The Early Bird Gets the Worm

Final Report for YENC09-013

Project Type: Youth Educator
Funds awarded in 2009: $1,977.44
Projected End Date: 12/31/2010
Region: North Central
State: Michigan
Project Manager:
Nate Beelen
Whitefish Township Community School
Expand All

Project Information


In order to maximize the value of this grant I leveraged this project with several other ongoing projects to teach students about biogeochemical cycling in the environment and its relation to producing food. As a first step we had built a hoophouse the prior summer. This hoophouse was built in an area of very sandy soil. The soil had sustained limited vegetative growth. Earlier soil tests through the extension office had revealed severe nutrient deficiencies. The goal of the hoophouse project was to create an area for a garden that would offer protection from early and late frosts and offer season extension for agricultural production.

With the grant funds received we began a study of soil fertility using the soil test kits to confirm the lack of nutrients. We then began research into ways to improve soil fertility and studied how soil was formed through natural processes. We used this information to identify sources of nutrients within the school’s waste stream that could be tapped into and redirected to the soil.

We also identified the mineral make up of our soil and identified another weakness in our soil, a lack of organic matter to help retain the nutrients we could add. This sent us back to our waste stream to find a source of more organic matter. In the end the students identified three sources of waste to tap into to enhance our soils fertility. The first was waste water from a salmon rearing project. This provided a valuable source of nitrogen and phosphorus. The second was cafeteria food waste which provided a wide range of nutrients as well as organic matter. The final was our paper waste which primarily provided organic matter to retain and trap nutrients and water near the root zone of our plants.

With the three sources identified we began adding them to the soil. The students soon realized another critical factor was missing from the puzzle. That missing part was living organisms to help break down the organic matter and release the nutrients. Without them the organic matter began to build up and decomposed slowly attracting flies and developing unpleasant odors.

We again returned to the research phase to discover what organisms in nature help break down organic matter in the soil. We identified several organisms from microscopic bacteria to larger rodents. In the end, however, we discovered that one of the most aggressive and effective decomposers of organic matter in the soil were worms.

It was here that our research took an interesting turn as we discovered that in our environment that worms were actually an invasive species and that their ability to rapidly decompose organic matter in our sandy soil actually lead to leaching of nutrients from the soil and threatened the ecosystems of some of our native organisms, in particular woodland plants and animals that rely on the thick layer of leaf litter to live, grow, and reproduce.

Despite the danger we determined that worms were already present in our environment and we also decided to take steps to minimize the risk of our worms getting out into the environment by providing a barrier between the worm bins and the soil. We also decided not to sell worms as had been planned unless we could develop an appropriate warning label for our worm containers.

We realized that the worms can be bad for the long term health of our sandy soil; however, they were critical to help with the rapid decomposition of the large supply of organic and vegetable matter we were producing in our cafeteria and school. We decided to go ahead and set up our worm bins.

The worm bins were established using shredded paper and carefully selected food scraps from the cafeteria waste stream. Our research had led us to discover that fatty or oily foods or foods heavy in protein were not good for the worms. They preferred vegetable matter and foods rich in carbohydrates. Once the bins were set we monitored them through the summer for health adding food and bedding material as needed. Due to the large size of our bins and small amount of starter worms we were only able to harvest a minimum amount of compost by the end of the summer.

We did notice, however, that the water which drained from the bins was very effective at enhancing the growth of the plants surrounding the bins.

1. Teach students how to be engaged in agriculture.
2. Students will understand the importance of soil fertility.
3. Students will understand how natural cycles work and how their actions can enhance or hinder those natural cycles.
4. Increase access to locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables.
5. Teach people a low cost way to enhance soil fertility.

The steps I used in conducting the project were to set it up as an authentic problem that I tasked students with solving. I took students step by step through the problem as we researched the related issues and slowly built our knowledge to tackle the main issue of poor soil fertility. I set it up this way in order to enhance student involvement with the process and to help teach students how they can use science to help solve real world problems. I worked with students to gather data and then to interpret what that data meant in terms of the problem they were trying to solve. I allowed students to choose solutions and try out those solutions in an experimental approach.

For example, the first thing we did was to perform soil tests of the subject area. We also took soil tests of other areas that appeared more fertile. By comparing these results and researching what the different soil nutrients did we were able to identify that a lack of nutrients was the primary reason for the apparent soil infertility. We then asked how we can improve the soil. The obvious answer was to add fertilizers but I directed students to think more long term about how soil develops naturally. This led to further study and further experimentation as we began adding compost material to the soil. It also led to a new problem as the material failed to decompose rapidly enough.

• Andrew Beelen – Students Uncle – helped construct worm bins
• Fred Hoonhorst – Students Grandfather – helped construct garden beds
• Jim Lucas – MSU Extension – resource person
• John Biernbaum – MSU – resource person
• Dick Grattop – Students Parent – provided top soil
• Renee Gray – Students Parent – help prepare garden beds
• Ryan Gazley – Students Parent – helped monitor worm beds

What we achieved was the start of a sustainable agricultural practice. Due to the poor soil fertility and time that it takes to naturally enhance the soil we were unable to hit a point this year were we could say we were profitable. We were, however, socially responsible, and to the degree that we contain our crawlers we are also ecologically sound.

Using our soil enhancement techniques we were able to produce a large crop of tomatoes. We also produced a small crop of spring lettuce that the students were able to harvest and take home. In mid-summer we also produced a crop of beans and corn that we harvested along with some onions and small potatoes to have a miniature garden feast for four families who participated in our summer garden club.

In school, testing revealed that all students who were exposed to the soil curriculum had a clear understanding of nutrient cycling and the role of various nutrients in agricultural production.

Over the summer our summer gardening club had regular attendance of around 15 youth which comprises about 1/3 of the available youth in the area. Many times their parents were in attendance as well.

The primary objective for this grant was the ecologically sound focus. Students now have a much clearer idea of ecologically sound practices and how an understanding of ecology can be used to produce personal benefits.

Anecdotally many of the youth are excited for another growing season in the hoophouse this coming spring and are waiting to see how our worms fare through the cold winter months.

I learned a lot through this project. First and perhaps most importantly I learned about the danger of worms as an invasive species in the northern woodlands. Knowing this I probably would not have pushed to use worms as the preferred method of accelerating decomposition. I would more likely have turned to some sort of compost system such as a compost tumble that can accelerate the rate of decomposition without the addition of worms.

Secondly, I learned that even worms need help. Our worm bins got off to a slow start. Later discussions with John Biernbaum from MSU revealed that the reason for this was probably the sterility of the bedding material we used. Worms need bacteria in their gut to aid with the decomposition. Without this bacteria the worms worked slowly at best. He recommended utilizing horse manure to get things started in the future.

If I did use worms again I would try to find a way to capture the runoff from the worm bins, also known as worm tea. We saw the plants near the bins do much better presumably because of this rich liquid.

I did learn that kids like gardening and, at the same time have a lot to learn about gardening. Simple things like placement of plants, spacing of plants, plant identification, and being able to tell when produce is ready to harvest are skills that students need to develop. Additional work will be required with students to help them get comfortable with these skills.

I shared information about my project through several venues. The first was the annual community Spring Show. Here I had an opportunity to share what we were doing with local citizens. The students developed informative displays that we showcased along with a sample of our worms actively composting.

I also shared information about our project through the local newspaper (see the included PDF). Again I was trying to reach local citizens to help educate them.

I also gave several impromptu tours of our facilities and garden to help educate local citizens.

Finally, I shared details about the project with attendees at the MAEOE conference to around fifteen people who attended my session.

I plan to continue to do outreach through local media and continuation of the summer garden club. Those activities are always advertised on Facebook and through local media as available.

I felt like the program went very well. The only thing that was difficult was the initial paperwork to get the money as it was set up more for an individual to handle the money rather than the school I work for. If it was to be changed I would look into making these grants to the organizations the educators work for rather than to the educator and simplify the paperwork.

I also found the timeline to be a little short to get the type of results I would have liked. Doing things in a sustainable way is hard to do in a short period of time. A single growing season was hard to see the strong results I would have liked. Perhaps an interim report after the first year and a final report at the end would help.

Finally, it would help if there was a list of resource people that I could draw on for help. That could have really allowed me to get some more expert advice with the program earlier on and provide valuable contact information for me to use to bring in outside experts who can talk with my students as well.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.