Hitting pay dirt
A couple in Phitsanulok are making a tidy sum raising slithery creatures that make most of us squeamish
Story by CHOMPOO TRAKULLERTSATHIEN
Pictures by SOMKID CHAIJITVANIT
Kab Pan-am counts out worms to fill a new order.|
Like many of their neighbours, Kab Pan-am and her husband, Prasit, were always looking for new ways to make ends meet. Then one day opportunity didn’t just come knocking on their door, it wriggled underneath. Five months down the road the couple’s backyard is now producing bumper harvests on a regular basis and earning them a hefty monthly income into the bargain.
Rice? Organic vegetables? Fruit trees? No, the "crop" that thrives on this patch of land in the small, serene community of Barommatrilokanat 21 in Phitsanulok is worms, tiger worms to be exact — thousands and thousands of them.
Kab and Prasit have just ventured into the novel agricultural practice of vermiculture: the breeding and sale of worms and their value-added by-products. Every day they dispatch 1,500 to 2,000 of the wriggly creatures to farmers, gardeners, animal breeders and fish enthusiasts around the Kingdom.
"We now have regular customers all over the place and very often we run out of stock. We got an order today from Narathiwat for 3,000 worms. We’ve been quite busy since news of our little farm spread," said a smiling Kab, trying not to lose count as she bent over a concrete holding tank gathering worms.
Although vermiculture and vermicomposting — speeding up the creation of compost from organic waste by using worms — are new to the Kingdom, these activities have been practised world-wide for several decades and there are booming vermiculture businesses in places as far apart as the US, Australia, England, India and Laos. And it was the latter country that exported the know-how to Thailand.
Seven months back, villagers from Barommatrilokanat 21 plus a handful of scholars and businessmen were invited up to the Lao PDR by a group of local academics to inspect a thriving vermiculture project. Afterwards their host gave his parting guests an unusual gift — several hundred tiger worms (Eisenia foetida).
"We brought back about 1,000 worms with us," said Chaowarat Khaisorn, chairman of the Barommatrilokanat 21 community association. "At first the plan was simply to use the worms to decompose our organic waste. They’re doing that very successfully in Laos and we were assured that the creature poses no harm to the environment. Later, when we realised how much demand there was for the worms we decided to start breeding them ourselves."
Vermiculturists from Laos were asked to come down to Phitsanulok to give a one-day training course but at first only Kab and Prasit saw the possibilities. They started out small, building three circular concrete tanks in their backyard in which to keep the worms. But then the orders started flooding in and now their backyard accommodates 12 more tanks.
"It’s a good source of extra income," said Kab, 50. "The start-up costs are low and vendors often give us their unwanted fruit to feed the worms. Some of our neighbours got interested in the idea so we gave them some worms free to help them get started. We also get visits from people from other provinces who want advice on how to set up worm farms of their own. This way we farmers can help support each other."
The tiger worms raised by Kab and her neighbours have red bodies and are between three and four inches (7.6 to 10 centimetres) in length. But why did they import them from Laos? What’s wrong with worms native to Thailand? The answer is twofold. First, indigenous species don’t reproduce as quickly as Eisenia foetida. Second, they are quite difficult to find in quantity nowadays due to intensive cultivation (they are very sensitive to disturbances caused by excessive digging or ploughing) and the heavy use by Thai farmers over the past few decades of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides.
So what on earth are people doing with these wriggly creatures?
There are a large variety of uses. First and foremost is their invaluable role in boosting the quality and fertility of soil. The casings (skin) they shed break down into humus, an indispensable element for all vegetal life, and their movements improve drainage and soil aeration. Says Prasit, "One of my clients has a big market garden in Tak province. She buys worms from me to release into her vegetable beds."
Rich in nitrogen, phosphorous, calcium, and potassium, with a neutral pH, worm casings are the richest form of natural fertiliser known to gardeners. "We also sell them to gardeners who prefer to use natural rather than synthetic fertilisers, " said Kab.
Fishing enthusiasts regard the red worms raised by the couple as excellent bait. Provided that there are no delays in delivery, the little creatures can stay alive on the hook much longer than other types of lure.
Worms also make ideal food for many kinds of animals. Apart from their nutritional value — approximately 60 percent of their body weight is protein — they impart other benefits too. Breeders say that decorative fish fed on them develop brighter, more colourful skins and that fighting cocks grow glossier feathers and are less prone to come down with diseases because the worms boost their immune systems. According to Kab, chickens fed on worms lay bigger eggs with dark red yolks. The little fellows also relieve the problem of bloated stomachs in pigs and frogs and improve the digestive and excretory systems of pet birds.
Many people are also turning to the humble worm to solve the problem of disposing of household waste. Adding them to a compost heap expedites the decomposition of food scraps and other organic rubbish, converting trash into tons of useful fertiliser.
In the opinion of Dr Arnat Tancho, a lecturer at Mae Jo University’s Faculty of Agriculture Production, vermiculture is an organic agricultural practice that deserves support from the government. It can help reduce the need for expensive synthetic fertilisers and lower the amount of harmful chemical residue in food crops and the environment in general. In addition the availability of a plentiful supply of farmed worms would reduce the need to import animal feed.
"If farmers bred worms themselves they could drastically cut their expenses," he said. "The worm is truly a wonderful, versatile, hard-working creature."