The road to Sharon’s Worm World is in turn blacktop, gravel, then finally Ramona dirt. Sharon McLaughlan, the worm farm’s founder and namesake, is waiting at the crest of the dusty lane that ends at the dusty house she rents, a brick-and-board affair over a garage crammed with stuff. She has a round, smiling face. Her hair is layered and short. This is country given over to horses, solar-energy farms, and flies. Cumulus clouds stack up across the foothills but instead of shade or rain, they push the afternoon heat upwards into par-broiler levels.
Sharon’s husband John waits behind the wheel of a golf cart that has seen better days. He mumbles something about the brakes not always working too good. “If we get into trouble,” he says, “jump out when I tell you.” His laugh is loud as a thunderclap at close range. He bumps us downhill at four or five miles per hour, rounding one horse paddock after another. The afternoon pongs of sawdust and manure. “It’s only shit when it’s still in the horse.” Said as if in apology, followed again by that oversize laugh. “But when it comes out, it’s worm food.”
McLaughlan, nudging 70, is a sun-creased man with thinning gray hair tied back into an even thinner rat tail. He parks us alongside a tarped work shed from the darkened innards of which blasts Led Zeppelin.
The earthworms live under the shade of Brazilian pepper trees in orderly 20-foot soil rows, each topped with mounded greenish manure. Sharon heads off to town for Thai food with her friends. John forks a load of manure-soil aside to reveal hundreds of earthworms. Moist and reddish, the worms convulse as if trying to outrun the sudden blast of heat, light, and rock music.
My neighbor friend Janice and I, following directions found on a YouTube video about vermiculture, built a worm bin of our own. We procured our earthworms from the bait shop at Lake Murray. But after a couple of days, the news from under the cover of mulch was not good.
5540 Kiowa Drive, San Carlos
“How are they?” I asked.
“Sparse,” Janice said. Our earthworms had apparently made a break for freedom en masse, possibly through the drainage/ventilation holes we’d drilled into the sides per the video instructions. We wondered what was not to like about our worm bin.
We wondered where the hell our worms went.
Per definition, vermiculture is “the cultivation of annelid worms (such as earthworms or bloodworms) especially for use as bait or in composting.” All such worms live in everlasting dark. They make useful bio-mulch of fallen leaves and clay and rotted fruit and death. They have no use for eyes.
Ancient civilizations were known to have practiced vermicomposting; Aristotle called earthworms the intestines of the soil and a couple of thousand years later, Charles Darwin proved it. The English naturalist studied them for nearly four decades and concluded that every particle of soil on the planet had passed through the bodies of earthworms.
Vermiculturists are joined at the collective hip by a variety of social ties: philosophy, permaculture, politics, sustainability, lifestyle, recycling, and, an affection for red wiggler earthworms, the preferred species for such composting operations. “Their poop,” Diane Hazard says, “is amazing. It’s gorgeous.”
Hazard cautions that, “Without earthworms, we would not be able to grow things.” Hazard is a backyard vermiculturist and director of education at the Solana Center for Environmental Innovation. Recycled food waste from various community events is often fed to their earthworms. “And we partner with the Del Mar Fairgrounds. In the infield farm, pre-consumer waste from on-site food service Premier Foods kitchens is composted or fed to the worms. Almost three cubic yards of food waste,” she says, “are processed by the worms every week.”
I try to get my head around what three cubic yards of food waste looks like.
“Without earthworms,” she says, “we would die.”
“Stop global warming,” exhorts a Philippine Daily Enquirer story posted five years ago. “Start global worming.” The piece spotlights ex–San Diegans Beth and Tony de Castro, who own Earthworm Sanctuary in Quezon City. Researchers have documented the science behind the apparent benefit that earthworms pass along to plants and the earth in general via their dirt diet, a digestive process that releases beneficial microbes in the worm’s wake. North Carolina State University hosts an annual conference on the subject.
Commercially, earthworms are sometimes used to compost things such as cardboard or feedlot manure. In Del Cerro, a suburb across Interstate 8 from San Diego State, Amy Kessler feeds her red wigglers kitchen scraps and baby diapers. “My worms,” she says, “ate 20 of them in three months.” Those diapers, she says, are now compost.
Kessler owns Beach Bums Diaper Service, started in 2009 in the home she and her husband and their daughter inhabit. The 41-year-old ex–New Jersey girl radiates earth mother in a white sleeveless top with a floral print wrap-around skirt, sandals, and a prayer-bead choker. The house is filled with the kinds of projects a school-aged child would generate.
“No one else in San Diego is composting diapers with earthworms.”
3110 Euclid Avenue, City Heights
Kessler uses a tri-level modular plastic earthworm bin called the Worm Factory; they retail at area garden centers for $129.99. She owns two of them. She purchased her worms from City Farmers nursery, where Home and Euclid Avenues meet a mile east of Interstate 805. She paid roughly $15 for 200 of them.
Three or four diapers lay on top of an earthworm bin. Kessler peels one open; it is most definitely used. She shreds it into smaller pieces, brown and all, and layers the mess into the worm beds. She reaches up and flicks a strand of hair from her forehead, explains that she is still in the beta-testing stages of this whole idea.
“My research led me to a brand of disposable diaper made with a corn-based plastic called Ingeo that is compostable.” She says she’d like to expand and to hire other moms and bring them into her business. Are there issues with her using composted diaper worm castings in her own gardens, or selling it for fertilizer, considering it began with human excrement?