Farmers hope to cash in on nightcrawlers

Monday, April 14, 2003

LEROY, Kan. -- D. J. Donelson is a wrangler, of sorts.

Each day, like any good wrangler, he checks his livestock to make certain they have enough feed, water and air.

It's a big herd, more than half a million strong. Well, it's not exactly a herd. It's called a wiggle.

D. J. Donelson is a worm farmer. He raises worms in a 30-by-40-foot metal building behind his home in LeRoy. And a herd of worms is called a wiggle.

Donelson and his partners, Jim Fry of LeRoy and Steve Miller of Kansas City, Mo., became worm farmers in 2001.

"We started thinking about raising escargot," Donelson said. "That's snails. But after doing some research, we decided there just wasn't much of a market."

The partners drove to Wisconsin one weekend to visit worm industry giant Unco Industries and, on the way home, decided to take the bait, so to speak, and raise a wiggle of worms in LeRoy. They call their business Midwest Organic Enterprises and their mascot is a sassy little worm, wearing a cowboy hat, whose nickname is Moe.

"We started out raising cultured nightcrawlers," Donelson said. "But since then, we've gotten into tiger worms and European nightcrawlers, too."

Not a hardy breed

Donelson is a big fan of the lowly worm. "Just like us, worms need three things to live," he said, "food, water and air. They have nine hearts and a gizzard, which they use to grind up their food. And they can eat their weight in garbage every day." Worms are 93 percent water, but the solid part of the worm is protein.

Nightcrawlers, traditionally sold as fishing bait, are not terribly hardy.

"The big thing people do with a nightcrawler is put it in a bucket and slap a lid on it," Donelson said. "They can't breathe and they can't stand the heat." Most anglers, Donelson said, have experienced the "worm soup" that a plastic foam container of nightcrawlers becomes after a day at the lake. But the European nightcrawlers that Donelson raises are much more hardy.

"Our European nightcrawlers will withstand 100-degree weather," he said. "So they don't need refrigeration, as long as they have air. These little guys withstand the heat."

Tiger worms are the workhorses of the compost heap, eating organic material at a rate that would make a sumo wrestler blush. Tiger worms are one of the fastest breeding worms and are able to double their population every three months.

But it is their castings, or excrement, that enriches the soil they live in.

Donelson and his partners sell wholesale nightcrawlers to a small number of vendors in Kansas and Oklahoma, but they admit the greatest emphasis of their business right now is to market the castings.

"We really thought our market would be fishing worms," he said. "Then we found out about the castings."

The partners are concentrating on filling spring and summer orders for garden centers in northeast Kansas and hope more gardeners will hear about organic fertilization.

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