Blast From the Past: Big Red Worm Farm

When our family moved from Philadelphia, PA to Glencoe, OK, the sky, the tribulations and the possibilities seemed endless.

We had a pony. She was stubborn and we couldn’t ride her, but who cared. She was ours. We had a garden. It didn’t grow so well. The red clay soil and the summer heat became deadly for just about everything but the okra. Who cared. The potential was there. Okra wasn’t so bad if it was fried.

Red Wiggler

I’m not sure where the worm growing idea came from. Dad located a man who had a worm farm either in Hooker, Oklahoma or Slapout, Oklahoma or somewhere in between (maybe we were motivated to visit by a bit of curiosity as well as the worms). We all loaded up in the good old Ranch Wagon and headed for the Panhandle. Saw my first real-life tumbleweed on that trip.

I don’t remember the name of the worm wrangler, but he showed us his set up and answered all Dad’s questions. Dad put together three or four worm bins when we got home. They were simple contraptions–two by twelves nailed into rectangles and filled with dirt, sawdust and old newspaper. Amazingly enough, you could order worms by the thousands through the mail, and we did. Dad opted for Red Wigglers rather than Nightcrawlers, even though the Nightcrawlers were bigger and therefore favored by fisherman. Which wasn’t such a good gauge, as any educated worm farmer knew. The Red Wigglers stayed alive longer underwater and wiggled, which tended to attract fish. Plus Nightcrawlers required an entirely different set-up involving lights to keep the crawlers in their beds. Otherwise at night they would…uh…crawl. Duh.

At that time, OU’s football team was also known as Big Red. That seems a strange comment now, as we’re more accustomed to Boomer Sooner and Crimson and Cream, but I am fairly certain that we called our outfit Big Red Worm Farm to play on the OU theme. Mom painted a sign to put up on the highway and one for our mailbox post advertising the availability of good bait worms.

As one of the Big Red Worm Farm volunteers (pressed into service) I learned more about worms than most 11-year-old girls ,ever cared to know. I could recognize worm castings and eggs, mature worms, mating worms, baby worms that looked like tiny white threads. We surprised more than one fisherman when they arrived for bait and found three girls comfortable counting out and packaging worms. Feeding (particularly coffee grounds, but it seemed we spread something else–don’t remember) and misting the beds were a regular part of the routine. I believe we had a layer of newspaper on top of the soil and hay on top of that, but I could be wrong about the hay.

Anyway, the beds were established and we were even filling garden orders for worms. Normally this would entail getting the average weight of a certain number of worms and then weighing an order for several thousand, but we didn’t have scale. However if my two sisters and I divided up the order we could count out the worms in not-so-short order. I preferred seeing the fishermen come for bait.

Photo by Judy Roberson

Introduce the chicks. A friend of ours had an acreage and the local chicken hatchery would dump chicks on his property if they didn’t sell, where they became hawk, coyote, and other animal food; this was another new facet of our lives in rural Oklahoma that was unheard of in Philly. This time our friend–at my parents’ request–saved some chicks for us. Many of them died before they were large enough to turn loose outside; we had no idea what needed to be done to keep motherless chicks alive, but we learned. A good number thrived and we were well on our way to fresh eggs and a chicken in an occasional pot.

Guess what chickens love to eat? Worms. Guess where we had built the worm bins? Beside the old dilapidated chicken coop that we never figured we’d actually use for a chicken house. But as if by some ancient instinct, that’s where the chickens loved to roost at night. And that’s where they waited for us to pull back the newspaper to water or feed the worms. No matter how much chicken scratch we scattered for them before, during or after worm care time, they descended on those bins like they were starving whenever we pulled back the cover. It was an all-you-can-eat buffet as far as they were concerned.

Worm feeding/watering became such a fight that we ended up butchering the chickens. “We” as in another friend who butchered chickens like some people made beds, and who coached my mother through the ordeal. I’m pretty sure I hid somewhere out of earshot. I could count worms any day, but…We never had another flock of chickens at Big Red Worm Farm.

The garden orders became too tremendous to fill. Some filled orders had arrived at their destination with dirt and dead worms, so there were orders to re-fill. After awhile the volunteer brigade was sick of counting out worms, and Dad just didn’t have the time. There weren’t enough fisherman to make the venture pay otherwise.

Then we had the Nightcrawler incident. Perhaps we thought we’d sell more bait worms if we we were able to offer Nightcrawlers or Wigglers. Dad set up the Nightcrawler operation in the storm cellar on the back porch which at one time had been outside, but thanks to an addition on the back of the house was now inside. One night the light bulb burned out. The next morning–ugg! I can still close my eyes and see the basement walls and ceilings moving. It was something right out of a horror flick. I was completely freaked out, and I–obviously–wasn’t one to freak over worms, toads, snakes and such. I could bait my own fishhook for goodness sake.

We screwed in a new lightbulb, let the worms that could make it crawl back into the dirt, and let Dad clean up all the dried wormy bodies that were left. That pretty much marked the death of our worm farm adventure.

I still wonder sometimes if it would be a viable business today, with the renewed interest in organic gardening. Gardens love Red Wigglers maybe more than chickens do!

(This post was reposted from my old blog.)


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