What’s With the Worms?
There are more than 180 earthworm species found in the U.S. and Canada, and around 6,000 species worldwide. Of the 180 species, 60 are invasive, and that includes the night crawler. One might think that these animals have been around forever, but the glaciers that moved across Canada into the northern tier of the lower 48 states during the most recent ice age actually wiped out earthworms in those areas. Some worms that you now see in these locations were intentionally brought here from overseas by settlers who thought the worms would improve the soil. Others came accidentally in shipments of plants or in dirt that was used as ballast in ships.
Ultimately, the northern forest evolved after the glaciers retreated, and this ecosystem did not benefit from earthworms. The deep layer of slowly decomposing leaves and other organic matter called “duff” that support these forests is quickly eaten by earthworms, making nutrients less available to young growing plants and the soil. The absence of “duff” creates damage to trees, herbs and plants, and also leads to the disappearance of insects and other small creatures that depend on it for their survival.
But there’s an experiment which began a couple of years ago that’s redirecting and re-purposing earthworms to reduce another harmful element to our earth’s environment. Fanelli Dairy in Hilmar, California has 104 acres for growing feed for its 750 cows, which produce milk for cheese. Previously, the practice was to dilute the manure and irrigate their crops at a rate that makes sure the nitrogen in the manure is absorbed by the plants. Allowing excess nitrogen, causes pollution in water sources, and when these waters become enriched in dissolved nutrients the growth of aquatic plant life is stimulated, oftentimes resulting in the depletion of dissolved oxygen.
The experiment they’re now involved in uses a concrete box measuring 160 feet long by 35 feet wide, filled with 3 1/2 feet of wood shavings….and worms. The wastewater is sprayed onto the top, and the worms make their way through the shavings and feed on the waste – about a four hour process. According to the Hilmar Cheese Company co-owner Vic Fanelli, this process takes the place of 50 acres needed for the old method, and it of course helps the industry and environment. The worm process removes between 75-98 percent of the nitrogen per day, and also releases a nonpolluting form of nitrogen into the atmosphere while cutting down on nitrates, the form that can cause pollution.
So it’s probably a good idea to be mindful of worms when you’re composting near forests, planting trees and shrubs, or even fishing using earthworms as bait. They’re capable of more harm than you think and could quickly become invasive. Thankfully, research is allowing these worms to do some good…
-Terry Olson, Titan Outlet Store Team