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The noble, selfless worm

Sunday, September 2nd, 2012 | Posted by

Jack Chambers presents a few of his hard-working employees. Photo: John Burgess/PD

When Captain Jack Chambers accepted an early retirement package and left Delta Airlines in 2011, it marked the end of his 33-year career as an airline pilot.

But he had little time—and even less reason—for pondering past accomplishments. He immediately plunged full-steam into his other career, a business that he’d been building, part-time but passionately, for nineteen years.

Where once he soared high amidst the clouds, Chambers now delves “underground” as co-owner, with his wife, Lois, of the Sonoma Valley Worm Farm.

When the Chambers bought the worm farm in 1992 from Earl Schmidt, it was essentially an old-fashioned bait business selling red wigglers to fishermen.

“I’m big on gardening,” Chambers said, “so I first went out to there to buy a 5-gallon bucket of worms for my compost bins. I came home, split the worms between two compost piles, and took off to fly a 5-day trip. When I got back home I couldn’t believe what the worms had done so quickly—the compost was rich and deep.”

When worms transform plant waste and/or animal manure into compost, their own manure—known as Vermicast or worm castings—becomes mixed into it. This mixture is called Vermicompost.

Compost in and of itself is a highly-nutrious fertilizer and soil amendment. When combined with worm castings, which contain an extremely high concentration of water-soluble nutrients, the mixture is an amazingly nutrient-rich organic fertilizer—a staple of organic and bio-dynamic gardening.

Research studies, such as those carried out by the Worm Research Center in England, have shown countless benefits of Vermicomposting to soil and plant growth. And as Chambers began using  the Vermicompost created from Schmidt’s worms in his own garden, he was increasingly impressed.

“Everything grows better with Vermicompost,” he said. “In 20 years, nobody has ever come back to us and said ‘This stuff doesn’t work.’

“When you plant something, just put a cup of it in the hole and you’ll get fewer losses, a superior flavor—it’s thought that high levels of microbial activity increase flavor. Plants look better, have an increased yield, there’s evidence of disease suppression, and there’s no chemical runoff. You feed the soil, and let the soil feed the plant.”

Buying the farm was a leap of faith for the entire Chambers family. Jack, Lois, and their two daughters sold their lovely home on the east side of Sonoma, with easy access to the girls’ schools, and moved to the then-dilapidated worm farm off Arnold Drive. They completely remodeled the house on the property, although in retrospect Chambers thinks it would have been easier to start from scratch.

“I didn’t know much about worms at first,” Chambers said. “This was before the Internet. But I read everything I could get my  hands on. I’d go to international worm conferences since I could fly for free, and I started meeting leaders in the field.

“It wasn’t long before I began to see that worms were hard workers, and the true product in this field was Vermicompost. Research papers were just beginning to be published that showed the value of worm castings. I thought we might make a good future with this, helping people grow better food.”

He was right. You can still buy worms at the farm, although they’re now sold for composting purposes. Any other connection to the former bait business disappeared long ago.

In 2001, working with microbiologist Vicki Bess, Chambers began developing a new system of creating Vermicompost. Organic dairy manure, after being pre-composted to get rid of pathogens, was fed in a continuous flow to worms in a huge bin. The bin sat off the ground, allowing Vermicompost to collect beneath it.

“What you feed worms today can be  harvested in 60 days,” Chambers said. “With our setup here we can make 200,000 pounds of Vermicompost per year. We’d like to get up to 2.8 million pounds.”

Today the Sonoma Valley Worm Farm creates and sells a good deal of Vermicompost and Vermicompost Tea (a liquid runoff produced from the composting process, it’s considered to be highly nutritious). These products are created by the farm’s 4 million worms; they’re housed in four raised beds (90’ x 5’) and are fed organic dairy cow manure.

A 20-pound sack of Vermicompost costs $20, and the tea is $5 per gallon. “You can mix the tea one-to-one with water to stretch it,” Chambers said.

But there are also big-ticket items for sale. Chambers has entered the market for mid-range worm composting systems. Until recently, such composters were either small bins designed for single-family use or huge systems intended for municipalities.

The company’s patent-pending 20-foot and 40-foot Continuous Flow Vermicomposters ($19,995-$25,000) and smaller Aerated Composting Systems ($6,000) are geared to organizations that meet two criteria. First, they produce vast amounts of compostable material (primarily plant debris and animal manure). Second, they can utilize ample amounts of Vermicompost.

Typical markets for Chambers’ Vermicomposters thus include farms, community gardens, schools, college campuses, horse ranches and vineyards.

“The Vermicompost can be used on crops and lawns,” said Chambers. “It can be sprinkled around grape vines and in flower beds. San Francisco has one of our Aerated Composters for the manure from their 16 horses. They use the Vermicompost in Golden Gate Park.”

Chambers clearly loves his work. “I’m more excited about this business today than I was 20 years ago,” he said. I love coming here each and every day, and I only commute fifty feet to work.”

Aside from their house, the Farm is home to 7 sheds used for VermiComposting, an office, and a small barn used to create gold-medal winning “Worm Farm Red” wine from the property’s vineyard.

Thinking about the Farm’s success, Chambers is quick to give credit where it’s due—to his hard-working and industrious laborers.

“People refer to them with that phrase ‘the lowly worm,’” he said. “But I call them selfless. The poor guys don’t have eyes, they don’t have ears or legs, and they spend their entire lives in the dark. But they toil endlessly, improving soils all over the world.

“During the last 30 years of Darwin’s life he had a field next to his house where he studied worms and how they improved the soil in that field. He thought they were incredible creatures. Worms have a high level of performance, and we are lucky that they do.”

Learn more about the Sonoma Valley Worm Farm at sonomavalleyworms.com. You can contact Jack Chambers at 996-8561 or jack.chambers@sonomavalleyworms.com.

Writer Spotlight

Dianne Reber Hart is our Sonoma correspondent.

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