Microbial Ecology of Vermicompost and Vermi-teas

Project Overview

Project Type: Professional + Producer
Funds awarded in 2020: $49,100.00
Projected End Date: 01/31/2022
Host Institution Award ID: G348-20-W7901
Grant Recipient: Rocky Mountain Soil Stewardship
Region: Western
State: Colorado
Principal Investigator:
Kathy Doesken
Rocky Mountain Soil Stewardship

Information Products


  • Animals: composting worms
  • Animal Products: vermicompost


  • Animal Production: manure management
  • Crop Production: biological inoculants, nutrient cycling, nutrient management
  • Education and Training: decision support system, demonstration, display, networking, participatory research, technical assistance, youth education
  • Farm Business Management: agritourism, community-supported agriculture, farm-to-institution, grant making, new enterprise development, risk management, value added
  • Natural Resources/Environment: biodiversity, carbon sequestration, habitat enhancement, indicators, soil stabilization
  • Pest Management: botanical pesticides, compost extracts, economic threshold
  • Production Systems: organic agriculture, transitioning to organic
  • Soil Management: composting, earthworms, green manures, nutrient mineralization, organic matter, soil analysis, soil chemistry, soil microbiology, soil physics, soil quality/health
  • Sustainable Communities: community development, partnerships, quality of life, social networks, sustainability measures, urban agriculture, urban/rural integration

    Proposal abstract:

    The producers of vermicompost have long acknowledged the benefit of having a diverse and active soil microbial community. However, this diversity has yet to be properly quantified and is often still seen to be a black box. Next-generation DNA sequencing has allowed researchers to shed light into these black boxes and have led to large projects such as the Human Microbiome (Turnbaugh et al. 2007) and Earth Microbiome Projects (Gilbert et al. 2014). However, one of our most valuable resources in restoring soil and plant health, the microbial community of vermicompost, has been neglected and its producers left in the dark. The goals of this project are 1) develop a baseline microbial community analysis of vermicompost and teas from producers across the nation and 2) help this community better understand and quantify diversity in order to improve and increase adoption of their products. Questions such as “do inputs affect diversity,” “does vermicompost have a higher biological diversity than big box compost”, and “does education of producers and their clients help sales”? are among the many questions that can be addressed with this data. Physical and chemical analyses will also be used to evaluate vermicompost qualities to develop some understanding of how these familiar measurements relate to microbial communities. Communication through email and website will be crucial.  We plan to present our results and conclusions at the 21st NC State Vermicomposting conference as well as publish in an open source journal. Education and outreach materials will be created and disseminated to producers.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    The overall objective of this project is to collect and analyze a large and diverse amount of vermicompost and vermicompost tea in order to enhance the knowledge of sustainable vermicomposting practices and to bring a new technology and understanding to compost producers.  The first objective will be to collect samples nationally from vermicompost producers. We aim to collect 150-250 samples from as diverse group of producers as possible. Our second key objective is to successfully sequence received samples and have the vermicomposts analyzed conventionally using Seal of Testing Assurance Program (STA) methods.   DNA extraction and sequencing preparation will be performed at the Colorado School of Mines saving significant sample analysis costs over a private lab. Compost STA properties will be analyzed by Midwest Labs.

    Our third objective is to use bioinformatic tools to process the sequencing data for quality control and taxonomic assignment. By comparing the communities found in samples, the metadata from the vermicompost STA analysis, and producer answered questionnaires we can begin to answer key deliverable questions. These questions include: Is there a core microbial community found in all vermicomposting samples and why might they be universally present? Do composting inputs and techniques have an effect on overall diversity? Can a metric be developed based on this survey of samples to distinguish between different vermicomposts?  How do the microbial communities of vermicompost change overtime? Can we also use this technology for pathogen tracking from manure inputs? We also want to compare vermicomposts to their tea derivatives and to big box vermicomposts and compost brands.

    Our fourth objective is to educate the producers and the public about microbial soil diversity and it’s benefits to sustainable agriculture. This will be accomplished by virtual interaction, face to face discussion, publishing in an open source journal, and providing producers with a public outreach package.

    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.