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Partnership puts millions of worms to work

Rochester Business Journal
June 3, 2011

Two local businesses have partnered to market an organic fertilizer created in Livingston County by millions of earthworms.
 
Rochester-based Harris Seeds Inc. teamed with Worm Power in Avon this year to distribute Worm Power's products across the country.
 
Worm Power is the largest vermicompost facility in the United States.
 
Vermicomposting is the process in which earthworms are used to convert organic waste into fertilizer. Earthworms consume many types of organic wastes, including kitchen garbage, animal waste, agricultural residues and paper.
 
In the case of Worm Power, the earthworms-millions of them-make compost out of manure from Coyne Farms, a nearby dairy operation. The finished fertilizer resembles ground coffee, has a crumbly texture and is odorless.
 
Worm Power began in 2003 and has five employees. It has invested some $5 million in its 10-acre Avon facility, which opened in 2005, including $3.5 million for an expansion last year to increase its capacity.
 
President Tom Herlihy has designed organic resource management systems around the world. His background includes a stint as an agricultural extension agent in West Africa, experience in dairy farm operations and 20 years as a consulting environmental engineer.
 
Before its distribution deal with Harris Seeds, Worm Power primarily sold in bulk to commercial growers, including farms, wineries and greenhouses. Commercial customers include Michigan-based Elzinga & Hoeksema Greenhouses, Silver Thread Vineyard in Lodi, Seneca County, and Oklahoma City Golf and Country Club.
 
The deal with Harris Seeds, however, expands Worm Power's retail customer base, including the home gardener.
 
Richard Chamberlin, Harris Seeds' president, said a recent survey of home gardeners showed that 70 percent of respondents were either using organics or were interested in using them for gardening. Harris Seeds sells garden seeds, supplies and organic gardening solutions.
 
"It's something we need to pay attention to," Chamberlin said, adding that because of the demand for organic products, working with Worm Power was "an easy decision to make."
 
The fertilizer has been tested by researchers at Cornell University as a plant growth and plant protection material. It also was tested at Harris, where management was happy with the results.
 
"It's organic and effective," Chamberlin said. "That appeals to a broad demographic."
 
The region is a good fit for Worm Power, given the size of the local dairy industry, Herlihy said.
 
He has spent more than six years developing a patented earthworm composting system. The system includes the use of worm digesters, units 160 feet long by eight feet wide that each house 2 million earthworms working to convert the dairy manure into fertilizer.
 
The company has been awarded eight federal and state research grants for its developments in sustainable agriculture and efforts in microbiological research.
 
Solveig Hanson, Harris Seeds organic product manager, said offering the Worm Power product to gardeners and garden centers was a natural step, given recent demand for organic products.
 
"This takes it to the next level," she said.
 
Worm Power is sold for home garden use in 1-pound, 3-pound and 15-pound bags, in shakers for house plants, and in shower home-brew kits, which allow users to pour it on plants as they might pour a cup of tea. Retail prices range from $3.50 to $40.95.
 
Harris is selling the products on its website and through its mail-order catalogues and is working to get Worm Power in garden centers across the country.
 
Herlihy did not disclose revenues for Worm Power but said the business turned a profit this year.
 
Worm Power is an effective fertilizer for anything that grows, including flowers, vegetables, fruit trees, shrubs, outdoor garden beds and delicate indoor plants, he said. Future plans include building the product line, as Herlihy expects demand to continue growing.
 
"It's nature's original fertilizer, straight from the worms," he said.

6/3/11 (c) 2011 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or e-mail service@rbj.net.


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