Friday, February 13, 2009

Educate your kids and save the world with worms

Okay, I'm exaggerating about saving the world -- but maybe not too much. After nearly ten years of thinking about it, I am finally a worm farmer. We've had a compost bin for seven years, and we have compost piles all over our farm, but vermicompost is even richer than what you can make in a regular compost bin, so I finally took the plunge. Monday I attended a composting seminar, and at the end of the day I attended a session where we made our own bin and got our worms. I wrote about it on my farm blog.

I've always thought this would make a great homeschool project, and even apartment dwellers can do it. In fact, they should do it, because not only is it educational, but it will use up all of their kitchen scraps and keep them out of landfills. Worms will even eat things that you shouldn't put in a regular compost bin, like gravy and potato salad, which have too much fat in them for traditional composting. Then the vermicompost can be used to fertilize container plants, such as tomatoes and peppers grown organically in front of a sunny window or on a patio.

Now, what about saving the world? Garbage is one of the biggest problems we have facing our society -- really. When I was a reporter in the Chicago burbs, it was one of those topics that cities were always talking about. Landfills fill up, and no one wants a stinky landfill in their backyard, so municipalities are paying more for having their garbage hauled farther away. Solutions like worm bins can help our society.

But who wants a stinky worm bin in their apartment? Worms need oxygen, and as long as your bin has plenty of oxygen, it won't stink. It's an aerobic process, and if your worm bin or traditional compost bin starts to stink, it means you're heading into an anaerobic situation.

And, about saving the world -- it really isn't an exageration to say that educating your kids could save the world someday. It is entirely possible that some homeschooled kid with a worm bin could grow up to figure out a permanent and earth-friendly solution to all of our garbage problems.


Suburban Correspondent said...

Okay, found my answer here...

But how long does it take? And no odor at all? Or have you just gotten used to it, living on a farm and all?

Deborah said...

I'm not sure what you're asking about -- "how long does it take?" If you mean, how long does it take to turn into compost, it depends on how many worms you have and how old they are. My worms were mostly babies when I got them, so it took several months to start seeing vermicompost. Now that they've grown up and started reproducing, it goes faster, but it's hard to say how long it takes. I haven't really paid attention to how long it takes for potato peels to disappear, mostly because they're mixed in, and I'm always adding.

You start the worm bin with shredded paper that's been misted with water to the point that it feels like a damp sponge. Initially I added coffee grounds and tea bags. After a week, I started adding fruit and veggie scraps. You just need to bury fruit scraps so you don't attract fruit flies. Once the bin gets going with a lot of worms, you can add more complex, harder to digest foods like potato salad and egg shells. A compost bin should never stink. If it does, it needs to be aerated, which means fluffed up to get air into it. Every now and then our compost bin outside starts to stink, but we just use a pitchfork to fluff it up, and it's fine again. Seriously, people do have vermicompost bins in apartments. It doesn't stink. My book on vermicomposting has a picture of a bin that looks like a coffee table, and it sits in the middle of a living room. I lent my worms to a librarian for Earth Day kids programs, and no one ever said anything about stink for the two weeks the worms lived at her library.

As for farms stinking ... modern farms stink because they cram a lot of animals into small living spaces. A modern pig farm creates more waste than a large city. At the moment, my pigs' pen stinks because we just had 24 hours of rain, so it's gross out there, but you only smell it when you get within about 20 feet. I hate stinky stuff as much as the next person, and since our animals live mostly outdoors as nature intended, and they have plenty of space, our farm doesn't stink. You should check out my Antiquity Oaks blog as I frequently discuss the problems with modern agriculture.

Suburban Correspondent said...

We have a real farm about 2 hours from here run by Joel Salatin (author of Holy Cows and Hog Heaven) and he has come out this way to talk to our homeschool group, etc. So I'm aware of the agriculture issues, etc. We also have a demo 19th-century farm nearby (part of the county park service). We visit there semi-frequently and, to my urban nose, it stinks! So I still suspect that different people have different tolerances for these smells. My neighbors have pet rabbits and guinea pigs, and I can barely stand to be in their house.

Of course I'm intrigued by the idea of an all-natural composter that fits in one's house (what self-respecting hs'er wouldn't be, right?); but I'm thinking I'd have to witness one in operation to become a believer. Also, we have serious problems with household pests in my area of the country; that's also a factor.

Off to check out your farm blog!

Deborah said...

Joel Salatin's compost piles stink because he puts the chicken entrails in them from butchering. But since he has 550 acres, I've always assumed he does it far from his house, and it's not a place that he takes most visitors. He also has a lot of pigs, and there are a number of issues that can make them more or less odoriferous.

My daughter has a guinea pig, and her bedroom stinks way worse than the outside areas of our farm, even though she cleans the cage twice a week. And that's my point about animals stinking -- it's confined to a small area. I do not like small caged animals for that reason.

Trust me -- I have a very sensitive nose. Bucks (male goats) emit a nasty odor, and after I've handled one, I shower and am still asking everyone, "Do I stink?" because I'm still smelling it.

But if you still don't believe me, remember that I said the worm bin was at a public library for two weeks, and everyone absolutely loved it. I wish you were closer so you could come sniff it.

I'm not going to say that NO worm bin stinks, since there are mistakes that can be made. The really obvious reason a worm bin might stink is that someone put something in there that they should not have -- like meat or bones. Depending upon what kind of pests you have, you could just NOT put anything in there that the pests would like. I don't think roaches are very fond of coffee grounds, filters, tea bags, vegetables scraps, and the like. Mice will eat everything, but they can't get into the bin. You should bury anything that could attract fruit flies. I just layer it though. Basically this mornings coffee grounds and filter go on top of yesterday's fruit and vegetable scraps.

It's funny that you asked about this, because just a couple days ago, I had taken a picture of my bin and worms and was planning to post an update on the AO blog. You've provided me with some good questions that I can address over there.