(Post Crescent) - A Sunday drive on the the state's meandering back roads will take you past a rolling sea of dairy cows, one herd after another.
Yet the state's largest herd is rarely seen and certainly never in its entirety. It's a worm herd and it lives on an indoor worm farm called IntelliGrowth on Spencer Street in Grand Chute.
IntelliGrowth uses the worms to produce a fertilizer. Facility manager Kurt Kohlmann and COO Steve Finley talk about how it works:
Kohlmann: "We did a deal with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture and they were trying to classify what we've got and they classified our worms as a herd, so we actually have the largest herd in wisconsin. We have a couple million on the floor and, through the cocoon material, we hope to have four million by next summer."
That's a lot of worms. Sir Charles Darwin called them the "unheralded soldiers of mankind" and said, "There may not be any other creature in the world that has played so important a role in the history of life on earth."
The truth is that, while the worms themselves help create good soil, the real treasure is in what they leave behind.
Finley: "What we do here is harvest worm castings. Everybody asks, 'What are castings?' Castings are worm poop. That's really what it is. We produce an organic worm casting. That organic comes from a very unique single-source black soil plus organic food. We are very unique in the industry because of that and, as a result, we can monitor this material from in to out. So, if you can imagine it, the worm taking it in and the worm going out produces this very high quality casting.
"The worm casting is what I love to call a biology soup. There's so much positive stuff in it. We've seen crazy things like mums that are about 3 feet around and go over 6 feet around. We've seen corn grow incredibly well compared to the chemical- or synthetic-grown corn. We've seen a test garden picked two weeks sooner than a non-treated garden. We've seen all kinds of plant diseases stopped or inhibited by the use of castings as opposed to non-castings. These are the kinds of crazy benefits that we're beginning to see from this stuff called worm castings. It's a marvelous place to be."
The process starts with a mix of dirt and a blend of food. Then, worms are added and left alone to work their magic. At harvest time, the worms and dirt are fed through a harvester that uses conveyors and spinning screens of differing sizes to separate the worms, castings and dirt.
The castings are bagged, stored and dried to the proper moisture level before being sold as Peaty's Organic Earthworm Castings.
The dirt is mixed with feed, the worms are added back in and the cycle begins again. The whole operation is solidly on the green side of the equation with almost zero waste. Everything is reused, recycled or sold.
The worms, which are hybrids that can grow to a foot or more in length, are the engine that drives the business. Keeping them fat and happy takes a dedicated staff.
Kohlmann: "Because they're living creatures, we have to deal with them. It's not our schedule. It's based on the worms - when they're to be harvested and then how they're treated as they're harvested.
"We need to be concerned with the temperatures, we need to be concerned with the humidity, we need to be concerned with the humidity in the soil. All of those factors make a happy worm. If we have happy worms, they essentially will go through their material a lot quicker. So we need to be careful how we handle the worms.
"They're on a schedule. We have to maintain that schedule whether it's a holiday or not. We have to deal with it, just like a dairy farmer. He's got to keep his schedule going for his cattle and we have to do the same thing."
Selling worm poop, on any scale, is a daunting proposal but the staff at IntelliGrowth have taken an if-they-try-it-they'll-continue-to-buy-it attitude. They run test gardens and innovate new delivery systems for their product, including plant vessels and casting-infused tea.
Kohlmann: "One of the misconceptions that have to with organics - not necessarily worm castings - is that it doesn't work. The whole deal behind that is that society is an I-want-it-now kind of society. The market has driven people to expect results immediately. With organics and worm castings, it's a more natural way of growing things but it's a slower way of growing things in terms of the benefits. As we use castings in the soil and build our soil back up to its natural balance, you're going to have plant material that will out-compete or out-grow plant material that's fertilized with the synthetic-type products."