Experimentation with Vermiculture Composting at Arcosanti
About a year ago the Arcosanti Community Council invested about 1000 dollars in a vermiculture system based on a funds request by Bamboo (Bob Ransom).
While the system has not proven itself well or at least we have not figured out how to use the system (Worm WigWam) as it was designed, the worms are doing well and I am experimenting with different techniques for expanding their numbers and the rate of biomass degradation.
We hope to eventually develop a program by which all the composting is done by the worms and that this includes selective introduction of paper materials (More on this later) into the composting mix. In the meantime we are slowly scaling out the system towards the larger vision.
Background and Update on Worm Farming at Arcosanti
During the Summer of last year (2010) Bob Ramson petitioned the Community Council at Arcosanti with a proposal to introduce vermiculture composting at Arcosanti. He did some research and discussed the potential benefits of Vermiculture. One of the results he concluded from the research as that vermi-composting appeared to be a way to efficiently and more quickly process compost scraps, produce worms (specifically the preferred composted worm is a Eisenia Fetida or more commonly, a Red Wiggler) as food for other farm critters, the formation of a nutrient rich compost tea, dark rich vermicompost. Bob also discussed the potential of selling the worms or the compost as a business venture.
After doing his research Bob determined that it did not make sense for us to build our own system. He identified the Worm WigWam as being a small to intermediate stage system that we could begin to test out using about 20 percent of our current compost/kitchen scrap output. The system cost approximately 600 dollars and the starter worms an additional 300 dollars. In total, 1000 dollars was procured from the Community Council Sustainability Fund to enable the start up of this system.
How the System Works
The gin is a cylinder that has a bottom made of a grate and tire jack that moves one section of the grate back and forth. Seeding the system means adding paper to the bottom so that that compost stays above the grate. Over the time the material deteriorates and so does the paper allowing the resulting worm castings to be sifted out using the moveable grate system. Its designed as a continuous flow system. The idea is to keep adding material to the top and then by sifting the material/castings through the grate to allow more to be added above at the top and then composted by the worms. The system as I understand it does not have provisions for “worm tea” but many other systems do have ways to collect the worm tea. The worm tea component is just another way to take the nutrients that result from the worm castings and the worm actions of digesting the compost that help create healthy and fast growing plants.
Field Observations and Research
Because the system does not seem to be designed, made or is working well so far, I have been doing experiments with setting up other worm beds using pots and buckets. From this I have examined the characteristics that seems to best encourage worm growth including temperature, moisture and food as well as premixing, breaking up and pre-decomposing food scraps. From the field research I have done the worms prefer materials that are already beginning to breakdown and this is backed up with some materials I have read. They also like layers and I have noted patterns in which the worms seems to develop a critical mass of intensity. They seem to be social creatures who like working together and forming mats in which they work together in a synergistic way to break down biomass. The layers by including good ventilation through the use of materials like straw or paper also seem to increase the ability for them to breath and the microbes they symbiotically work with inside in their stomachs and also outside independently of them.
Initial Reasons for growing worms at Arcosanti:
1. Faster breakdown of biomass
2. Higher Nutrient content and quality of nutrients in compost
3. Worms could be sold to other farmers or for bait
4. Worms could be used for other farming projects such as feed
Some of the major goals we have considered include the development of an understanding of worm farming so that it could be used to increase the fertilization of the soils at Arcosanti. It is claimed that vermiculture worm castings/vermicompost are a higher quality soil amendment than existing conventional composting systems. The benefits of vericulture vs regular composting are listed here.
Long Term Goals:
- Scale system up so that it could be used for all of Arcosanti’s composting needs
- Build a improved system with high capacity that is a continuous feed design
- Capture the worm juice and use it as a liquid fertilizer/compost tea
- Recycle a significant amount of paper waste that can be safely composted
- Increase worm population to enable expansion of the vermilculture program
- Integrate vermiculture system with other aspects of the Arcosanti Agriculture Program
Role of Worms in making Arcosanti more Sustainable
The worms have a role in making Arcosanti more sustainable and also general composting using a standard heap and/or bed method. As we seek to become more of a model of sustainability here at Arcosanti the worm farming component can lead to the production of high grade, high quality compost and compost teas as well as using the worms as food for chickens or fish that could be farmed onsite. The vision is to develop greenhouse solutions that consider a holistic polyculture approach to farming such as vermiculture that can maximize returns while doing so without sacrificing ecological integrity.