Who’s Talking About Vermiculture?
In a recent article on sustainable practices in wine, Sula Vineyards of the great nation of India was noted for its sustainable practices and efforts in vermiculture.
Of course you must know all about vermiculture, right?
International earthworm expert Clive A. Edwards has written extensively on the subject, but in short, vermiculture is the utilization of earthworms to break down compost to create a fertilizer of worth. Vermico, a company in the “vermicomposting technology” business defines the processes and benefits of hiring worms for the job in greater detail on its website:
Vermicomposting (Latin vermes = worm) is a kindred process to composting, featuring the addition of certain species of earthworms used to enhance the process of waste conversion and produce a better end-product. Vermicomposting differs from composting in several ways. Chiefly, vermicomposting is a mesophilic process, utilizing microorganisms and earthworms that are active in a temperature range of 50-90 degrees Fahrenheit. [Not ambient temperature but temperature within the pile of moist organic material.] The process is considered faster than composting and, because material passes through the earthworm gut, a significant but not-yet-fully-understood transformation takes place, whereby the resulting earthworm castings (worm manure) are abundant in microbial activity and plant growth regulators, and fortified with pest repellency attributes as well! In short, earthworms, through a type of biological alchemy, are capable of transforming garbage into gold…. Castings are vastly different from petro-chemical fertilizers which have detrimental effects on microbial life in the soil. The appeal of castings would be tend to be welcomed initially by those who support organic farming inputs and sustainable agriculture practices.
Sula CEO Rajeev Samant endorses his employees wholeheartedly, noting that “[t]hese workaholic wrigglers are an environmentally conscious farmer’s best friends. They chew their way through the mix to produce a crumbly black compost that is odourless and rich in organic matter, which we then use back on the vines as fertilizer …. [A]t present, our homemade organic compost meets 40% of our fertilization needs. Over time, our aim is to replace all chemical fertilizers.”
This article got me thinking about earthworms and the U.S. wine industry. How many wineries actually practice vermicomposting or are even aware of it? In many wine producing areas, pomace (seeds, skins and stems) are hauled off to an unknown location by a convenient service akin to garbage hauling. Thus beckons the classic environmental policy question – is pomace a waste or is it a resource? Certainly, the keen winegrower will recognize the value of asserting full control over the fertilizer used in their vineyards.
Monticello Winery in Jefferson County Florida embraces worms to support both vineyards an organic farm, and even provides resources for others looking to begin vermiculture projects of their own. But of course this property is dialed into best practices – Cynthia Connelly, owner of both the Monticello Winery and Ladybird Organics, is a Director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation But not every winery has that luxury of such vermiculture insight. What about West Coast wineries? And why did it take an article about a winery in India to put “Vermiculture” and “Wine” together?
To my surprise, the State of California has a vermiculture website. Unsurprising, however, is the fact that the website is oriented to home gardening and Michelle Obama’s student-garden-warpath, not larger agricultural endeavors per se. However, the site does interestingly address whether “vermicomposting facilities” are regulated:
Vermicomposting is defined as an “excluded activity” from California solid waste regulation. However, an “exclusion” recognizes that a given activity is involved in solid waste handling and therefore must comply with fundamental health and safety codes. According to California food and agriculture regulations, worms can be considered livestock, much as cows are livestock in a ranching or dairy operation. Within reason, certain organic wastes can be viewed as feed. However, the handling of compostable material prior to and after use as a growth medium is subject to regulation under solid waste regulations. If a large worm operation becomes a nuisance by taking in more waste than can be effectively fed to and processed by the worms (resulting in odors, for instance), the activity could be viewed as a solid waste facility. Concerns about a particular circumstance should be directed to a community’s environmental health department.
I personally question whether worms should be treated like cows in scenarios where there is a CAFO, or “concentrated animal feeding operation” – but then again, perhaps not much is known about the virulent possibilities and other secrets of worms (e.g. folding space and time, see: Dune).
The Lodi Wine Commission noted that one limitation to utilizing worms to produce a better compost is their cost. This seems to be a sad cop-out after 30 second of Internet research providing some basic data points on current worm prices. Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm is currently selling 5000 worms for around $100. No big deal in comparison to the cost of a new oak barrel, right? Well, further research indicated that about 15 pounds of worms were needed per ton of compostable material – assuming there are 1000 squigglers per pound, about $300 of worms would be needed for every ton of compostable material. Yeah, that is probably fairly pricey. Then again, the cost of purchased organic fertilizer could range up to $1000 bucks a ton. If you’re buying organic fertilizer outright and have some space to compost, then maybe you should consider putting some worms to work!
Finally, my pricing search uncovered a worm arm in Sonoma, CA. Better yet, the site included reference to endorsements, one of which is from…a winery! Inman Family of Santa Rosa, CA notes:
We also use worm castings, obtained from Sonoma Valley Worm Farm, to create an easily assimilated bio-fertilizer rich in nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. The castings enhance the soil’s ability to absorb atmospheric moisture, aiding water economy and aeration. The castings are brewed to form microbial teas through our drip irrigation system. These are Applied three times a year, the teas introduce a diverse spectrum of beneficial microorganisms that improve soil and plant health and aid the vines’ natural resistance to pests and disease. All of these products are certified organic. (Emphasis added)
So the answer to my initial question is that there are not many people in the wine industry talking about a commingling of vermiculture with viticulture, but there are a couple of early, early adopters who are using vermiculture products to supplement their fertilization practice where vineyard goals include organic and/or sustainable practices.