It All Started with Those Little Red Worms!

By Lorrie Clevenger

I remember when it began - this whole I wanna be a farmer business. I was taking a DIY vermicomposting workshop through the Lower East Side Ecology Center. Outside of a general desire and a viscerally felt need to live a greener, more sustainable lifestyle, I can’t tell you why I started there. But I distinctly recall that night, sitting in a nondescript room located somewhere in the heart of Chinatown, Manhattan with about ten other people learning that red wigglers have five hearts.

I was completely grossed out by the thought of worms, no matter how cute and magical our facilitator tried telling us they were. However, I was 10,000 times more appalled when I learned how much of our food waste gets dumped unnecessarily into landfills, and I was ready to take on the challenge of doing something about it. After a brief introduction (Re-introduction for me – growing up in rural Missouri, I hadn’t always been afraid of worms. In fact, I used to love hunting night crawlers with my mom to sell at the local bait shop.), we learned about the amazing work these red wigglers do. They take our food scraps and turn it into “Black Gold!” Our facilitator passed around a sample of the stuff - vermicompost. Taking a good sniff of it, I smelled fresh rain, and my thoughts were flooded with childhood memories of playing in the rain and breathing in that wondrous scent. I felt happy and grateful to my new little friends with whom I now had a somewhat different relationship. I was less grossed out and more respectful of these little creatures who are directly responsible for the production of much of the earth’s soil (AKA one big ol’ pile of worm poop!).

At the end of the workshop, we each left with a half-gallon milk container of 1,000 plus worms and a ten-gallon clear tub outfitted with air holes drilled into the bottom and little metal-screened side vents in the top of each corner. And there I was on the A train with my little worm farm wondering, hmmm, what did I just sign myself up for? I literally waited the full three days – that was how long I had before the worms died – before setting up their bedding, dumping them into their new home and feeding them.

Over the next month, I watched as all the kitchen scraps I’d been feeding my little worm friends slowly turned into the stuff of garden stories and legends and began to fill the tub. Time to harvest! I had no idea how to do this and we didn’t discuss it in the workshop. So, I Googled it, found out the best strategy, and realized… Oh no! I HAVE TO TOUCH THEM!

I tried to think of any way I could to avoid it. I didn’t have any latex or rubber kitchen gloves so I tried to reuse my produce bags to keep some kind of barrier between the grossness and me. The produce bag/gloves didn’t last long. They proved more difficult to repurpose in this way than I thought and just slowed down the process. Apparently touching the worms was inevitable.

So finally, there I was, sitting on the floor of my New York City apartment, with a massive wad of squirming red wigglers in the palm of my bare hand. Suddenly they didn’t seem so slimy and disgusting, but sort of cute and endearing. I recognized them as one of the tiny links in the chain that is our food system and, like so many of those links, as something invaluable. That transition from repulsion to valuing is what helped me to reconnect with the land and the many communities, from worms to people, that it supports. I tucked my little wigglers into their fresh home and began.

Nine years later, here I am on the CASFS farm in Santa Cruz, CA teaching about compost and growing good soil, among other things. I’ve moved on from working with red wigglers to horse manure, stinging nettles and all the other little critters involved in producing the earth’s topsoil. But as my time here winds down and we prepare to start our own farm next year (back in New York), I’m feeling especially grateful to the little creatures that set me on this journey.