Worms eat so that others may eat better

Night crawlers generate 5 tons of natural fertilizer a week at Glenville business
Chad Currin, president of BioSoil Farms, shows some worms in the Glenville facility.
Chad Currin, president of BioSoil Farms, shows some worms in the Glenville facility.

GLENVILLE — You’d think a 150,000-strong workforce would be hard to miss, but at Chad Currin’s operation, they’re pretty good at hiding.

Currin is founder and CEO of BioSoil Farms, a soil nutrient company in the Glenville Business and Industrial Park.

BioSoil sells various products to improve the health and productivity of soil, all of them are based on the excretions of 150,000 worms in a series of low bins filled with compost in the back of the shop.

A handful of the night crawlers wriggle along the surface of the muck. A few crawl out onto the floor, dry up and die. But mostly they keep themselves buried in the dark, damp interior of the pile, eating their weight in compost every day.

Within two weeks, they’ll turn a third of a ton of compost in each bin into worm castings, among the most potent of natural fertilizers. Currin and his three human employees scoop it, bag it and sell it.

“The worms are nature’s greatest restorers of soil health,” Currin said.

BioSoil began in January, an expansion of what Currin was doing in the garage of his east Glenville home with 15,000 worms. The company sells its products predominantly to commercial growers of various crops and, through its website, to retail customers. 

Sod farmers are frequent users of worm castings, as are growers of hops and wine grapes. Medical marijuana, with its scientific indoor cultivation, has become an important market segment.

BioSoil’s biggest sale to date was 54 tons to a Minnesota golf course that was reworking its greens.

Production stands around five tons a week, but after the slow winter season, Currin expects to expand his operation to a million worms, with a proportional increase in output. He uses cultured night crawlers from Wisconsin for his worm farm. 

Not just any worm will do: The most commonly found earthworm in the Capital Region, the Alabama jumper, is a deep burrower that would not process the top layer of the compost if they were placed in bins. The Canadian crawler, a fat worm commonly sold in the Capital Region for fishing bait, doesn’t eat as much or process it as quickly. The red wiggler, common in home worm buckets, doesn’t produce the homogeneous casting ideal for commercial sale.

Currin, a Niskayuna High School graduate, is better known to younger area residents as Mr. Twisty, star of a long-running magic/comedy act familiar at special events such as this weekend’s Albany Auto Show. 

He believes in the power of balloon animals to amaze and amuse, but also believes in the value of moving society away from chemically produced food. His venture is producing dry and liquid soil enhancements — he tries not to call them fertilizer — produced with sustainable and mostly organic components and offered as an alternative to synthetic fertilizer.

“We’re trying to replace every synthetic formulation,” Currin said.

Worm castings help produce bigger, healthier plants that bear more and tastier produce, he said.

The process starts with finished compost — the decomposed grass, leaves, wood chips and other plant matter produced on a  large scale by commercial or municipal operations. It is pulverized and mixed with waste grain from a Vermont mill, then piled into the worm bins. The worms go to work, 10,000 or so per bin. 

Two weeks later, when the compost has been eaten and extruded, the bin is emptied into a rolling screened drum. The drum drops out the worm castings in one area. The worms, and their eggs, and any large bits of unprocessed matter are in another area. The live worms and eggs quickly go into a new bin of compost, lest they dry out. 

Any dead worms — average life span is 180 weeks but not all of them make it that long — are fed to a pool of fish that are kept on hand to help dechlorinate municipal water.

The worm castings are either bagged up for sale as is or dusted with nutrients that encapsulate their sticky exterior, so they won’t gum up spreaders. 

A portion of the castings is added to vats of water with waste food that is unfit for human consumption for percolation into liquid fertilizer. Some of this is done on-site, some is done at Pine Ridge Industries, a facility operated by Schenectady ARC. An ARC client, John Grogan, has begun working part-time at the BioSoils worm farm.

On Wednesday, Grogan was bagging up castings for sale.

A 40-pound bag runs $49.95 and will treat one or two 4-by-8-foot garden plots so thoroughly that plant growth will double and quantity/quality of produce will be substantially increased, the company says.

Currin explained that worm castings are loaded with microbes that affix themselves to a plant’s roots, eat the nutrients in the surrounding soil, and excrete those nutrients into the plant’s roots in a more usable form.

With all this talk of worm poop, the reader might reasonably wonder what the BioSoil worm farm smells like. Answer: Not much at all.

Castings don’t have any real odor. Finished compost is pretty bland as well.

If the worm farm gets too hot or too cold, too humid or too dry, the worms will soon die, and dead worms get very funky very quickly.

So far, BioSoil has had some mishaps but no mass casualty incidents.

Each day, when Currin arrives, he rolls up the overhead door and walks into the climate-controlled worm farm. His nose tells him whether all is OK with his secretive workforce.

“A worm farmer can really tell the health of the worms by the smell,” he said.

Categories: Business, News, Schenectady County

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