Worms at the Devine Gardens

In the beginning

The tomato plant on the left was grown using man made fertilizer in potting soil. The tomato plant on the right was grown using vermicompost in potting soil. Both types were planted and trasplanted to bigger pots at the same time. Notice the difference in the root balls at the end of the season. The root ball on the right was almost twice as big and the root system was much denser with many more of the tiny lateral roots and mycorrhizal fungal filaments.

The tomato plant on the left was grown using man made fertilizer in potting soil.
The tomato plant on the right was grown
using vermicompost in potting soil.
Both types were planted and trasplanted to bigger pots at the same time. Notice the difference in the root balls at the end of the season. The root ball on the right was almost twice as big and the root system was much denser with many more of the tiny lateral roots and mycorrhizal fungal filaments.

Growing up I watched and helped my Mother tend her plants. She got a lot of pleasure from working with them and seeing them grow. She loved her flowers, vegetables and planted many, many trees and shrubs. She was just happy if her plants were productive; they never were expected to be outstanding. I don’t re-member her using any type of chemical; she was content to let nature bring her what it may.

When I started gardening I wanted my plants to be all that they could be (like the Army slogan). Advertisements and nice packaging also influenced my deci-sion to use chemicals. They made it seem like it was normal and even required to use their products. I remember I wanted the biggest, most beautiful roses I could grow. So I would spray them with some awful smelling white powdery substance. When the kids were little I was convinced I should fertilize my lawn. One time I was spreading dry lawn fertilizer with a push broadcaster as the kids ran around behind me. Thankfully, a neighbor walking by informed me not to let them run through those chemicals barefoot. I think I was barefoot too. Another time I applied fertilizer to my perennial flowers in late June. When I re-turned from vacation the plants looked awful because there had been no rain and the salts in the fertilizer had dehydrated the plants.

There I was, a garden hobbyist and, as you can see, I was really clueless about harmful chemicals and soil health. It wasn’t that I used them all the time; I just did it on a whim here and there. Then one day I had to look up something in my gardening books and realized that my gardening books were over 15 years old and filled with advice on using chemicals to control every problem associated with plants, there were no natural solutions. So I took out a subscription to Or-ganic Gardening magazine and for Christmas received Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening. My conversion to natural gardening had begun. A few years later we bought the farm and gardening and my life would never be the same.

Six years ago friends of ours were selling their farm because they were moving out of the area. The farm was 70 acres in total; 20 in woods and the rest were fields left to overgrow for 20 years. They rented out the 1947 dairy barn to a friend who kept cows, pigs and pastured about 10 acres. The dairy barn was in fair shape. There was no home on the property because the original farmer had divided the land into 2 parcels.

There was also a 10 year old pole barn which our friends had built for their vermicompost business. They had 3 young boys and were not able to devote enough time to develop the business. The pole barn was in excellent shape. In the middle of the barn was a long windrow of vermicompost with some worms still hanging on to dear life. I was curious about the vermicompost.

Deciding to buy the farm was a huge decision. My husband Mike and I were happy. Our four children were graduated, starting their own lives, moving out and back in as life threw them curves. I had gardens galore including a gorgeous, perennial flower garden around the house, a perennial garden including rhubarb, asparagus, raspberries and strawberries and another 40’ x 60’ vegetable garden. We had a 3-acre yard that included many trees and a small fruit orchard of peach, plum, apple, pear and blueberry bushes that was just starting to produce. Mike enjoyed taking care of the 3-acre lawn.

But we had always thought how nice it would be to have a farm with enough land for animals and a wooded area to walk through and enjoy. I knew that my part time job would be ending in the next year or two. With the kids growing up we were less busy and Mike wanted more work to keep him busy. Still I was scared to commit because I didn’t want the new farm to consume our lives. After a lot of praying I realized that if the farm was going to consume us it didn’t have to be a bad thing. We decided to take the farm that wasn’t being used to its full potential and turn it into a productive place that our family could enjoy and would grow nutritious food.

Since we bought our farm in November I wasn’t able to garden with the vermicompost right from the start. Instead, that winter I spent my free time research-ing vermicompost. It was exciting to read about all of the good things that vermicompost was reported to help with. I compared starting seeds with it in the mix and without. Sure enough, the mixture with the vermicompost had more seeds germinate and the seedlings grew quicker and bigger. I was convinced and started my business, Devine Gardens LLC, so that I could sell the best vermicompost I could produce and to eventually sell other farm products.

Getting the business up and running

Oh boy, so now I started a business! I had taken some business courses years ago at the local community college. I had also worked as an office assistant during the time my children were growing up so I had some knowledge of running a business. I took a three day business start up class through the local Small Busi-ness Development Center. From there I dove in. My first attempt at selling was at my local farmer’s market using a card table. I sold vermicompost in feed sacks to get a feel for the market. I also sold my garden’s vegetables. I was very nervous but it was a lot of fun and the people were very friendly.

I went on to develop a mascot/logo, website, brochures, business cards, banners, packaging and so forth. I slogged through it spending more hours than I want to admit and used my family and friends for their input and advice. It would have been easier to hire a marketing professional but I didn’t have the money and now my business really looks like me, who I am and what I represent.

The business is named in memory of my Mother and Father, Bill and Alice Devine. I cherish the values they lived by including integrity, honesty and love of family. My Dad was a full blooded Irishman so it was natural that the Devine Gardens’ mascot would be Irish too. That is how O’Smiley McWiggler came to his prominence in the business.

While selling at a local garden center’s event, I met the director of WISE Women’s Business Center. Through WISE I have received coaching, attended busi-ness workshops, networked and taken a 6 session sales course. To improve my communication skills I joined Toastmasters. I never have liked talking to a crowd and because of my nervousness I wasn’t effective. Toastmasters has done wonders for me being able to relate my thoughts in a logical, meaningful way. I’m presently enrolled in Annie’s Project, a 6 session program that strengthens women’s roles in farm enterprises.

Learning about vermicompost and how it relates to soil health has been fun and interesting. Besides researching vermicompost on the internet, I attended two Vermiculture Conferences which are put on yearly through North Carolina State University. I also attended the US Compost Council’s 40 Hour Training Course so that I could learn the finer points of making high quality compost. I have attended other compost workshops put on by NERC and Cornell Waste Management. Through those workshops I’ve met other people who have been so important to the growth of my knowledge and business.

Studying good books has been invaluable. My favorites are Teaming with Microbes by Jeff Lowenfels & Wayne Lewis, Building Soils for Better Crops by Fred Magdoff & Harold Van Es, Vermiculture Technology edited by Clive Edwards, Norman Arancon & Rhonda Sherman, The Farm as Ecosystem by Jerry Brunetti and Worms Eat My Garbage by Mary Appelhof. I also regularly read Acres Magazine and The Natural Farmer.

Experiences with vermicompost

Because their roots are more developed, plants grown in vermicompost will be able to get more nutrients out of the soil, more drought resistant and have a bet-ter network to “talk” with other plants.

My cantaloupe plants were being eaten alive by striped cucumber beetles. So I made vermicompost tea and sprayed the plants twice a week for two weeks. I couldn’t believe how well it worked; the cucumber beetles were no longer eating the plants. All the plants lived and grew. Later that season, there were cu-cumber beetles inside the blooms of the cantaloupe plants. They were not harming the blooms and I wonder if they were actually helping to pollinate. I was so happy that I was able to control bad bugs without harmful chemicals.

Vermicompost scratched into the soil around perennials that are lackluster will give the plants a boost. For example: I had an azalea plant that was almost dead. It was not growing, had barely any leaves and had two dull flowers. In the fall I worked vermicompost into the soil around its base. The next season the plant was doing better but by the second season the plant was thriving. It was twice as big as originally, was full of green, lush leaves and vibrant blooms that lasted for what seemed like at least a month.

Garlic grows wonderfully with the help of vermicompost yielding healthy large heads with many of the bulbs weighing 6 ounces. The largest head I’ve weighed was 7 ounces and measured 4 inches across.

Though I haven’t been able to eliminate downy mildew and late blight using vermicompost tea I have been able to control it so that the plants remain produc-tive. One summer I found late blight on my tomato plants on Labor Day weekend. By spraying tea on the plants I continued to harvest tomatoes until the first frost, September 29th.

On our 30th anniversary Mike gave me a 60 gallon tow behind sprayer. When building the garden I made a drive through path so it would be easy to apply tea. I spray the tea on any plant and fruit tree that may need it. Using tea is a cost efficient, easy way to get the benefits of vermicompost. Because you’re not using harmful chemicals, it’s safe. Unless you drive over a mud wasp nest, which I did, and they do get very angry and attack.

Growing with vermicompost lets me harvest big, delicious fruits and vegetables. I’ve grown carrots that weighed a pound and were just as sweet as if they were little guys. Only vermicompost and compost are used on the farm because I want to be able to tell customers exactly what it will and won’t do. If I used addi-tional amendments I wouldn’t be sure.

Producing vermicompost

The windrows used to produce vermicompost when we bought the farm were hard to manage and took up a lot of floor space. After tinkering with a couple of different ideas I decided to go with raised beds that we built ourselves. Mike did the welding and my son assembled the wooden parts. People can buy or build raised beds that have mechanized scraper systems on the bottom. Our beds do not have mechanized scrapers because that would be one more thing to break and have to repair.

Even though the worms do a good job at reducing weed seeds and pathogens it wasn’t good enough. I used my knowledge from the 40 Hour Compost Opera-tor’s Training Course to make my own aerated static bay compost system. That was a complete failure and quite a mess. A year and a half later I asked O2 Compost to design a system for my operation. The compost bays were finished in November 2012. It was so exciting until I tried to make compost. Instead of listening when people say “I don’t think that’s going to work” I have to try it for myself. For example: a manure spreader will not be able to thoroughly mix cow manure with the bedding. But it will be a lot of work when the chain on the manure spreader breaks and you have to empty the spreader with a pitch fork.

We had to buy an old TMR feed mixer to thoroughly mix the feedstock. To run the mixer we had to buy a big enough horse-power tractor. It also took a few different attempts to find the best carbon source to add to the manure/bedding to obtain the right C:N ratio and bulk density. The carbon had to be free from contaminants so that eliminated free yard waste from municipalities. It also had to be free of persistent herbicides. Finally, I decided to use a mulch/sawdust that we purchase from a local lumber mill. That is added to the cow and pig manure and bedding from our farm.

Because of the improvements mentioned above Devine Gardens vermicompost is approved for unrestricted use in certified organic production through NOFA-NY. It does not need to be certified organic because compost/vermicompost is not eaten by animals or people. To become approved several things have to be done. First, because the feedstock contains manure it has to be precomposted for at least 3 days at a temperature of at least 131 degrees F (for static aerat-ed bays. For windrows it must be at least 15 days and turned a minimum of 5 times). The initial C:N of the feedstock must be between 25:1 and 40:1. The worms have to be watered and fed thin layers of food regularly to maintain aerobic conditions and appropriate moisture levels. The duration of vermicompost-ing has to be long enough that the worms have totally worked through the feedstock. Also, the feedstock can’t contain contaminants.

For quality control Devine Gardens vermicompost is tested yearly. Penn State University tests for physical and chemical attributes and Earthfort for biological. As the years have gone by, the tests have shown steady improvements. Now, the yearly test results are similar to the year before because the feedstock and the method stays the same.

During the worm’s production season I’m busy feeding and watering the worms, harvesting their product, screening and packing. From December to April the worms are dormant. For my operation It would be really hard to feed them because their food freezes and the water has to be shut off to the pole barn so the pipes don’t freeze and break. To tuck them in for winter I give them a nice thick layer of food, water them, cover them with sheets of foam insulation and set their heat cables to 32 degrees. That way they don’t freeze and die, but are inactive. I check on them daily during the winter in case an electric breaker switches off or a heat cable stops working.

Marketing and selling vermicompost

Devine Gardens vermicompost is sold screened in one quart, four quart and 16 quart containers at approximately 10 stores within 50 miles of my farm which is located east of Syracuse in central New York. To promote sales I go to those stores and give away samples and talk with their customers. I also sell and promote at farmer markets and garden shows/festivals in the area. Some sales are through my website online. Bulk screened and unscreened product is sold at the farm.

A lot of people have not heard of vermicompost. When they become enlightened about what it is and how it will help their plants they are interested. Speaking appearances and workshops are great opportunities to tell people about vermicompost and how it helps improve soil health. When people hear that adding ver-micompost to soil is like eating yogurt because you’re supplying good microbes, they can really identify with it. I know from my own experience that there are a lot of people who just don’t ever think about soil health and why it’s important. When they understand what those harmful chemicals are doing and that they don’t have to use them they feel empowered.

Some advertising has been done but it is so expensive and it’s hard to tell if it’s working. Anyway, I like talking with people in person. One unexpected benefit is all of the gardening tips I learn from fellow gardeners.

I also sell worms but I don’t like to ship them because I have had worms die during shipping. Usually we arrange a place that’s convenient for both of us to meet. Sometimes Mike will deliver worms for me if he will be in the customer’s area. I don’t sell worm bins because people can make them out of plastic tubs. If I found a really good worm bin that was reasonably priced I would recommend it and maybe sell it.

The growth of the business has chugged along sometimes slower than I would like, sometimes too fast and sometimes seeming to almost stop. Lately I’m sensing that it is starting to hum, a very slow, steady, reliable hum. That is good because it’s important that the growth of Devine Gardens is well thought out.

The compost bays are designed to produce between 400 and 600 yards a year; that amount is based on the output of the farm’s animals. The worms reduce what they eat by half so I have the capacity to produce 300 yards of unscreened vermicompost a year at most. To produce that much I would need to build a lot more buildings to house the additional worm beds. That does not make financial sense. I would rather fill the need for organic approved compost in our area which I will be able to start selling in larger quantities as the years go by.

This year customers also trialed a compost/vermicompost mix that they were very happy with so that will be another area in which to grow sales.

One of my goals is to help more farmers use vermicompost. It would be so helpful to organic and natural growers who have fewer options to fight off pests and diseases. I’m guessing the seemingly high cost prohibits their use. To cut down on costs I sell screened and unscreened in bulk from a yard all the way down to a few square feet. Making vermicompost tea also is cost effective.

I haven’t mentioned my husband a lot in the day to day running of the business because Mike works full time in the trucking industry. He is in charge of equipment, land and buildings. He helps me with anything I need muscle for. He is also my consultant. I run almost every decision past him to make sure it makes sense.

Our farm

The farm is a collective effort that is such a sweet deal. The farmer, Bob, who was here when we bought the farm, is still here. His cows and pigs provide the manure and bedding for the worm’s feedstock. He owns and operates the hay equipment. He hays our fields and a couple of neighbors’ fields. Mike and our boys, when available, unload and stack the hay. We purchase his hay at a fair price and he has extra hands helping him. He has much more knowledge and ex-perience than we do so we go to him for advice. There is also a man who keeps some of his beehives at our farm. We have all the extra pollinators and some honey and he has totally chemical free fields for his bees.

After buying the farm we discovered that the dairy barn was in worse shape than we thought. We paid to have the rotted corners and all the other rotted wood replaced and new windows put in. The next summer we rented a lift and painted the barn and transformed the landlocked mud hole behind the barn into a useable area with a driveway.

In 2012 we had a house built, sold our old house and moved to the farm. We love living in the country where it’s so peaceful and pretty. That summer we real-ized that the pasture fence had some real problems – Bob’s cows got out, often. I had people, including the state police and sheriff, call and come to the house to let me know the cows were on Route 20. Getting a call or having a policeman come to your door at midnight is so scary that you’re relieved it’s just a loose cow. I know from personal experience that I don’t enjoy running down Route 20 trying to coax a cow away from dangerous traffic. The bull liked to go through the fence onto our new mud lawn and drop cow patties. The worst thing about that was the new puppies thought it was wonderful to eat.

That winter we took down the barbed wire fencing and posts. We hired a local company to install about 6 acres of high tensile fencing near the dairy barn. We watched and took notes and pictures as they built the fence so that we could learn how. The next summer we installed an 8 acre pasture behind our house. This summer we borrowed a post pounder from Soil and Water and pounded in the posts to enclose the rest of the land except the woods. Next year we hope to fin-ish the fence. Then we will be able to rotational graze or hay the pastures as needed.

Last fall we bought 4 Dexter cattle — one was a bred Dexter/Jersey cross, one was a 6 month old Dexter heifer and the other 2 were 6 month old steers. On March 14th the bred cow had her first calf, a beautiful, healthy heifer that we named Clover. This fall we are buying 4 more heifers, then we are going to let the herd grow themselves. Right now a bull is not in the picture. To allow for artificial insemination this summer we built a corral with chute and headgate. I’m hoping to be able to milk one of the cows in the future. We have plans to build another lean to closer to the house with a milking area. The cows are more fun to work with than the worms. Worms do not have much personality. They don’t like to be petted either.

We are trying our hand at raising chickens. I wanted to let them free range but there is a red fox living around here that loves chicken. Over the winter I’ll be deciding whether to keep them in movable electric netting or just build a fenced in area for them. For this winter they are safe and sound in the front room of the dairy barn. It’s nice to have fresh eggs and we look forward to raising meat chickens.

Our hope for the future is that we will make enough profit off of the different enterprises from the farm that Mike and I can eventually both work on the farm. The planning, effort and hard work that go into attaining that goal are fun for us. My gardens this year looked more like weed beds but that doesn’t matter be-cause I want to get vermicompost into the hands of natural gardeners and help them. It’s a fantastic feeling to know that you’re in the right place making a product that you believe in.