Two Antelope mothers deal with some slimy characters the kind that prefer staying underground, like to do dirty work and can wriggle out of tight spots.
But the two neighbors, entrepreneurs who launched a worm supply business from their homes, praise these creatures for turning waste into rich soil. Kate Waldo sums up the glamour and allure of their worm-breeding operation: "It's becoming less weird."
Worms are squirming their way into some mid- to large-scale businesses, driven by a spike in the home gardening sector and a shift toward local food production and biodynamic farming, especially in wine grape vineyards.
Vermiculture, or the raising and production of earthworms and worm castings, has come out of the dark fringes of the eco-trippy 1960s and is maturing into a solid market, both for small home businesses catering to gardeners and municipal recycling programs, and for larger worm farms that ship millions of pounds of worm castings nationwide.
Worms are treasured for eating and digesting food waste and manure, and for aerating soil by burrowing into the ground. But most valuable is what they leave behind: worm castings, or, to put it more simply, worm poop.
Michelle Himed, Waldo's business partner, said the compost material generated by worms is rich in nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, and many other minerals, including active microbes. She said research also shows that vermicompost boosts plants' resistance to disease and pests.
"There's been hundreds of studies on benefits of castings," she said. "There's so many benefits, we don't really understand them all, because some are happening on a microscopic level. All we know is, the plants are happy when we feed them castings."
Increasingly, those worm castings are in demand. Jack Chambers, owner of the Sonoma Valley Worm Farm, said sales at his Sonoma business went up 20 percent this year over last. For the first time in the history of the 40-year-old company, he ran out of "vermicompost" material from April to mid-July, and is having trouble keeping up with orders.
"This is going to be the next big thing in farming and gardening," said Chambers, who is retiring as an airline pilot to devote himself full time to the worm business. "It's just starting to come on the radar, as people are becoming more aware of vermicomposting. Finally, the vermicomposting industry is starting to take off. I'm more excited for the future than I've ever been."
Chambers said the growth in the industry is following an uptick in seed sales for small farms and home gardens.
"One reason for the interest is the economy," Chambers said, referring to a shift to backyard food production during tough financial times. "The other is that people want to grow better food, and they can do that in their own garden. People are becoming concerned about food supply and where their food comes from."
Chambers' worm farm sells smaller bins for home use, and 80-foot vermicomposting trays for commercial uses, such as vineyards and wineries, ranches, schools and universities and business parks. The business also sells worms by the pound, vermicompost by the cubic yard and "vermicompost tea," a liquid extract of the compost that can be added to soil or sprayed on plant leaves.
He said a movement to small urban and suburban farms, some 2 acres and under, is also propelling vermiculture.
"I think there's a big future in this," he said. "There's huge opportunity right now."
Waldo, an environmental engineer, started worm composting in her Antelope home as a way to recycle kitchen scraps and turn it into compost. She asked Himed to "worm-sit" while she went on vacation, and Himed became interested in worm composting.
While working at her kids' elementary school, Himed saw the unfinished food on cafeteria lunch trays going into the trash.
"A little light bulb went on," Himed said. She and Waldo approached schools about using worm composting to recycle cafeteria food waste, generating compost for school gardens. The pair noticed there wasn't a worm supply business in the Sacramento area.
The women and their husbands each invested $400 to buy bins and worms, get licenses, business cards and a post office box. The company, Worm Fancy, was born in March 2010. In the first year, the business posted gross revenues of $7,000, and this year, they expect to triple that.
The company concentrates on selling red worms for around $24 a pound, including shipping, but also sells some castings. While Worm Fancy is a distributor for a high-end worm bin manufacturer, the women designed their own more affordable "turnkey" worm bin, which comes with bedding, worm food, compost activator and a pound of worms for $65.
The worm bins can be stored just about anywhere in the house, such as under the kitchen sink, a guest bedroom closet or in a laundry room, they said. Customers include home gardeners and schools looking to reduce their cafeteria waste.
The company raises about 10 percent of their worm stock. Currently, the women have about 50,000 worms in their garages and backyards. They sell an average of 10 pounds a month in slow times, but in spring, "our business goes through the roof," Waldo said.
The women buy most of their worms from worm brokers, like Jerry Gach of San Jose. Gach said his six-year business contracting with major nationwide worm suppliers has grown steadily from $40,000 a year at first, to current annual revenues of $250,000.
"The growth is part ecology-based, with people wanting to reduce their carbon footprint, and part led by people who want great gardens," Gach said.