Down to Earth

Features - Organics Supplement: Vermicompost

Zach Brooks’ second act as owner of the Arizona Worm Farm has him promoting the benefits of vermicomposting for waste reduction, sustainability.

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October 4, 2021

Photo courtesy of Arizona Worm Farm
Zach Brooks

Zach Brooks’ career path has been a bit unorthodox by conventional standards. Brooks, who received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Arizona State University, had worked his way up over the course of 30 years to become a partner at a global consulting firm. But after three decades of boardrooms and business travel, Brooks decided it was time for a change. So, in 2016, he did what any middle-aged family man might do under similar circumstances—he decided to give up his cushy corporate gig to start an off-the-grid, zero-waste farm.

While Brooks originally conceptualized selling the fruits and vegetables grown on the farm to pay for its labor, he quickly realized the real value from the farm was in breeding worms for vermicomposting.

“Worms were an integral part of our zero-waste strategy because they could convert garbage into fertilizer and healthy soil and provide a protein source for our hens that we were raising,” he says. “So, I started with worm farming. It turns out that worms, worm castings [manure], and compost, which we make here for the organic farm, are a great revenue source for us. We initially thought we were going to have a farm where we were going to sell fruits and vegetables to pay for the labor that we needed. That’s crazy hard to do in the United States on a 10 acre piece of land like we have, and so we pivoted to worms [for our revenue]. Our goal here is to feed and clothe 10 families on 10 acres using just sunshine, rainwater and other people’s garbage, and worms are a critical element to making that happen.”

Brooks’ Arizona Worm Farm, located in Phoenix, Arizona, has been in operation since 2017.

The farm sells between 40,000 to 60,000 red wiggler worms a week to backyard gardeners who use them in their worm composting bins to convert food waste into nutrient-rich soil.

The farm also sells 3,000 to 5,000 pounds of worm castings per week. Brooks says this natural fertilizer product help repel pests, help plants grow and allow soil to better absorb nutrients under Arizona’s challenging conditions.

Additionally, the farm sells between 150 and 250 yards of compost and raised bed mix per week generated from its hot compost that is composed of horse manure from local stables, food waste, basalt rock dust, and mulch from the city of Phoenix’s landscape waste.

Managing waste

Brooks says that the farm takes in 320 yards of waste materials per week to fuel its operations. Roughly one-third of this material is food waste, one-third is manure and one-third is landscaping waste.

The food waste is mostly derived from a local food packager that bags fruits and vegetables for grocery stores. The byproducts of this produce are shipped to the Arizona Worm Farm to be incorporated into its composting mix. Brooks says that this organic feedstock is ideal for the farm’s operations since it is free of plastics or other contamination. For this reason, the farm doesn’t accept organics from restaurants, residents or other establishments. Also, this waste isn’t packaged or bagged, which alleviates the need to debag the material at the farm, saving both time and labor.

Brooks estimates that, in total, the farm helps divert 32 tons of food waste from landfill every week.

The yard waste from the city of Phoenix is derived from trees, branches and other yard waste the city’s landscapers collect. The city of Phoenix also has a certified green program. Through this program, residents agree to bring clean landscaping waste to the city’s processing facilities, where it is ground, turned once in a composting process, and then sent to the Arizona Worm Farm. This process also helps keep a substantial amount of organic material from ending up in area landfills.

Good for growing

Brooks says the process of raising worms for composting purposes is more labor-intensive than relying on traditional windrow composting.

A shipping container on the farm filled with metal shelves is loaded with bins of soil that contain worms. Brooks and staff work to monitor the containers to ensure optimal breeding conditions. Once the worms are mature, they can be introduced into the compost.

Brooks says that although larger windrow composters are able to produce up to 1,000 times the products the Arizona Worm Farm does, the byproducts of the company’s vermicomposting operations are superior.

“Worms are animals, so the same way you have to manage your herd if you’re a cattle farmer or a flock if you’re a chicken farmer, we manage our worms,” he says. “It’s not quite as simple. There are a couple more moving pieces, but it’s hugely productive.

“We create what we think is the city, and the world’s, best organic soil. We do that using organic material and the microbes that are a byproduct of worms—either live worms or worm castings. The combination of organic material and microbes convert what is in the soil into what the plants need at the point in time that they need them. We don’t use any herbicides or pesticides or chemicals of any kind. We just use organic materials from our composting operation, combined with worm castings, which tends to be hugely microbially active, and get a very, very rich organic soil.”

The difference in the quality of this soil is tangible, Brooks says. He notes that the company’s farmland is richer and able to retain water much better than other land in the area. This means less water is required to maintain operations, which further helps conserve resources.

With areas throughout the region facing severe drought conditions, Brooks says cities might begin to consider adopting more proactive composting and farming operations to both better manage their waste streams and produce healthier soils.

“It would absolutely make sense for cities that are trying to figure out what to do with their waste to create composting and permaculture operations,” he says. “One of the things that we see which is important in the Southwest is that our soils use much less water to produce the same result. Microbially active organic soil will produce a better outcome with much less water. So, cities and residents using these kinds of soils can help reduce their footprint without the same water requirements.”

To help spread the message on the benefits of vermicomposting and organic farming practices, Brooks says that he is helping organize the first countrywide conference for vermicomposting business owners. According to Brooks, the Worm Business Conference will take place January 2022 in Phoenix, and 40 farms are already committed to participate.

Brooks says that through the conference, he hopes to inspire a more local, responsible approach for managing waste.

“We’re going to talk about how to be more efficient and effective, how to make more money using worms and how to reduce the amount of oil-based and chemical-based fertilizers that are used for agriculture,” he says. “We’d like to do that same thing with farmers and market gardeners across the U.S. [and inspire them to use] methodologies that are able to increase their productivity and decrease the amount of money that they spend on fertilizers while producing a healthier, more environmentally friendly soil.

“One of our goals is to continue to help figure that out, and to teach people how to do it. We’re going to start with the worm farmers who are going to help us spread that message, and then we’re going to try and get people who farm in conventional ways to farm in more organically sustainable ways. … This process tends to be more labor-intensive, and fruits and vegetables will cost a little more, but we have to decide as a society if we’re willing to [accept that trade-off]. We think lots of people will.”

The author is the editor of Waste Today and can be contacted at aredling@gie.net.