought for a moment before answering. "I think it's a symptom of a much bigger passion," she said. "Keith loves people, and he hates the idea of anyone going hungry. Especially after his visit to Kenya. It bothers him that there are processes available to help feed people that aren't being used. I think it's all part of a much bigger passion than just raising worms."

Keith puts it another way, "I'm always exploring ways to turn waste into goodness."


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