‘Accidental business people’ find niche in worm-made fertilizer

Faces of Ag: A veteran ‘worm farmer’ and his childhood friend set out to offer environmentally friendly fertilizer — years later, business is booming in unexpected ways

It began 35 years ago with a quarter-pound of worms sent in the mail from Kentucky.

Mike Jacques bought them to help develop soil for his greenhouse and the Northern Sun Farm Co-op, a small, off-grid community near Sarto in southeastern Manitoba.

The soil in the area was sandy and needed some organic input. Jacques saw worms as a way to improve his compost and make it pack a much bigger punch.

“The red wiggler worms were enthusiastically embraced by the (co-op) community. Hands down, they love them,” said Jen Unwin, co-founder of Nature’s Perfect Plant Food and Mike’s friend since childhood.

About a decade ago, Jacques and Unwin decided there was a market for ‘vermicompost,’ as it’s called, never realizing where it would take them.

Today, the quarter-pound of worms has multiplied to thousands and thousands of pounds.

“We grew them all. Well, Mike grew them,” said Unwin.

“I would describe us as accidental business people, because I don’t think either of us really expected this to be so successful.”

Jen Unwin and Mike Jacques preparing worms for sale in Winnipeg.
photo: Nature’s Perfect Plant Food

What’s vermicompost?

Vermicompost or ‘worm castings’ is “the product of earthworm digestion and aerobic decomposition using the activities of micro- and macro-organisms at room temperature,” according to the Rodale Institute’s website.

“Vermicomposting, or worm composting, produces a rich organic soil amendment containing a diversity of plant nutrients and beneficial micro-organisms,” the site says.

Nature’s Perfect Plant Food uses red wiggler worms to produce vermicompost. These worms are better suited to vermicomposting than conventional earthworms because they reproduce rapidly, are communal and tend to remain on the surface when feeding, says the Rodale Institute.

Unwin’s and Jacques’ wigglers eat cattle manure. In their area it’s consistently available and this allows them to produce a consistent product.

As they grew, they began to work with local beef and dairy producers to set up manure management projects on their farms. They build the manure into ridge rows which they ‘inoculate’ with a cubic yard of worms and pre-existing compost.

The row of manure stays outside, and in a cycle of two to three years, the worms work their way to the interior of the row.

Mike filling 20-litre bags of worm castings for sale.
photo: Nature’s Perfect Plant Food

Unwin explained that as the worms work through the manure, they break it down and create a fine soil product with a rich humus (organic) content. This houses bacteria capable of breaking soil nitrogen into soluble nitrogen for plants. The vermicompost has a consistent 6-6-6 nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium breakdown, Unwin said.

That’s why Jacques called it ‘Nature’s Perfect Plant Food.’

“That was his one stickler,” said Unwin. “It’s got to be called Nature’s Perfect Plant Food, and I said ‘OK.’ ‘’Cause, he would say, ’cause that’s what it is, Jen. That’s really what it is.’”

Getting off the ground

At the outset, it didn’t seem the world was ready for vermicomposting, Unwin said. She went on a three-year odyssey of the farmers’ market circuit but it was mostly a PR exercise.

“Worms aren’t exactly an impulse buy,” she said.

For the first few years they worked hard to get the word out. She and Jacques did co-operative work with the Green Action Centre and Climate Change Connection, both in Winnipeg.

They gained traction in the medical cannabis industry, which is quite conscientious about organics, said Unwin. They helped Fort Whyte Farms develop a greenhouse worm operation, which became so successful it now produces its own worm castings.

“That might have been a mistake,” Unwin joked.

Over time, understanding seemed to grow. People became more interested in environmental issues, said Unwin. They also became interested in doing their own worm composting.

Bins of worms ready for transport.
photo: Nature’s Perfect Plant Food

In the past three years, Nature’s Perfect Plant Food has really taken off, said Unwin, and has seen a steady upward trend in growth. Today, on top of selling bagged or bulk worm castings for fertilizer, Nature’s Perfect Plant Food also sells worm composting starter kits.

It’s become normal and viable for people to vermicompost at home, Unwin said.

Fall is the busiest season. Unwin calls it “itchy fingers.” Enthusiastic gardeners are anticipating a winter without soil and growing things and are looking for ways to bring the earth indoors — like through worm composting their household organics.

In the end, the aim is to get more people using organic fertilizers on gardens, in greenhouses, and even fields.

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“At the heart of this, we are environmentalists,” said Unwin. “We feel really strongly that the agricultural world is, you know, on the wrong path with the chemical fertilizers.

“We also wanted to be able to provide a viable alternative that wasn’t terrifying,” she said. “’Cause when your entire livelihood, and you’ve got an entire family depending on you to make this crop work this one year, you don’t want to change… It’s a hard push.

“That’s ultimately what we want to see. Ultimately we want to see people switching over to organic fertilizers because the chemical fertilizers are killing our soils.”

About the author

Reporter

Geralyn Wichers

Geralyn Wichers grew up on a hobby farm near Anola, Manitoba, where her family raised cattle, pigs and chickens. Geralyn graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in 2019 and was previously a reporter for The Carillon in Steinbach. Geralyn is also a published author of science fiction and fantasy novels.

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