Squirms of worms work for the Compost Club
By ANN CARRANZA / Healdsburg Correspondent
Rick Kaye has squirms of worms working throughout the county, busily converting food waste into soil-enriching compost.
Deep in two- or three-foot diameter beds, the industrious worms are chewing and digesting the garbage from eight schools and three businesses. The finished product, called vermicastings, goes back into their gardens, with any leftovers sold for $1 a pound.
The Compost Club, as the endeavor is called, was born in 2003, when Kaye, 48, was volunteering in his daughter’s second-grade classroom at West Side School.
While in Panama with the Peace Corps, he had worked with subsistence farmers to amend their soils and reap better harvests. His suggestion to make vermicast with the school’s food waste was well received, and the initial effort met with immediate success.
Each week the school’s 150 students created 20 pounds of compostable waste that was converted into worm castings. Students, teachers and parents sifted, bagged and labeled it, then sold it in 5-pound bags at the Healdsburg Farmers Market.
Start up costs were funded through grants from philanthropist John Dolinsek, the Santa Rosa Sunrise Rotary, the Community Foundation Sonoma County, the Rose Foundation and the Healdsburg Rotary.
Each year the Compost Club has grown. It’s now active at Healdsburg Elementary, Windsor High School, Santa Rosa Middle School, Wright Charter in Santa Rosa, and Apple Blossom, Twin Hills and Parkside in Sebastopol.
Bins also are maintained at Sonoma County Jail Industries, Westminster Woods and Bishop’s Ranch, a retreat center near Healdsburg, where Kaye works as a maintenance assistant.
The Compost Club program has gone from diverting 900 pounds of food waste at West Side School in 2003 to nearly 44,000 pounds in 2012. Members have tackled a total of 100 tons of waste over the past decade, and Kaye is poised to add more.
The club was formed in the wake of California AB 939, the integrated waste management law that required California landfill managers to divert 50% of their waste, changing the climate for recycling and composting.
“While California didn’t reach that goal until 2006, it is the greatest environmental success story,” said Kaye. “It changed a lot of things.”
At each of the eight schools, adult volunteers work with students who take an active part in both gardening and composting. “Every year a student who is born to do this comes forward,” said Kaye.
They make worm bins that are two feet tall with corrugated plastic culvert pipe sides and plywood tops and bottoms. A layer of landscape fabric is topped with 3-4 four inches of angled 1½ inch driveway rock to provide sufficient drainage. Holes also are drilled in the bottom, and the bins are raised to prevent rotting.
They’re filled with food scraps and a carbon source such as paper and rice hulls. Red wriggler worms take care of the rest, producing a finished batch of vermicastings in about three months.
Worm bins are designed to create the ultimate conditions for worm health, while offering rodent protection. An early-day raccoon raid provided a valuable lesson in how to create a beast-proof cover. Member Lisa Thorpe, an artist, now sews shade-cloth covers that include raccoon-proof buckles.
“Everything teaches us something,” said Kaye. “We use the raised design for rodent prevention, and mulch on the ground captures the leachate (worm water) that drains from the holes in the bottom.”
Most of the leachate is allowed to percolate into the soil, but club members use some of the materials to brew compost tea to use on the gardens.
Each bin needs a carbon source as well as food scraps. At Bishop’s Ranch, Kaye uses shredded paper from the office, as well as rice hulls purchased at Wright’s Feed Store in Healdsburg. The kitchen staff gathers pre-consumer food scraps (not table waste) such as banana and potato peels, eggshells and apple cores.
Each of the ranch’s five bins can hold 25 pounds of food scraps each week. Workers dig into already composted materials and carefully bury the scraps under a layer of hulls and paper. Kaye provides enough moisture to make the material like a “wrung out sponge.”
Each bin is harvested after about three months, or the worms will bolt to the top and escape. Worms are gently sifted out, leaving the earthy smelling compost to be used as fertilizer.
Red wrigglers are designed by nature to consume organic matter, Kaye said, and they multiply at “an amazing rate.” That’s why selling extra worms is part of the business.
Worms are harvested by putting pulped carrots in an onion bag and burying it in the bin. The worms move to the food source and remain there when the bag is removed.
Worms are sold at Sonoma County Compost, Sonoma County Waste Management and on Craigslist. They are valued at $25/pound.
The Compost Club is sponsored by the North Coast Resource Conservation and Development Council, a nonprofit that in June provided a mini-grant of $500 toward the Club’s expanding vermiculture operations.
The club is developing a farm-based model for the nearby organic Bucher Dairy, with plans to compost 30 yards of dairy manure into 36,000 pounds of vermicompost and 500 pounds of red worms. To make that happen, the Compost Club needs another $10,000 investment.
In addition to vermicastings and worms, the club sells complete bins, charging $150 for 2-foot bins that can compost about 10-12 pounds of food a week, and $400 for 3-foot diameter bins that can compost about 25 pounds of food.
For more information, visit compostclub.org, email Compostclub@gmail.com or call Kaye at 922-5778.