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Rotarians learn ins and outs of worm business

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By The Staff

Jane Maxwell looks like the sort of woman who would spend her days in a garden banishing weeds and bugs and producing luscious looking flowers that would be the envy of the neighborhood. She instead spends her days building a business that turns dairy cow manure into worm castings that can be black gold for those faux Martha Stewart gardeners. Maxwell was the keynote speaker at the Chiefland Rotary Club on June 9, where she acquainted the 40 members with the almost scentless product produced when thousands of earthworms digest and expel the manure.  The club is on a mission to acquaint its members with new and existing businesses in the community. This latest speaker fit right in with the club's "Springs Promise" program which aims to limit the amount of fertilizer byproducts that enter the water system. "What on earth are you supposed to do when you can't keep dumping fertilizer on your grass," Maxwell asked the group. She recalled that the state's springs were once blue and clean. "Frankly they are a mess. They're stinky and all green." She said replacing manufactured fertilizer on lawns and gardens with worm castings — the resulting product from the worms' manure dinner — better known as "worm poop" is one viable solution. "My objective is to get worms to grow in cow manure and produce a fertilizer without a smell that can be used on golf courses, lawns, gardens, vegetable gardens," she said. As she spoke, a container with a sample of the castings was passed around the conference room where the Rotarians had lunch. All agreed it did not have an obvious scent. A similar business in New York took $2 million in startup money, she said, but she is working on a smaller budget. "I have started on a shoestring. This has good potential," she said. "I have a reliable system." One challenge she encountered was in ordering her startup worms. The company shipped her something called "night crawlers" that failed to survive in the North Central Florida heat. But a second group of worms, red worms, did survive, and these have stayed healthy and reproduced to provide her with a worm workforce. "They're always reproducing." To maintain her stock of worms, the castings are run through a screen sifter. The castings pass through the filter leaving the worms behind to start on a new load of manure. Maxwell said a cubic yard of manure starts out weighing twice as much as the final product from the earthworms. A cubic yard of castings weighs between 800-900 pounds, she said. She is selling the castings for $70 per cubic yard and $5 for 30 pounds. She also has delivery available. "Earthworms convert anything," she said. "As stuff rots, they suck it in, and castings are the result." The massive amount of manure produced on local dairy farms could be converted into a marketable fertilizer that is better to use than commercial products, she said.  But it is not the solid matter in the castings that makes it valuable to gardeners, she said. "It contains microbes and funguses that actually work with plants to make them grow," Maxwell said. The product is also good for use in organic gardens, she said.  The only drawback that she has found is castings do not work with some large-scale spreaders. "They don't flow through those machines so good," she said. But the Rotary members recommended using the castings to make a "tea" that can be sprayed on fields. To order castings, call Jane Maxwell at 352-486-6912 or 727-709-3398.