Worm composting project overcomes summer setbacks

Daniel Kim

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Photos by Allie Felt

In the spring of 2012, right before summer break, the Industrial Compost Group faced an unexpected hurdle: Of the 45,000 worms purchased from local worm breeder Barbara Newby for vermicomposting, only 5,000 remained alive. The setback forced the group to reformulate their plan in order to replenish the worm population and ensure its continued expansion. Now, the group is looking to the future, with new opportunities arising to grow composting on campus and educate the community about its importance.

“We were given conflicting instructions on maintenance regarding our specific system, so it has been a process to figure out the best ratios of high carbon brown waste to food waste for the worms. Even though the vermicompost process takes time, we are confident that the system is continuing to progress,” said senior Hannah Siano, one of the grant writers for the composting project.

Initially, the group listened to the instructions of the man who sold them the system. Many worms ended up dying because the waste was too compacted and compressed, leaving the worms trapped underneath all the condensed waste without any air.

“The newspaper covering the grate at the bottom broke through so there were holes in the bottom. All the worms were trapped in the bottom and had no air except for these holes, so the worms fell through the hole and dried out,” said senior Alicia Kerlee, a coordinator for the group.

After the worms died, the group decided to implement Newby’s suggestion.

“Before, we weren’t supposed to turn the compost at all because that’s what [the seller] told us, but now we turn the compost above the worm castings every single week,” Kerlee said. “We keep a little more peat moss to keep it aerated and put in more paper shreds to keep the food from compressing.”

As soon as the compost was turned, giving the worms more air, the worms were living under their needed environment and began to repopulate the compost pile. According to Kerlee, worms are able to double their population every month and recently, the population of worms has been increasing.

“It really seems like it’s working. We have a whole layer of worm castings on the bottom underneath the newspaper that we didn’t have with the old way we were doing it, even though we had more worms,” said Kerlee.

The group also enlisted new volunteers to help oversee the worms and prevent a similar incident form happening.

“We hired a summer intern to stay here over the summer and help feed the worms,” said Kerlee. “Our summer intern, Logan [Emlet], fed the worms and checked in with [Barbara Newby] about them. He carried food from Oddfellows over to campus for the worms and made sure they didn’t dry out.”

The project hired two new biology interns this year as insurance that the worm population remains healthy. With the help of Newby and Kerlee, these two interns make sure that the worms are receiving the right amount of nutrients to thrive and repopulate the compost.

“The additional interns we have are volunteers. We had the interns positions in the past; I was the biology intern last fall, but we did not have one in the spring,” Kerlee said. “We just had to work harder to coordinate to be focused on the biology. We never had two [biology interns] before and we’re trying really hard to make the biology a priority.”

Another new hire for the project this year was junior Matthew Akins, the education intern. The education intern’s role is to educate the community of the importance of creating compost and its environmental benefits.

On the weekend of Oct. 13, Akins will hold a composting workshop on the Reid Campus Center side lawn to get the community involved, in hopes of educating those who want to keep a compost off-campus or want to know more about the process of composting. According to Akins, the workshop will not only be beneficial for those who want to have an off-campus compost, but for those interested in the process of composting behind Jewett.

“The workshop will be run primarily by Barbara Newby, the person who bred the worms for our industrial composter, but I am excited to be a part of the workshop so that I can learn how to lead workshops like this myself in the future. My primary goal is to help spread personal composting in Walla Walla,” said Akins.

The project has also begun to reach out to the Whitman community by creating a new campaign called Adopt-A-Worm to raise funds and maintain the compost by involving the Whitman students. Students can donate as much as one dollar to adopt and name a worm from the composting shed. The money raised will go towards the tools needed for processing the compost.

“Adopt-A-Worm’s purpose is to have the school and the students invest in something, whether it’s a dollar or a conversation to hear how [the project is] going. We really want the school to be involved and let them know what is actually going on,” said senior Danielle Broida, another member of the founding group.

The purpose of starting the compost project was to help reduce the production of food waste for every student on campus and have the students of Whitman understand that they have the power to make an environmental impact that would benefit Earth.

“We want people to start thinking about their waste, thinking about how much each one of us produces. All of us working on the project together know that this industrial composting system is not going change the world, but it is a way to make people become aware of how much waste they produce on a daily basis,” Broida said. “We want the students to not only think of food waste, but other waste as well. Simply understanding how much we consume and throw away.”

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