It's a Worm's Life
Meet the Ultimate Green Machine
Miki Jurcan loves his wrigglers. You can hear it when he talks about them. His voice registers more than a hint of satisfaction when he says, “I’m known as the guy who plays with worms.” And you can see it when he scoops up a handful of decomposing vegetable waste mixed with horse manure. He tenderly prods and fingers apart the moist brown clump to reveal a squirming mass of squiggly red things. They writhe and twist as the light hits them and seemingly distracts them momentarily from their life’s work—namely, eating, breeding and pooping.
They’re interesting creatures, shares the one-time graphic artist from what was Yugoslavia when he lived there. They never sleep. Being hermaphrodites, both members of a mating pair produce eggs. Each egg can hatch up to 20 worm babies. They can multiply so fast that it may be time to replace the idiom “breeding like rabbits” with “breeding like eisenia foetida,” which is the biological name for the red worm used for composting at Jurcan’s Bay Worms, a nonprofit Alameda Point project (www.bayworms.org, 510-776-6210). And increasingly, private individuals are choosing to take herds of these scrap-eating green machines home.
Part of the appeal, says Jurcan, is that they are low maintenance and potentially can eat all of a household’s food scraps and green waste. When the material goes through their gut, it becomes mineralized. It comes out as little clumps, called castings—the equivalent of gold when it comes to composting and growing healthy plants.
A compact, bearded man with a leathery tan, Jurcan looks but doesn’t sound hippie-ish—he’s much too direct, involved and organized. He is the founder and director of Bay Worms, which operates from the Alameda Point Collaborative (www.apcollaborative.org) community garden and trades worm castings for rent-free space.
Bay Worms was previously Berkeley Worms. Founded in 1992, the conservation-conscious composting nonprofit lost its lease in Richmond in 2005. Jurcan, who had been working there, relocated it to its present location and changed the name.
The operation produces organic fertilizers using two methods: worm composting and the more traditional hot composting. The latter uses an Indian layering method called Indore, in which bacteria cause decomposition.
Both types of compost are sold at the Berkeley Farmers Market on Saturdays and Tuesdays. Worm kits sell for $12, but must be ordered in advance. The kit includes 10 to 15 pounds of bedding material and worm castings, about 500 worms and usually quite a few eggs, plus additional microorganisms that develop naturally in Bay Worms’ breeding and compost-producing bins.
Jurcan refers prospective vermicomposters to the Alameda County Waste Management Authority site (www.stopwaste.org) for worm housing. Alameda residents can order a Wriggly Wranch Worm Bin online for a discount price of $29 plus sales tax ($2.54) and shipping ($5). “Great for composting kitchen scraps; ideal for apartment dwellers; stacking design for easy harvesting,” the site advises. It is estimated that more than 50 percent of personal waste that ends up as landfill can be composted at home. In this way, “trash” is recycled as fertilizer.
Islander Claire Splan, a freelance editor and a keen gardener who is taking horticulture classes at Merritt College, has long had a regular home compost bin. She recently bought a Wriggly Wranch bin and worm kit, having heard that this form of composting is lower maintenance. “I’m terrible at remembering to keep my other one cooking,” she confesses. She wanted the rich fertilizer—castings and leachate, the liquid generated by waste decomposition—that comes from the worms. “It’s full of nutrients and is an excellent liquid fertilizer,” she says.
She was expecting to get her first castings after six months. “It takes a while for the worms to really get going, but it’s been surprisingly easy so far,” she says.
Bachelor Kent Lewandowski, an IT consultant for a healthcare provider, was inspired by a large-scale innovative worm-composting operation he saw supporting a flourishing herb garden in a greenhouse in Wisconsin. “I thought if that was possible, I could compost on a small scale here in the Bay Area,” he says.
He bought the Wriggly Wranch for his apartment kitchen plus a compost bin, which he keeps in a friend’s garden. “I like having them,” he says of his worms. “It’s a neat experiment. I feel I’m maybe helping something live.” But, he says, his small herd is finicky and will only eat certain things, and after a full year, he is still taking the bulk of his scraps to his outdoor composter and has had no castings. His potted plants, meanwhile, thrive on the leachate that drains off.
Meanwhile, Jurcan has a big five-year dream for Bay Worms. He wants to grow it into the biggest worm composter in Alameda County. He’d like to see a worm bin in every household. He intends to train and employ people in composting and worm ecology (he’s had volunteer help and interest from UC Berkeley students), and he envisions Bay Worms as a scientific research facility—he regularly sends soil samples to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst’s soil-test lab.
At the pace the nonprofit is growing, it seems there could be a lot of wriggly red critters worming their way into Jurcan’s future.
—Photography by Lewis Smith
—Photography by Lewis Smith