Worm farm profits wiggle away

Published 12:00 am Monday, June 2, 2003

Harry Uzzle stirs worm beds on his property in Warren County Thursday.(Melanie Duncan Thortis The Vicksburg Post)

[5/27/03]A little less than three years ago Harry and Judy Uzzle paid about $8,000 to B&B Worm Farms Inc. for 200,000 worms with an agreement they would sell the worms back to the Oklahoma company for $8 a pound.

The Warren County couple said they thought it would be easy money, feeding the worms for a few minutes a day and watching the profits add up in the bank.

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Or at least that’s what B&B told them.

Harry Uzzle built a large worm-friendly building about 75 yards from his house at 105 Keith Drive. His total investment was about $16,000, he said.

“I had about 2,000 pounds of worms out here,” Uzzle said as he stirred his crop of red wigglers with a pitchfork.

Like many of the estimated 202 Mississippians who invested $3,000 to $30,000, the Uzzles thought they had found a great way to make money. Instead, on April 9, the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office obtained a Cease and Desist Order, preventing anyone from doing business with the company because of evidence B&B was scamming people.

Uzzle said the plan sounded fine to him and his wife back when they first learned about raising worms. They thought the worms would be easy to grow and harvest, and they had what they thought was a guaranteed market. The Uzzles even had a processor who lived in Vicksburg who shipped their worms to the company.

Things couldn’t get better, they thought, until the checks from B&B started slowing and then stopped coming altogether.

“Originally we were supposed to get our check the day the worms were sold,” Judy Uzzle said. “And then it ended up being three months on average before we got our check.”

The Uzzles were among the more fortunate, making about $4,000 net profit through selling worms in the almost three years they spent worm farming, but it’s been months since B&B sent them a check. B&B still owes them nearly $4,500, but has filed for bankruptcy.

Harry Uzzle has stopped feeding his worms and has taken the top off of part of his worm building. He said the feed trash from cotton gins is too expensive when he is not making a cent off his worms.

He has two new plans for the building.

“I’m going to plant beans where the worms were,” he said, pointing to half of his worm beds now exposed to sunlight.

Special Assistant Attorney General Bridgett Wiggins in Jackson was assigned to the B&B case. She said her office first learned about B&B a few months ago when one worm farmer came into the office. After that “it seemed like the phones wouldn’t quit ringing.

“The company was claiming uses for the worms that they have been unable to substantiate,” Wiggins said. “(This) misled the farmers of the value of the worm-farming business.”

B&B claimed it had third-party contracts with businesses, but could not show any documentation confirming them, Wiggins said.

Wiggins said any worm farmer who did business with B&B should immediately fill out a proof of claim form through the attorney general’s office, which lists all of the money owed by the worm company.

At another worm farm in Vicksburg, Kevin Ford is staying busy inside the old Culkin School building. When interviewed, he was packing a one-pound box of worms he sold through the Internet. Ford, his father and another business partner have not sold their worms on a large scale like they had hoped, and getting into the worm business on the tail end of the B&B failure has cuased them to lose a lot of money. Ford would not say exactly how much he has lost.

“We’ve lost the most money in Vicksburg (of all the worm farmers), I’ll put it to you that way,” he said, sitting in front of his worm harvester in the former school he leased from the Vicksburg Warren School District.

Ford said he is trying to find other forms of revenue from the worms. He harvests the worms daily to gather the worm manure, or castings, from the worm beds. Many people use the castings as organic plant and flower fertilizer. No castings have been sold yet, but he has at least 1,000 pounds bundled up, ready for a buyer.

Ford said he knows many worm farmers are skeptical of the market, but he plans to stay in. Another Vicksburg man associated with worms intends to help keep Ford and other farmers in the business.

Ronnie McDaniel, the former worm distributor for B&B, is starting his own casting and “worm tea” business. Worm tea is a liquefied form of castings, which is sprayed on plants as fertilizer instead of being mixed in the soil. McDaniel is working with a partner to base a company in San Francisco, but he said the castings and tea will still be processed in Vicksburg.

He cited spraying the tea on flowers at the entrance to the Ameristar Casino as an example of businesses using the organic fertilizer. He said worm tea should also be a hit with many farmers including producers in California. When used on crops it produces a 33 percent higher yield, he said.

McDaniel would like to expand his business to farmers in Mississippi but knows it may take some convincing.

“In this area it will take giving it away, showing people what it can do,” McDaniel said at his 169 Magnolia Road building.

When he needs worms for castings and tea, McDaniel plans to buy from those who lost the most from B&B first.

Ford said the most crucial thing about a new worm business in the area is time. Farmers are still having to feed their wigglers while they’re not making any money off of them. He said he will certainly be ready for the company to start up, although he is also looking for other companies to buy his worms and castings.

“It would be lovely if (McDaniel) could put, it together and he could help us out,” Ford said.

Judy Uzzle said she and Harry are not saving the worm castings since it’s too labor intensive. She is also skeptical about McDaniel’s new business being large enough to sustain all of the worm farmers who lost money with B&B.

Harry Uzzle said he plans to give the company six months to begin buying from him, and then all of his worm beds will be filled with snap beans.

Uzzle said he knew he took a chance as a worm farmer.

“We really believed it was a good business to begin with,” he said.