Utica resident raising worms; others seeing profit potential

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 30, 2000

Lola Lawrence runs the “Lazy L Worm Farm,” home to more than 1 million red wigglers divided among 80 plastic bins. (The Vicksburg Post/PAT SHANNAHAN)

UTICA They’re slimy, they’re squirmy and it used to be that they were most often found dangling from an angler’s hook. But the lowly red wiggler has found new esteem in Mississippi these days among an ever-growing group that’s after a different kind of catch money.

In a converted boat shed cooled with an old window unit and closed off by cardboard boxes, Lola Lawrence runs the “Lazy L Worm Farm,” home to more than 1 million red wigglers divided among 80 plastic bins.

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Somewhere between a gardener and a doting mother, Lawrence waters her worms’ soil daily, checks on their eggs, and feeds them a smorgasbord of manure, kitchen scraps and household garbage.

“Newspaper, junk mail, cardboard boxes, old vegetables, all of that goes to the worms,” Lawrence said. “They can devour a whole watermelon overnight.”

She even talks to them “Hey, babies,” she cooed, digging through the dirt in one bin to check on her creepy crawlies.

Lawrence and her husband Jerry were one of the first in Mississippi to venture into the worm-farming business, and about 50 more have followed so far, mostly in the Vicksburg area. A pound of worms, about 1,000 of them, brings a wholesale price of $7.

Although she claims a growing emotional attachment to the slimy critters, Lawrence is the first to admit that the lure of profit was what got her into the worm business.

“When they curl up like an S,’ they look like dollar signs,” she said.

But these worms aren’t destined for the hook, like so many of their forbearers. Instead, their value is in their appetites, and the end result of those appetites, a prized organic fertilizer tactfully known as “worm castings.”

Greg Bradley is a Meeker, Okla., businessman with a contract to buy the worms produced at the “Lazy L,” along with most of the other worm farms in Mississippi.

His company, B&B Worm Farm, sells the worms to a composting facility in Iowa, where they are used to eat the garbage, leaving behind about half as much volume in castings.

The castings can then be sold to organic farmers, nurseries and others.

Bradley said he is in talks with two other composting facilities for similar deals in what’s called vermi-composting. Besides being a money-maker, the business also has huge upsides for the environment, he said.

It creates a fertilizer without chemicals, and is said to reduce the volume of trash by up to 50 percent.

“We’re one of the last countries to embrace this,” Bradley said. “Australia, Japan and Asia have been doing it for decades.”

In fact, he said, the very same techniques were used at the recent Olympics in Sydney, Australia to reduce the amount of waste produced by the huge influx of visitors to the island country.

Bradley, who just a few years ago was working as a software engineer in San Francisco, said he turned to worms after moving home to Oklahoma after trying different ventures to get his income level back to its Silicon Valley level.

“I had never been a farmer before in my life, but I knew I could grow worms,” he said.

Bradley works with farmers in Ohio, Kentucky and other areas, but he said the explosion of interest in the Vicksburg area has been amazing.

“When it hit Mississippi, everyone just went wild on it,” he said.

The business is new to Mississippi none of the local farmers has had a harvest yet but it’s spreading like wildfire, and Bradley recently signed up one farmer to open a distribution center in Vicksburg.

The Lawrences, who are getting ready for their first harvest, were hosts at an informational meeting at “Lazy L” Saturday for people interested in the worm business, and about 200 people crowded the open-air gathering.

One couple, the Franklins from Baton Rouge, La., said they were planning to sign up immediately.

“It looks like a good way to make money with minimal investment and minimal work,” said Wayne Franklin.

Franklin owns a tobacco and liquor store in Baton Rouge, which he hopes to close down if the worm venture goes well.

He said he’s already had one failed attempt at worm farming, as a little boy.

“I put a bunch of nightcrawlers in dirt in the bathtub,” he said. “But I didn’t know what to do, and they all crawled away.”

Raising worms isn’t for the squeamish. But the Lawrences say the math of raising animals that double every month with only about 20 hours of care each week is indisputable. Like Franklin, Jerry Lawrence is planning to quit his job as a welder if all goes well.

Worm people are all kinds of people, young and old, Lola Lawrence said. Many of them keep in close contact, exchanging tips and acting almost like an extended family.

“Some of the people you would never believe they raise worms, because they’re kind of sticks in the mud,” she said. “They won’t admit it either; but they don’t mind spending the money.”

Patience, a little capital to get started and space to put the bins are all prerequisites for potential vermiculturists, she said. But the most important requirement may be not taking yourself too seriously.

“You have to have a sense of humor,” Lawrence said. “I mean, they’re worms.”