The first time I heard about vermicomposting and worm castings (worm poop), I probably had the same reaction as a lot of people: ew!
However, when I learned more about it, I quickly realized the full benefits. From a RakeAround perspective (doing more and better with what is around us), I wanted to explore this further. That’s how I discovered Werking Worms. It is an Ottawa-based small business founded by Dominique, a young scientist with a strong desire to reduce our environmental footprint and make a difference in her community.
Vermicompost (vermi-compost) is the product of the decomposition process using various species of worms, usually red wriggler, white worms, and other earthworms, to create a mixture of decomposing vegetable or food waste, bedding materials, and vermicast […] Vermicompost contains water-soluble nutrients and is an excellent, nutrient-rich organic fertilizer and soil conditioner. It is used in farming and small scale sustainable, organic farming.Wikipedia
How it all started
Dominique originally started an academic path studying Biomedical science at Brock University with plans to go to med school. After her first year, she felt compelled to follow her passion for the environment. She then transferred to the University of Ottawa and got a degree in Environmental science, with a geochemistry specialization.
Her academic experience involves fieldwork in Yukon studying glaciers. Throughout her time there, she witnessed many examples of how northern environments are influenced and changed by our global activities. For instance, she saw how dust and soot from China covered snow on glaciers, changing the albedo effect, and accelerating melting. And how lakes that native communities used to rely on are gone due to receding glaciers.
Once she graduated, Dominique was hired by a hydrogeology lab group at the University of Ottawa. She works as part of a team helping to develop solutions to nuclear waste in Canada.
She got herself an apartment and quickly realized that the city compost collection program was not available for her building. Being a plant-based diet adept, she felt like she could do something about the amount of food waste she was putting in the trash bin.
It all started with a desire to reduce my environmental footprint. – Dominique
“I know from my education that any food waste or organic material that ends up in the trash will go to a landfill. And once buried, the decomposition that happens will produce greenhouse gases,” Dominique explained. “So, it all started with the idea that my food waste doesn’t have to turn into greenhouse gases. There is another option,” she added.
“When you live in the city, we throw our trash away and don’t think about it,” Dominique said. “But when you put your waste in a [vermicompost] bin, that’s not the case anymore as it becomes something else. Your waste falls under the umbrella of upcycling and transformed into a valuable product,” she added.
Vermicompost turns your kitchen scraps into a soil booster with probiotics for the soil. – Dominique
For Dominique, her goal was always to work in a professional capacity, for a university, as a researcher. “I never considered pursuing anything related to composting or worms,” she said. “Through my desire to reduce my food waste, I realized that if this is a solution that works for me, there must be other people who also need this kind of solution,” she added. After researching the subject, she realized that there was a market for vermicompost.
Dominique explained that she developed a solution adapted to her lifestyle. As she lives in a high-rise building, she started to think that maybe some people from her building could be interested in her innovation.
She realized that, with low overhead, she could sell this kind of valuable product to the local community around her. Especially for home gardeners, or those seeking to increase their soil fertility, without necessarily keeping worms at home.
That’s how Werking Worms was born. According to Dominique, there is a large commercial market for vermicompost byproducts like vermicast and worm tea for organic farms and plant nurseries. However, it is missing in the retail market. That means that it is not easily accessible to hobbyists gardeners, especially at the community level.
Benefits of vermicomposting
Dominique specified that vermicomposting is not only to grow food. It can help house plant owners who are seeking an organic way to boost their soil fertility. While upcycling your food waste, it becomes a valuable product (worm castings). “People can use it for anything related to horticulture in soil,” she said.
I call my worm tea product Plant Treats because that is what it is, as you are treating your plants with the nutrients it needs. -Dominique
Study shows that when you spray worm tea onto plants, it increases plant foliage, acts as a natural pesticide, and helps protect from diseases. Below, a simplified visualization of the process.
The business model
Werking Worms aligns with the circular economy principle: there is no such thing as waste.
Dominique’s initial goal was to have a small operation, fuelled by her food waste, with vermicomposting products delivered locally. She started with two byproducts: the plant treats worm tea and soil boost worm castings. She explained that vermicomposting’s profit margin is higher than other agro-businesses as operations are low costs and low maintenance.
She launched her e-commerce website in March 2020. “It was two weeks before the pandemic confinement started,” she specified. “It completely changed how I expected things to unfold. It seems like people ended up with extra time to learn and experiment with new things like investing in their garden and trying to grow small fruits and vegetables,” she added.
Her solution was timely as people looked to local natural ways to grow food, on the fringes of disrupted supply chains. She used social media to promote her products. Instagram and Facebook were the biggest drivers of her sales so far. “Investing in the local community is also vital,” she said. “When people trust you and your products, word of mouth can also be very powerful,” she added.
In the first months, she focused on selling her byproducts (worm tea and worm castings). Then she moved on selling composting worms (what she calls the werking worms), so people could start doing their own vermicomposting operation. “That started to sell much more,” she proudly admitted.
90% of my sales are now worms, and it tells me that people have the time to invest in learning about vermicomposting and start their vermicomposting journey. – Dominique
The higher demand for composting worms made her pivot from what she initially wanted for her business: selling worm tea and worm castings. People were more interested in having a vermicomposting kit. She quickly increased her production of worms to satisfy the demand. “I started with one worm bin in March 2020. Then I had to convert one of my closets into a worm nursery with multiple bins,” she said. It brought much more meaning to the name Werking Worms, as people are getting worms to put to work for vermicomposting.
As supplying worms became the main activity, the next step is to add worms bins to the website to supply people with a complete vermicomposting setup for their home.
The goal is to make vermicompost as easy and accessible as possible for people. – Dominique
While shifting from selling byproducts to supplying worms, she realized that Werking Worms could also be an educational platform. A place where people can learn how to do it themselves.
“As vermicomposting became a solution for me and others, I decided to turn Werking Worms into an educational platform,” Dominique said. “Now, people have the product [worms] that they can get from me to start vermicomposting. They can also get the tools and the resources to understand what they are doing,” she added.
“Turning Werking Worms into an educational platform help me build my brand. It helped people get a better understanding of vermicomposting,” Dominique explained.
Below, you’ll see worm cocoons, baby worm, worms lined up by age and a worm nursery.
As a person of science, I see it as my duty to digest that kind of information and deliver it to people in a way they can understand. I want people to see vermicomposting as a real way to reduce their environmental footprint because it’s easy and takes little to no effort. – Dominique
Keeping in mind her business model’s environmental impact, Dominique uses bio-degradable packaging and does hyperlocal bike delivery. She wants to keep things as much as possible carbon negative or at least carbon neutral.
Worms used by Dominique are Eisenia fetida, commonly known as the red wiggler worms. It is the main composting worms used in North America because it can sustain a wide temperature range.
Takeaways on vermicomposting
“I want people to know that it doesn’t matter at what stage of life they are. If they have a full-time job or two part-time jobs, vermicomposting is for everybody. It’s feasible, and anyone can do it”, Dominique said.
Here are the four categories to consider for a successful vermicomposting:
- Biotic factors (the life inside your vermicomposting bin: worms, bacteria, etc.);
- Abiotic factors (e.g., moisture, pH, temperature, and salt content);
- Microcosm (a small replication of the worms natural habitat);
- Diversity in the worm bin (it is not just worms and food but also an entire ecosystem).
As mentioned earlier, vermicompost, worms, and worm castings may sound repulsive. Nevertheless, Dominique developed her approach to present the topic. “I break things down as a science, as opposed to a feeling,” she explained.
She also insists on four key aspects of vermicomposting:
- There is no smell;
- The bin can be aesthetically pleasing and blend with interior design;
- Operates at room temperature;
- It’s low maintenance.
“I like to stress that this is a business you can do on your own. It is simple, your profit margin is large compared to your overhead, it is low maintenance, and the science is easy to understand,” Dominique said. “It can also be a fun science project families can do at home. It can introduce kids to the science of nature and make them understand the symbiotic relationship that we have with the world that exists around us,” she added.
While doing vermicomposting, worms are upcycling waste for you. What you don’t eat, they eat, and you can benefit from the result of that by using the worm castings for your plants or garden.