By Barbara Turnbull
Jul 5, 2013
Cathy Nesbitt, of Bradford, Ont., is Canada’s queen of the crawlers. Through her vermicomposting business, Cathy’s Crawly Composters, she sells red wigglers to homeowners for composting, works the birthday-party circuit and speaks of wormy virtues to schools and garden societies.
Maria Rodriguez, of Guatamala City, runs an 8,600-square-foot worm farm through her organization, Byoearth, where she breeds worms and produces fertilizer to sell to non-proft organizations for subsistence farmers.
When the two worm experts found each other on Twitter last October, they were mutually impressed with each other’s work: Nesbitt’s goal is to open a worm production and education centre in Ontario; Rodriguez wants to introduce vermicomposting to the slums of Guatamala so the residents can grow food in the nitrogen-rich soil produced by worms from organic waste.
When Rodriguez appealed to Nesbitt to come to Guatemala and help her market her ideas, Nesbitt couldn’t say no. She is currently seeking sponsors to make the trip possible.
“I’m hoping to have a really great exchange of information,” Nesbitt says of her two-week trip next month. “We’re both really excited about how worms are going to save the world.”
Nesbitt will brainstorm with Rodriguez and share what works here, and the pair will hold workshops to help expand vermiculture throughout the Central American country. Rodriguez also hopes to gain from Nesbitt’s experience with social media, production processes, packaging, marketing and composting techniques.
The enthusiasm of both women is palpable over the phone line, on their websites and on Byoearth’s Facebook page.
Rodriguez, 25, first saw exciting possibilities in vermiculture — the science of producing worms and their by-products — five years ago, when she was working toward her Masters degree in Sustainable Rural Development.
She started with a small box of worms, marvelling at how they transformed organic waste into nitrogen-rich castings.
They’re amazing creatures. For starters, red wrigglers are hermaphrodites with five hearts. They never sleep. They eat half their weight every day, consuming organic waste from fruits, vegetables, paper scraps, coffee grinds, bread, rice and pasta, turning it into rich topsoil.
“I thought it was a perfect business opportunity,” Rodriguez says in a telephone interview from Guatemala City, home to one of the largest and most toxic dumps in Central America: a 16-hectare open pit in the middle of the city. It is surrounded by a slum that thousands of squatters call home.
Her catch phrase? Her red wringlers “turn waste into wealth.”
In 2007, she won $10,000 U.S. in a business competition, sponsored by USAID (United States Agency for International Development), which gave her the money to buy half a million worms and start Byoearth.
She has since set up the worm-breeding facility, created byoearth.com and helped 45 women who live on the perimeter of the Guatemala City landfill start vermicomposting microbusinesses. She also produces four worm-related products that she sells through her website.
The worm-breeding facility produced 227,000 kilograms of fertilizer last year, which was sold to relief organizations working with subsistence farmers to fight soil degradation. Byoearth also supplies fertilizer and worms to isolated rural communities.
Word of Nesbitt’s visit to Guatemala reached Anne Lossing, coordinator of a project called Ixcanaan (Guardian of the Rainforest) in the isolated village of Peten (near the Mayan ruins), who helps the people of the remote jungle area become self-sufficient. The soil is so degraded they can’t grow fruit and vegetables. She has recently started using red wigglers to produce fertile topsoil. Nesbitt and Rodriguez will spend two days in Peten and hold a workshop.
“There is hope and opportunity with the worms and we believe that if we promote it properly. . . that it will have a very big social and environmental impact,” Rodriguez says.
And Nesbitt is important to realizing that goal.
Over the past 10 years, through Cathy’s Crawly Composters, cathyscomposters.com , Nesbitt has sold more than 5,000 pounds of worms and more than 2,000 worm-bin composters. She has shared the red wiggler magic with more than 75,000 students at 300 Southern Ontario schools, in seniors’ homes, at worm-themed birthday parties and more than 100 horticultural societies. (Another noteworthy achievement: She won the second annual Great Canadian Worm Charming Championship at the Shelburne Lions Club last year.)
Over the past two years, she has diverted more than 500 garbage bags of shredded paper and some 7,000 used milk and juice cartons from blue boxes and used them for worm composting and packaging — and thus diverted tons of organic waste from the landfill.
She’s an inspired marketer, and will share her know-how with Rodriguez.
Nesbitt has yet to achieve her dream of a worm production and education centre. She envisions a facility staffed by people at a socioeconomic disadvantage, a large community garden, with a solid revenue stream from the sale of fertilizer and a continuous stream of visitors of all ages.
But like many visionaries, she is stymied by government policies and the meagre imaginations of some she encounters.
“People seem to be afraid of something new, even though it’s necessary and not new,” she says, pointing out that in the 1980s the City of Toronto provided residents with worm kits for their homes.
“The worms have been waiting for millions of years to help solve our problem and the time has come. They are patient creatures.”