A squirmy bio-tech startup
Worm Power in Avon is turning one farm's manure into another farm's gold.
“This isn’t five hippies in a basement with a box of worms,” says Tom Herlihy, president and CEO of a vermiculture company housed on the Coyne family dairy farm in East Avon.
“It’s really a tech start-up,” he says. “‘Worm Power Inside’ is going to be just like ‘Intel Inside.’”
Inside bags of potting soil, that is.
Worm Power, a compost certified by the Organic Materials Review Institute, is becoming popular as a component in commercial and consumer mixes—all which feature the company’s worm logo. The product is also sold on its own.
Home gardeners and professional growers alike praise the material for helping plants withstand transplant shock and also grow and produce as well as or better than they do with synthetic fertilizer. Worm Power fertilizers even stave off pests and pathogens.
Herlihy’s farm is an agricultural outfit, but Herlihy is no farmer. He’s a biological engineer who, before starting Worm Power in 2004, spent twenty years as a consultant, often on projects addressing waste management.
When he discerned that vermiculture technology was at a point where it was “ready to go,” he chose cow manure as an input. From there, he decided to locate to Western New York, with one of the largest concentrations of dairy farms in the country. This moved him from Greensboro, N.C., right back to Livingston County, where he grew up.
“Consistent. Uniform. Respectable.” Tom Herlihy repeats this mantra often, especially to his staff. In order to produce the ten million pounds per year of stable product users can count on, he and his workers must standardize every step.
Under cover to control moisture content, fresh manure steams in piles outside until it’s ready to move to interior corrals. There, the material self-pasturizes, reaching temperatures high enough to kill off pathogens and weed seeds—but not higher than 176 degrees, Herlihy notes.
Chlorine in public water kills microbes, so the worm beds are watered at a consistent rate with only collected rain or snow melt. Worms are just-below-the-surface feeders and will rise to the top.
Here, in “the Serengeti of the microbial world,” the worms are the farmers, producing through digestion microbes that unlock micronutrients and nitrogen—even from exhausted soil—while improving the soil’s texture. The finished compost is scraped from the bottom of the worm bins and sent off for packaging. Right now, there are forty-five million worms, give or take. The numbers stay consistent through the process of natural selection, and new bins are started with existing worms “like sourdough bread,” says Herlihy, who has purchased worms just once.
Consistent, uniform, and respectable, Worm Power is also scalable and replicable. Until recently, the facility was funded by private money and peer-reviewed grants, with Cornell University actively involved in the science of the developing process. Now that there’s a successful system, Worm Power plants can be established on dairy farms anywhere in the world there is a consistent product to compost.
Late last year, that possibility resulted in around $2 million in research grants, mostly at Cornell University, and $6 million in local venture capital—money that Worm Power will use as a growth agent of its own.
Jane Milliman is the publisher of the Upstate Gardeners’ Journal, which she founded in 1995. She is also the garden columnist for the Democrat and Chronicle and a freelance garden writer and photographer.