— Rhonda Sherman knows worms.
intentional — not really. In 1980, when she was in college in her
native Michigan, Sherman chose solid waste management. She started out
correlating contaminated groundwater with area landfills as an
employee of a five-county government council even before she had her
master’s degree, and she was hooked. Her mission, as she saw it, was
to keep waste out of landfills.
In 1990, she
escaped Michigan’s cold winters for North Carolina. She worked as a
recycling coordinator and educator for UNC-Chapel Hill and then the
state government before N.C. State University hired her on the first
day of 1993. It was there that she found worms.
accidentally became famous for vermicomposting," Sherman
confesses. "It was never intentional." Her boss at the time,
she recalls, had a "publish or perish" attitude toward
university work, so Sherman came up with seven factsheet topics. The
final idea, a guide to letting worms recycle your garbage, made the
engineers she worked with chuckle, but it proved the most popular. It
flew off the shelves and had to be reprinted. Today, Sherman is a
vermiculture and vermicompost expert — again, she knows worms.
Sherman, who is
also the president of the N.C. Composting Council, wasn’t the first
to popularize vermiculture. Interestingly, one of its early champions
is Mary Appelhof, who also lived in Sherman’s hometown of Kalamazoo.
Appelhof was two decades older than Sherman and the two knew each
other, but young Sherman had little interest in vermicomposting –
not as a student, at least.
book "Worms Eat my Garbage" popularized vermiculture in
homes and schools. Sherman’s work has expanded the scope of the
subject, and her focus is on large-scale vermicomposting. Every year,
in fact, she holds a two-day conference on the topic, which draws
some tips on how to vermicompost, both on the large and small scale.
"I do get on a soapbox when it comes to talking about food
waste," Sherman said. "Food waste should absolutely not go
in the garbage or go down the drain – period." Composting of
any kind is easy, she notes, while food waste can be problematic in
landfills and wastewater treatment plants. In septic tanks, too, food
waste can cause the tank to need pumping out more often, she said,
costing homeowners more money. Composting can turn this
"trash" into a beneficial product.
is for plant health. "In the home and in schools they can use
vermicompost to make healthier, more resilient plants that germinate
more quickly and repel pests and diseases," Sherman said.
can vermicompost manure and turn it into something even more valuable,
Sherman said, and worms dramatically increase compost’s worth.
"If you were going to manufacture compost and sell it, you can
sell it for anything from zero up to about $30 per cubic yard,"
she said. "Vermicompost, same amount, you can sell for a minimum
of $400 a cubic yard. I have seen it sold for $1,800 a cubic
The Worm Bin: A
pre-made worm bin will cost between $30 and $120, Sherman said, or you
can make your own: just buy a 10- or 14-gallon plastic storage bin and
drill holes in it. Sherman goes into excellent detail on where and how
to drill in "Worms Can Recycle Your Garbage," which is
online at content.ces.ncsu.edu/worms-can-recycle-your-garbage.
"The most expensive thing is to buy the worms," Sherman
said. "There are over 9,000 species of earthworms and you have to
make sure you’re using a species that’s appropriate for living in
a worm bin." The preferred species is Eisenia fetidia, or red
wigglers. Don’t go to bait shops, though, as a worm bin would
require dozens of bait cups’ worth of worms. Instead, buy them by
the pound from an earthworm grower. You can ask your local cooperative
extension agent where to buy worms locally.
"You need to put some kind of bedding in your worm bin,"
Sherman said. "A lot of people will use newspaper." If you
have children, she suggests holding a newspaper shredding party. Shred
the paper, soak it in water for about 10 minutes, squeeze it out and
put it in the worm bin.
How To: At an
easy five pages, Sherman’s "Worms Can Recycle Your
Garbage" factsheet (again, at content.ces.ncsu.edu/worms-can-recycle-your-garbage)
is a quick and essential roundup of vermicomposting’s basics. For
those who want more depth, there’s Appelhof’s book or Sherman’s
conferences and sessions.