Project turns dirt into 'gold'

"They're not the most cooperative or hygienic of co-workers, but more than a half million red worms are laboring alongside local workers with disabilities this summer.Kitsap E-Z Earth - a joint venture of the Holly Ridge Center and Peninsula Services - will soon offer all-natural compost created by the worms, as well as related products and supplies. But for now, 10 workers from Holly Ridge are tending the 32-foot long bin, which serves as home to about 800,000 of the creatures - up from about 400,000 only a few months ago, said Melinda Donovan, program coordinator of Adult Employment Services at the center.Donovan said the E-Z Earth program provides their disabled workers with steady employment, which Washington agencies have had difficulty providing since Initiative 695. Earlier this year, Kitsap Transit officials handed pink slips to 20 disabled workers who had been hired to wash buses.We're really excited about this, Donovan said. We're saving landfills and it's something our people can do.With several crew members - ranging in age from 21 to 60 years old - assigned to shredding newspaper for the bins, others collect and sort through donated food stock from local grocers.Also known as manure worms, red worms actually consume their surroundings, making for richer, finer soil than that of earthworms, said Patt Kasa, extension coordinator for the community horticulture division of Washington State University's Cooperative Extension program.(Soil processed by red worms) has a greater organic content, she said. It's extremely helpful for indoor and outdoor plants. We consider it to be black gold.Hired last November to find a successful recycling opportunity for Holly Ridge, Bill Hoke said he began reading about the benefits of worm composting.I knew nothing about worms at the time, he said.But after deciding to give it a try, Hoke said the project obtained the equipment and worms from a company in Cottage Grove, Ore., and then just waited.In the last few weeks, they've really taken off, he said.Surrounding the worms with the newspaper strips, produce and manure not only provide for rapid reproduction, but also quick processing of the soil.There's an unbelievable amount of food being thrown away at groceries around here, Hoke said. We're taking that and turning it into something good.Donovan said the Holly Ridge workers not only enjoy their work, but also learn from observing the worms at work.They can't believe that the worms are actually feeding on all that food, she said. The crews just love it.Although decomposing veggies and animal waste don't sound incredibly appealing, Donovan said the worms eliminate the stink.The finished product is very clean - no smell or odor, she said.As the worms finish processing a layer of soil, Hoke said, they move up to begin work on the next level. It's a relatively quick process, and he said the container should be finished by the end of September.I hope, within 90 days, we'll be ready to go, Donovan said. We'll have a big party.Once the finished product is collected, the compost will be sold to local nurseries, farmer's markets and private gardeners, Hoke said. And because it is an ongoing process, they are continuously searching for donations of cow, horse, donkey, sheep or llama manure - as long as it is free of wood shavings, newspaper or straw.Pretty much just anything other than domestic pets, Hoke said.Although worms might seem fairly independent and self-sufficient, Sonny Barnett, who oversees operation of the bin, said there are several minute details vital to the creatures' survival. One of the most important factors, he said, was ensuring there is sufficient water in the soil.You don't want to get too much, though, Barnett said, or else they'll run. That happened once. It was a madhouse. "

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