Do the Rot Thing

March 31, 2000

By Michael Jessen

Robert Agnew is a worm shepherd.

For about 10 years, the avowed "wormie" has introduced the world of worms to hundreds of school children at Crawford Bay School on the East Shore of Kootenay Lake in a unique environmental education project.

A child care worker and school custodian, Agnew works with students to compost all the school's organic waste, build worm bins for sale, and grow salad greens in the school hallway. Next on the agenda is a school garden and finding between $20,000 and $30,000 to finance the production of a video documenting the school's remarkable program.

Agnew got the worm bug while a community school coordinator in Calgary where he built compost bins for his housing cooperative and raised worms and mushrooms at the school. When he decided to move to Crawford Bay, his worms moved with him.

"I'm quite amazed at the capacity of worms to take care of our organic garbage," says Agnew. "They're simple little things, they just eat and work. They're inspiring."

When Crawford Bay teacher Alanda Greene decided to start a school environment club to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Earth Day in 1990, dealing with school waste was a priority item. Enter Agnew and his worms and the rest is compost.

With assistance from the community and the school, a large shed was built to house the composting facility that is affectionately known as Craworm Bay.

"We've kept it going for 10 years on a school schedule," says Agnew. "Worms don't take a lot of care. Worms are very forgiving."

When you enter the school, you're immediately aware of the educational institution's high regard for the environment. Large collection boxes line the wall near the front door for paper, cardboard, plastic, and metal. Another cluster of containers across from the main office provides a drop-off for compost, glass, and pop cans. Every room has a green bucket for compostables. There are no garbage containers on the school grounds and hardly any in the school.

A waste audit done at the school revealed that 50 to 60 percent of the school's garbage was paper towels. Principal Clive Hickson immediately ordered it collected separately for recycling.

"Paper towel recycling is just huge," Hickson says proudly.

High school students collect the compost and with the help of teachers take it to the compost shed.

Agnew works two and a half hours a week with Grade 1, 2 and 3 students taking care of the worms and building boxes - with mostly reclaimed wood - for worm farms that are sold for $30. With the help of Grade 1 and 2 students, Agnew built a growing frame that produces salad greens. And seeds donated by William Dam Seeds Ltd. are planted in worm castings and grow under special lights in the school hallway.

"The students have great enthusiasm building the boxes and taking care of the worms," concludes Agnew. "The rewards are pretty immediate, that's why I keep doing it."

If you're not "doing it" - composting that is - why not? Composting with worm bins, purchased or homemade composters can reduce household waste by 25 percent. Once you have the compost box, it's really as easy as mixing green and brown, wet and dry. Most organic waste can be composted with the exception of meat, bones, and dairy products. These will attract unwelcome pests like bears, dogs, mice, and raccoons.

Troubleshooting is simple. If your compost is filled with ants, it's too dry so add water. If it smells bad, it's likely too wet, so add dry materials like leaves or sawdust. If your compost doesn't get warm, it may need more nitrogen-containing material like grass clippings or bloodmeal. If your compost is overrun by vermin, you probably haven't covered the food material with enough soil.

One of the earliest written references to compost use in agriculture appears on a set of clay tablets from the Akkadian Empire, nearly 4,500 years ago. The Romans, Egyptians, and Greeks all practiced composting and there are references to composting in the Talmud, Bible, and Koran.

Worms are compost's best friend as they speed up the deterioration of food waste. An acre of land may contain more than 2 million worms in the top seven inches of topsoil and it is the worms that keep the soil healthy by quietly aerating, tilling, and fertilizing the soil.

Adding compost to your garden, lawn, or bedding plants is far healthier than chemical fertilizers that increase the salinity of the soil and make it unpalatable to worms. Pesticides, in turn, kill indiscriminately, destroying the good with the bad.

If you're not composting yet, why not join Robert Agnew and do "the rot thing."

ONE SMALL STEP - If you have an indoor worm composter and you're bothered by fruit flies, lay a plastic garbage bag on the bedding to smother fly eggs.

RESOURCES - The bible about worms and composting is entitled "Worms Eat My Garbage", written by Mary Appelhof, and published by Flower Press. Appelhof's web site is www.wormwoman.com. Other excellent Internet resources can be found on the City Farmer web site at www.cityfarmer.org, The Composting Council of Canada at www.compost.org, Harmonious Technologies at www.homecompost.com, and the RotWeb site at http://net.indra.com/~topsoil/Compost_Menu.html. A good introduction to worm composting (or vermiculture) can be found at www.mastercomposter.com/wormcomp.html.

Michael Jessen is a consultant who owns toenail environmental services. He can be reached by telephone at 229-4621 or by e-mail at toenail@netidea.com. His firm's award-winning web site can be found at http://www.toenail.org/.


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