UT Microfarm hosts worm workshop

Andrew Kirsop

On Wednesday, the UT Microfarm hosted a workshop to teach students and community members about vermicomposting, or composting with worms, and how it benefits the environment.

Participants learned about how the Microfarm operates and the role composting plays in farming. Another part of the event involved making individual compost boxes complete with worms. 

“Composting is just a way to take food scraps or things that will break down in the soil and making that process easy,” said accounting and philosophy senior Michael Mott, who runs the composting operations at the Microfarm. 

“Obviously [microorganisms] can’t do it very fast, but if we use bigger things like livestock, some farms do that — or in this case worms, which are bigger than microorganisms. They can break it down a little bit faster and we can make more soil,” Mott said. 

James Collins, government and environmental science sophomore and a project leader at the Microfarm, said it has taken a lot of work, including composting, to turn the Microfarm into what it is today.

"Before [the Microfarm] this lot was occupied by a house, so there’s lots of debris so we had to strip the soil down and remediate it,” Collins said. “In the last four years, we’ve been amending our soil with compost and other fertilizers and really turning this into a productive space.” 

Collins also discussed the different varieties of worms.

“There’s ones that will stay up close to the top and break down freshly dropped matter, there’s ones that will stay more in the bottom and make castings and travel around, and then there’s ones that act as an intermediary between the top and the bottom layers of the soil,” Collins said.

Larger worms such as nightcrawlers move between levels of soil and leave tunnels in the soil, helping to aerate and mix it. “No-till” farming and gardening is a growing practice that does not use tools to artificially mix the soil and is dependent on these worms to create and maintain productive growing soils. 

“The ones we’re using here are red wigglers,” Collins said. “They’re ones that you would find at the top of the soil breaking things down, so they’re well suited for dropping your banana peel or whatever down there. They’ll begin to chew that up.”

Middle Eastern studies junior Connor Kanso is an avid vermicomposter and has been composting at his home for years. 

“By composting at home, you’re keeping that stuff from going into a landfill where it would break down anaerobically and produce methane gas or nitrous oxide, which are both really bad greenhouse gases, worse than CO2,” Kanso said. “We’ll be doing a lot by creating composting bins.” 

According to Collins, diverting waste away from a landfill through composting will help UT reach its goal of becoming zero-waste by 2020. 

“The nutrient-rich casting is what you separate out and put on your plants,” Kanso said. The biggest difference is in crop yield. It improves germination and improves the growth of the plants.”

Kanso said that unlike other composting piles that work better when exposed to the heat, worm compost piles need to be kept between 60 and 86 degrees Fahrenheit for the worms to be healthy and productive. These worms have adapted to live in dark areas, so a closet or under a sink are good spots for a home vermicompost bin, according to Kanso.

“Some misconceptions about vermicomposting are that it attracts bugs or is smelly, and both of these are false,” said Kanso. “If you maintain your vermicompost, it should be completely odourless. If anything, it will have an earthy smell.”

Collins said that he hopes to continue to host more talks and workshops at the Microfarm. They currently host one two-hour session a week. 

“We’re shifting away from being just a production space to being more of an educational resource for students and the community,” Collins said. “In the past we’ve had two work days a week, so it’s a big shift in our operations and I’d like to see it continue.”

Collins said the Microfarm has gotten a lot of good feedback from leaders in sustainability and the Austin food scene. He said he hopes to start publishing a schedule of events and have the program more formalized by next semester. 

Marshall Huggins, a supply chain management senior and founder of an organization called Earth to Last, also attended the event. Huggins said he hopes Earth to Last, which focuses on clean technology, resource sustainability and conservation, can partner with the Microfarm more in the future. 

“I think [vermicomposting] is super easy and anyone can do it,” Huggins said. “I enjoyed learning from someone who’s done it and knows the tips and tricks, so I’m definitely more prepared than if I just saw it on the internet.”