The growing popularity of vermicomposting has cast the lowly earthworm in a new light.
Vermicomposting refers to the process of using earthworms to turn organic waste into vermicompost — also known as vermicast, worm compost, worm castings, worm humus or worm manure — a high quality natural fertilizer and soil conditioner.
Earthworms have been dubbed “nature’s tiny farmers” because of their ability to help plow, aerate, hydrate and fertilize the earth and produce plant food.
As a result, farmers, environmentalists, homeowners, gardeners, entrepreneurs and governments are now praising the soil-revitalizing powers of this slimy invertebrate.
‘Angels of the earth’
Antonio de Castro, a self-trained vermiculturist, said that the Chinese character for earthworms, when translated into English, means “angels of the earth.”
His company, Earthworm Sanctuary, conducts seminars and workshops on earthworms and composting. He has been coordinating with government and the private sector, particularly with environmentalists, in developing the local vermiculture industry.
De Castro grew up in the United States where he taught English Literature at the San Francisco State University. After five years of teaching, however, he decided to return to the Philippines.
The volume of trash — mostly dead leaves and kitchen waste — that littered the compound in San Francisco del Monte, Quezon City, where he and his family live, prompted him to think of a better waste disposal system.
At the same time, he found Metro Manila wallowing in a garbage crisis. According to the National Solid Waste Management Commission, food and kitchen waste account for about 45 percent of the total volume of garbage generated by Metro Manila, estimated at 6,169 tons daily.
The figure is expected to double by 2010, according to Environment Secretary Angelo T. Reyes in a report to the League of Municipalities of the Philippines (LMP).
The garbage problem prompted De Castro to go into vermicomposting, also as an alternative to chemical-based farming.
“Organic crops contain no contaminants,” he said. “The use of vermicompost is good for the health of the farmers because by using vermicompost, they avoid regular exposure to toxins and other harmful chemicals.”
In 2002, he set up an earthworm farm in his family compound and called it the Earthworm Sanctuary because “we are very protective of the earthworms; we want to provide them an environment where they can do what they do best — eat and reproduce.”
The farm uses the African night crawler species (Eudrilus eugeniae), a voracious processor of organic wastes. It has a high reproductive rate (an adult breeding earthworm produces 3.6 cocoons per week) and can thrive in a wide range of environments that duplicate its ideal living conditions.
The species was introduced in the country in the ’80s by Dr. Rafael D. Guerrero III, executive director of the Philippine Council for Aquatic and Marine Research Development, an agency under the Department and Science and Technology.
Earthworm Sanctuary produces about 500 kilos or half a ton of vermicompost every month. “We have now reached the stage where, because of the voracity of the earthworms, we have to ask around for leaves and grass to feed our earthworms,” De Castro said.
He also put up an organic farm in Palawan province using vermicast. “I can testify to the superiority of vermicast as a fertilizer because it is the only fertilizer that we have been using in the past four years to grow lettuce, tomatoes, eggplant, cilantro, ampalaya (bitter gourd), watermelon and many other crops,” he said.
Vermicomposting is a simple technology that does not require a big capital and intensive labor. One can start with a kilo of earthworms which costs from P500 to P1,000.
The basic materials for earthworm beds are hollow blocks, plastic sheets and used fishing nets. A shredder is optional since the earthworms shred the substrate or waste materials which usually consist of discarded vegetable, animal manure, rice hull (ipa), sawdust (kusot), hay (dayami) and leaves.
In a limited space, earthworm beds can be stacked at a certain height to be determined by the vermiculturist. De Castro works full time observing and experimenting on earthworms and setting up earthworm farms. His studies prove, among other things, that vermicomposting can reduce organic waste significantly and help solve the problems concerning dumps and landfills.
The earthworm as an agent for generating wealth from waste now plays a stellar role in the relentless and integrated efforts of the private and public sectors to save the environment, increase food production, improve nutrition and perk up the economy.
It might as well be called “the heroic earthworm,” said Odette Alcantara, an enviromentalist.