The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Mid-scale worm bin problems

Maggots in compostMark and I have had to make the hard decision to call our worm bin project a failure.  Many of the problems have or could be fixed --- the bad smell resulting from Lucy breaking into the compost bin repeatedly and uncovering the scraps (solved), the trashy look and nastiness when Lucy broke into the food bags before they went into the bin (solved), the rat that made a home in the worm bin (solved), the flies that laid their eggs in the compost bin at the advent of hot weather (solvable), the "eww" factor when opening bags of old food scraps (solvable.)  The insurmountable problem is time.

Garden cartOver the last two months, I estimate that Mark and I have put in about twenty hours picking up food scraps and doing worm bin maintenance (not counting the startup time.)  In exchange, we've netted 1,226 pounds of food scraps, which I suspect might break down into about a cubic yard of compost.  To put that in perspective, it takes Mark about two hours to shovel two cubic yards of amazing horse manure (basically worm castings) into the truck, or about three hours to drive to town to pick up a similarly sized load of compost.  Comparing our worm bin project to these alternative methods of getting compost, I'm afraid the juice just isn't worth the squeeze.

Compost wormsWhen we embarked on the project, we had figured we'd feed some of the scraps to our chickens, discovering just in time that we were going to be breaking the law.  If that had been possible, I suspect the food scrap project would have been a success.  The food scraps would have been more valuable, replacing expensive storebought chicken feed and the chickens would have dealt with rats, Lucy, and flies.  Alternatively, for folks who drive to school every day to pick up their kids, the food scraps would have been fresh with less of a gross factor.

Although we're calling it quits on collecting the school's food scraps, we aren't giving up on worms.  Now that the bin is rat-proof and the worm population is expanding, I plan to give less-composted horse manure to the worms to turn into castings.  I suspect there will be no shortage of food for our livestock.

Our chicken waterer never spills or fills with poop.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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So the worms are going to make it somehow with storebought compost? Or am I wrong?
Comment by Maggie Sun May 1 09:54:09 2011
No, we'll feed horse manure to the worms to keep them happy. We've got a steady supply from a couple of nearby stables, and the fresh manure could use some processing before it hits the garden.
Comment by anna Sun May 1 10:44:30 2011
It was a worthy effort and I'm sorry it didn't work out.
Comment by Lisa Sun May 1 13:02:00 2011
It was tough to call it a failure, but we have to be willing to cut our losses when we're coming up with outside the box solutions. Some are great, but some just don't work as planned.
Comment by anna Sun May 1 13:15:44 2011

It seems to me that you go through one heck of a lot of compost just to feed two people on a relatively small plot of land. My guess would be that you are trying to improve a relatively poor soil.

If you need all this compost just to keep nutrient levels stable, I'd wonder if farming is a sustainable activity?

Comment by Roland_Smith Sun May 1 14:53:23 2011

Most soil that's been farmed using traditional methods is poor and needs years of excess compost for optimal gardening. Our farm has variable soil --- half of our gardening area has quite poor soil because it was a badly managed pasture for years before we bought the place and the topsoil all eroded away. The other half of our gardening area has pretty good soil.

As a rule of thumb, you need about half an inch to an inch of compost per year to maintain the status quo when gardening organically, more if you want to improve your soil. This sounds like a lot (and it is --- 67 to 134 cubic yards of compost per acre for maintenance), but you have to keep in mind that compost is nearly all waste products. The composted manure we get for free locally is what's shoveled out of a stables and the compost we bought last year is the same but from a chicken farm. This waste would create public health problems if left alone (not so much the horse manure since there are fewer of horses per capita, but you get the picture.) Compost recycles that "waste" back into the food stream.

Saying that farming isn't sustainable just because it requires a lot of compost is like saying humans aren't sustainable because we have to eat every day. :-) Biology is messy and requires constant inputs and outputs, but life is worth it!

Comment by anna Sun May 1 15:17:23 2011

Why not do thermal composting the food scraps in tall bins (built iwth scrap non-treated odds and ends of wood)? Since you've got the worms anyways, you can always throw some in once the heap cools down but is still composting. I volunteer in the compost area of a school in my city and through frequent abundant supplies of the green material, combined with frequent turning -- we produce finished compost in about 3 months. I do the turning and it takes me just 10 - 15 minutes of sustained shoveling to turn the contents of one bin into the neighbouring bin. The time-consuming part is screening. The compost supervisor wants good grade compost so he wants it screening very fine but the taks could be made much easier by screening with 1/2 mesh rather than 1/4 mesh (I've tried it -- larger holes mena screening time is much reduced)

Dogs and raccoons can be kept out by having a top flap lid that locks.

I was asking myself what am I missing here? Why not take all the biomass one can get? Then it occured to me that maybe the value of the horse manure is equal/exceeds the value of the composted food scraps, so it's about conserving human time and energy?


Comment by J Sun May 1 16:23:39 2011
Your composting system is a good idea, but it doesn't deal with the big problem --- time. It takes a lot of time to collect food scraps from the school, and the scraps come in several bags per day (breakfast, lunch, cooking area), so I have to open all the bags and deal with them. It really adds up --- about an hour and a half per week, which is a lot of time for comparatively little biomass. As you said in your last paragraph, the horse manure compost is just as good quality as the finished worm compost (since it basically is worm compost), and it takes a tenth or less time to get it. While it would be wonderful to keep the food scraps out of the landfill, I unfortunately just don't have that kind of time, especially in the growing season!
Comment by anna Sun May 1 16:28:06 2011

It sounds like that type of system is best suited to composting in-place (i.e. at the school), or large-scale collection and bulk composting (as some municipal councils do here).

At a medium scale but offsite, the labour and transportation seem to outweigh the benefits.

Comment by Darren (Green Change) Sun May 1 23:28:22 2011
You summed it up perfectly! I was considering trying to figure out a composting system that would be placed in the school's parking lot and require next to no maintenance except them tossing in scraps, but that seemed like a tall order.
Comment by anna Mon May 2 07:57:07 2011
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