at the Texas Worm Ranch
Photography by Danny Fulgencio
When Heather Rinaldi was a little girl, she used to dream about having her own ranch in the Texas plains with a herd of cattle grazing in her pastures. She grew up on a farm in northern Oklahoma with horses and lambs and chickens. She picked fresh vegetables from the garden and played with her dogs and kittens. So it was natural that when she grew older that she wanted to return to her roots and do the same thing her parents and grandparents had done for decades.
Sometimes dreams don’t always work out as planned. Rinaldi got her ranch. She has millions of mouths to look after, and they keep her busy from sunup to sundown.
There’s one catch, however. Rinaldi doesn’t breed cows. She breeds worms. Red wigglers, to be specific. She calls her business the Texas Worm Ranch, and she keeps her worms in five wooden bins inside a warehouse in east Dallas. She feeds them eggplant, paper egg cartons, bananas, broccoli, apples and apricots. She visits them each afternoon to mist their beds and keep them cool. She bottles them up in gallon jugs and sells them per pound. Her life revolves around her worms. She calls them “the easiest members of her household.”
Today as Rinaldi sits at the Highland Cafe in East Dallas wearing a T-shirt with pictures of worms and the words “Texas Worm Ranch” sprawled across the chest, her face is red from the heat and even her glasses are slathered in sweat. It is another 105°F day, and after a morning tending to her worms, she’s come to have lunch at a café where she collects food scraps for her wriggly brood. While eating, Rinaldi reflects on the changes in her life over the past ten years. She once relished climbing the corporate ladder, but now, nothing makes her happier than being hands-deep in worm castings. Rinaldi was inspired to start her business when people began noticing how worm castings and compost transformed her community garden plot from average to fabulous. While her neighbors’ tomato plants withered from the heat, her six-foot-tall plants kept on producing juicy, ripe red tomatoes. People watched her vegetables sprout taller and healthier than their own and began asking her for worms so they could make their own compost. She began spreading the word about composting and the red wigglers. “In my mind, there’s really no reason for everybody not to be doing some sort of composting,” she says.
Millions of worms later, she hasn’t looked back.
The use of composting dates back centuries. According to the University of Illinois, the use of manure in agriculture was mentioned on clay tablets 1,000 years before Moses was born. Shakespeare and Sir Francis Bacon wrote about it. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson promoted it. Today, there’s even a United States Composting Council that promotes the practice with fact sheets and reports on their website. Rinaldi refers to the famous Charles Darwin quote, which, of course, mentions her favorite creature: “Every fertile grain of soil has passed at least once through the gut of an earthworm.”
Essentially, composting is the simple process of transforming your organic waste into a humus, the soil-like material created from the decomposition of plant or animal matter. Rinaldi decided to go a step further and introduced worms into her composting, a method called vermicomposting. The red wigglers and microbes process the organic waste into a high nutrient and rich soil amendment called worm castings. The castings have an even simpler explanation – it’s just worm poop.
Rinaldi wasn’t always such a composting whiz. After graduating from Oklahoma State University with a bachelor’s degree in human health, she worked on corporate health programs before becoming a worm rancher.
Aside from raising her worms, she also sells them, sells her vermicompost, installs organic vegetable gardens, sells worm castings and something she calls Worm Wine™. She brews worm castings, molasses and harvested rainwater overnight to develop a “large microbe colony” and bottles it up and sells it. “Spraying it on your plants suppresses diseases, and the plant cells will gobble up the nutrients and make it an overall healthier plant,” says Rinaldi.
Her goal is to make the earth a better place for future generations. This year she expects to divert 20 tons of waste from the landfills. “Our mission here is to create a closed loop— farm-to-table-to-farm,” she continues. “We give our scraps to the worms, they eat, they give their scraps to the plants, we eat the plants, we give the scraps back to the worms. Red wigglers are the best. I can’t say enough good things about the mighty little red wiggler. They can even digest The Dallas Morning News,” she adds with a grin.
Rinaldi recommends buying a plastic bin, one that’s about two feet tall and three feet wide, and set it up like the ecosystem of the forest floor. You should place it inside your house, for instance underneath the kitchen sink or in a laundry room, because wigglers are sensitive to heat and on a hot summer day, they could turn into “worm soup.”
Start out with about a half-pound of worms per square foot, to give the worms room to reproduce (they max out at one pound per square foot). In the bottom half of the bin, place about four inches of organic compost (you can buy this from her) that mimics the forest floor. Place shredded, moist newspaper on top of the compost, which will help balance the nitrogen and carbon in your bin. The newspaper is like the leaves on top of the forest floor. When you feed your worms, pull back the newspaper and put the scraps right on top of the compost, then cover it back up, and let the worms go to work.
There are a few things you can’t feed the worms. Rice will cook them. Pineapple and papaya have an enzyme that eats the worm. Avoid meats and fatty oils. Also, don’t overfeed them, or they’ll get too hot and die. A handful of kitchen waste every three days is plenty. You know your worms are all right if the compost is cool to the touch. If your bin is warm, place a frozen water bottle in it to keep the temperature down. And just like us, worms like a balanced diet; never feed them just newspaper or just scraps.
About every six to eight weeks, you can expect to get about two or three gallons of good worm castings from your bin. She suggests spreading it on your garden or house plants. If you’re an apartment dweller and you’re just composting for the heck of it, you can bag it up and give it to friends as a gift .
“When you divert your scraps from the land ll, it reduces your carbon footprint,” says Rinaldi. “You lessen the load on the dump trucks, and you reduce the amount of methane that trash produces. Putting compost on plants also improves the quality of the soil. If we can get people to harvest their rainwater, go organic and build vegetable gardens, they’re going to make themselves healthier, as well as their neighborhood, their community and their planet.”
Five-year-olds and high-schoolers alike are fascinated with Rinaldi’s job and often visit for presentations. Her daughters have worm bins. A friend, whose adult children are terrified of worms, hides her wigglers in the guestroom closet, unbeknownst to the family when they come to visit. To Rinaldi, this is all about making a greater contribution, instituting a small change in some people’s lives, creating a better earth for her children.
And, she got her ranch. “I still deal with horses,” she laughs. “Well, their waste products.”
After a few more bites, she pushes her plate forward and stands up, ready to go back to work. “There’s no rest for the worm rancher.”
“Every fertile grain of soil has passed at least
once through the gut of an earthworm.”
– Charles Darwin
SARAH PERRY is a freelance writer based in Denton, Texas. She began writing in 2006 and has a master’s in journalism from the University of North Texas. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Dallas Morning News and Ten Spurs Literary Journal. She was named the first Mayborn Fellow in 2011. She enjoys traveling, cooking, reading, listening to folk music and writing bad poetry with a pencil in one hand and a goblet of Cabernet in the other.
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