Lawrence Worm Farm, Sustainability in Food Waste Reclamation

Project Overview

FNC17-1104
Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2017: $14,305.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2018
Grant Recipient: Larryville Worm
Region: North Central
State: Kansas
Project Coordinator:
Nicholas Ward
Queen Alidore LLC

Commodities

  • Miscellaneous: Vermicompost (Worm Castings) (Worm Tea)

Practices

  • Education and Training: demonstration, youth education
  • Energy: byproduct utilization
  • Farm Business Management: value added
  • Production Systems: permaculture
  • Soil Management: composting, earthworms, soil quality/health
  • Sustainable Communities: local and regional food systems, public participation

    Summary:

    The project is one of social entrepreneurship, focusing on utilizing the latent energy available in foodwaste and to transform that energy into a nutrient rich soil amendment (natural fertilizer) via Red Wiggler composting worms. Ideally the project would influence policy within the municipality of Lawrence, KS by paving the way for composting of food waste by the city/county.

    Problem
    Within our current system, food waste is an endemic problem. Recognizing the latent potential in what is often cited as 41% of overall generated waste, there are a number of ways to reclaim and put this latent resource back into a sustainable energy cycle. Left to current methods, food waste is a staunch contributor to global warming, creating methane gas as a bi-product of its putrefaction in the non-aerobic environment that is our common landfill. In addition, this great mass of waste (41% overall) also requires regular transportation, causing more use of fossil fuels in an effort to remove the resource from its community of potential use.

    Solution
    One solution to the above stated problem is to keep food waste where it is created. This can be achieved by implementing a method of upcycling via the materials latent potential. Through vermicomposting practices the once discarded and costly food waste becomes an abundant resource for generating the nutrient rich soil amendment known as worm castings. By shifting the current paradigm, we tap into a new market for food waste
    reclamation that is sustainable and cyclical in its use as a resource.

    Within the 23 month grant period our goal is to take the 200lbs of worm livestock afforded through this grant and to grow that stock to 1000lbs. Doing so would allow us to accommodate the processing of 500lbs of food waste per day resulting in a yield of roughly 5,000lbs of worm castings per month. This intentional slow-growth model will allow for the identification of best practices, reliable community partners and applicable markets.

    Through the test plot component of this grant we will have clear evidence and an example of the benefits of worm castings in a controlled growth environment. These results will be used for educational purposes and for marketing of the worm castings. The grand hope beyond the grant cycle is that this specific approach to food waste mitigation become part of the county’s food policy plan mirroring in scale that of our current recycling
    program. As a grand bonus, the community would be flush with rich soil and an extended life for our city dump. This venture seeks to be both economically and ethically sustainable in approach, practice and outcomes.

     

    Summary:

    Through the Larryville Worm SARE Farmer Rancher grant and numerous Kansas Green Schools grants the initial objectives of disseminating food waste education, forming institutional partnerships, and on-site mitigation of food waste were achieved. The scale at which each of these were achieved in relation to the initial goal varied.

    1.) Youth Education was by far the most successful component. 3,844 Lawrence youths ranging from 6-18yrs of age took part in assemblies, workshops, hands-on food waste audits and various projects dealing with composting, vermicomposting and food waste. Youths took to the subject matter quickly and became very engaged with the composting process and were empowered through their role in mitigating the food waste.

    2. Partnerships were formed between Larryville Worm Farm, Sunrise Project, 6 area schools, and 1 local grocer (Checkers Foods.) Each of the six schools participated actively by allowing the introduction of workshops, field trips and school-wide waste audits which served to educate students on issues of food waste. 5 of the 6 schools received worm bins both large and small scale and through collaboration between administration, students, teachers, custodial staff and lunchroom staff established in-school composting by adapting the lunchroom waste system. In each of these schools I was able to work with staff to transition from lunchroom “trash” bins to a series of bins for “recycling”, “compost”, and “landfill.” With the introduction of these bins and the simple change in name from “trash” to “landfill” students were able to envision the outcome and the future of their waste products. Partnerships with the schools provided many opportunities. I worked with AP science students at Free State High School on issues of anaerobic composting and the future of urban food waste and I worked with kindergarten students on picture worksheets to identify which lunchroom foods could be fed to worms and which could not. It was a very rewarding 2 years of time spent in these area schools. My larger goal was to take these positive experiences along with information from our food waste audits including the 8,100lbs of food that was diverted from the local landfill through these projects and to convince the school district to adopt food waste mitigation via vermiculture as a viable option for lessening tipping fees at the local landfill and for becoming a more “green” and environmentally responsible school district. With the Green Schools grants coming to an end in 2018 and without additional funding, my work with the schools ended in May of 2018. There was no identified source of funding to continue this work. That being said I continue to work pro-bono with 1 school that has remained vigilant and decided to prioritize composting. Southwest Middle School now has 2 large worm bins in operation and will be adding a 3rd in the fall. Perry Kenard and Kristy Kopp (teachers) have been amazing partners and they’ve remained dedicated to continuing the work. I support their efforts through annual workshops, info sessions and a harvesting day.

    3.) The Rancher component of this project proved to be very challenging. In our climate the composting worms have a number of adversaries. Red mites and soldier fly larva are two of the biggest issues. Summer heat and winter temps are the other two big issues. In both 2017 and 2018 my worms were plagued by red mites which decimated the worm populations in several beds within a very short window of time. Once I had removed the majority of the mites I ordered a new batch of worms and began another site so as not to contaminate. It took me the remainder of the year to rebuild the population and in the winter my heating system was compromised (electrically shorted by a mouse) and nearly half of my rebuilt population froze. In the spring the mites returned and further reduced the number of worms. At this point, with the grant funds exhausted and with word that the school district was not interested in participating once the Green Schools grants ended I recognized that while I had learned much in the process and much good was done through the mitigation of food waste and the youth education, the worm farm was out of steam.

    If I was able to redo the project I would have kept the worms underground (cellar or basement.) I believe this would have solved the issue of the red mites as well issues of heating and cooling. If this could be done and if I was able to convince the school district to fund the project by the amount they were saving in tipping fees and to provide a 1 yr test stipend for a staff position I believe that the resulting evidence and benefits of the project would have led to a sustainable model of food waste mitigation for the entire school district.

     

    Project objectives:

    The project objectives remain consistent. (at least at this mid-way point in the project.)

    1. Keep food waste where it is created. Through vermicomposting practices, once discarded and costly food waste becomes an abundant resource for generating the nutrient rich soil amendment known as worm castings.
    2. Scale up. Grow 200lbs of worm livestock to 1000lbs in order to scale up and accommodate the processing of 500lbs of food waste per day resulting in a yield of roughly 5,000lbs of worm castings per month. This intentional slow-growth model will allow for the identification of best practices, reliable community partners and applicable markets.
    3. Moving this project from a purely educational model to one that also provides sustainable revenue. A test plot will be constructed to inform growing methods as to the best possible worm casting content for different crops. The harvest of the test plots will yield an economic benefit for Lawrence Organics.
    4. Outreach will happen at Lawrence area schools and through the Sunrise Project greenhouse site. There will also be outreach conducted via local news media and social media including Facebook, Instagram, Lawrence Journal World, and Channel 6 News. The Lawrence Worm Farm website will be created to serve as a hub for information on the project and as a general source for information with specific focus on Lawrence Worm Farm products and the results (video and photo) of the test plot grown by Lawrence Organics. A full color, Tri-fold pamphlet will be created for distribution via the Sunrise Project mailing list and at events such as the Lawrence Farmers Market. Students will visit the Worm Farm each fall to harvest worms for practical and educational use on site at their schools.
    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.