Earthworms could be the ultimate value-adding industry. In a field environment their presence boosts plant, and consequently animal, production, and in an intensive farming situation their fodder is society's organic waste. The end products are the worms themselves and their castings, a valuable resource with the capacity to improve soil condition and boost plant nutrition.

Mr. Paul Lennet, proprietor of the Able Worms in Nambour, Queensland, believes worms could also prove a boon to local government authorities in their waste disposal management.

During research into the potential and techniques of worm production, he discovered literature on a local government authority in the US which is making a sizeable profit from using worms to dispose of its organic waste. All organic waste, including cardboard and paper, was sorted out of the refuse and fed to worms in a large scale worm farm established by the municipality in place of a rubbish tip. Castings were harvested from the worm beds for use on the municipal parks and gardens, and for sale. Mr. Lennet's farm is not on that scale, but he does sell castings as well as worms for gardens and orchards and for fishermen.

He grows three species - tiger worm, red wriggler and tropical night crawler, with the night crawler a particular favourite with fishermen and the other two best suited to field release or for use in breaking down manure and compost.

There is no doubt that worms in an orchard, paddock or garden bed improve soil structure and fertility, but there is more involved than simply adding worms. Worms feed on organic matter, and like any other stock they require fodder, so organic matter has to be added either before or at the same time as the worms are added, and the supply maintained if the worms are to thrive and provide maximum benefits.

Research and field experience in the US showed that plants grown in soils with high earthworm populations or using worm castings as a fertiliser were more resistant to pests and diseases. The number of worm farms is increasing. Bob and Jenny Lewis from Landsborough Earthworms on the Sunshine Coast run red worms and tiger worms, both of which consume organic matter and reproduce at a fast rate, according to their literature.

They describe castings as a nutrient-rich plant food high in available nutrients because of the action of enzymes in the worm's digestive tracts.

Tests show that castings contain up to 11 times the available nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium of the original matter consumed by the worms, plus valuable trace elements.

Castings can be used as a fertiliser or as part of potting mix.

A mixture of equal quantities of castings, peat moss and sand or vermiculite is an excellent potting or seed-raising mix.

Beneath earth's surface, deep concealed
Your secret life not yet revealed.
Pursuing endlessly your lot,
Unseen tiller of the garden plot.

Are you guided by Nature's hand
The while you work the arid land?
What magic then do you possess
That makes you one of Nature's best?

With tireless energy you spend
Your short life cycle to its end
Creating earth works never seen.
But we all know where you have been.

O earth worm, what ignoble fate
That you should end as fishing bait!

Mary D. Nesbitt
Article, Mossman Digests Nov '93 and Feb '94

DATE: March 1994

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