Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Burnettes Have Worms!

It's official. Our family now has worms. No, not that kind (at least as far as we know). We're raising red wrigglers that our friend Scott, an accomplished backyard worm farmer, gave us this past Friday.

I know what you're thinking. "Exactly why would you want to raise worms?"

Actually, we're not producing big, old night crawlers that we could use for fish bait like my Uncle George used to raise. Although I haven't gotten them properly identified, our worms fall into the same category as the tiger worm (Eisenia fetida) and red tiger (Eisenia andrei). These are basically composting worms. And that's exactly why we want them.

Every week our kitchen produces a bucket or two of vegetable scraps, leftover fruit and coffee grounds. We always kept these biodegradables out of the garbage can, generally spreading them around garden plants where they slowly decompose. However, this lazy form of composting is unsightly and not very intensive. By simply spreading the kitchen waste around the garden we got less bang for the buck.

But under our vermiculture (worm farming) system, as waste from the kitchen decomposes the wrigglers will ingest extremely tiny bits of the scraps. But the worms main food source is actually various types of microorganisms that break down the kitchen waste in our vermi-compost system.

So not only are the kitchen scraps being composted for future use as soil amendment within our garden, we're also gaining nutrient rich worm castings; basically worm excrement. The late Mary Applehof, author of "Worms Eat My Garbage", explains that vermi-compost (the desired end product) is "a dark mixture of worm castings, organic material, and bedding in various stages of decomposition, plus the living earthworms, cocoons and other organisms present."

Over the past few weeks I've been preparing soil in a round three-foot wide cement tank (which we previously used to raise catfish) as the future home for our wrigglers. This tank actually sits atop another tank just out of reach of the nosey goats. For starters, I bought a sack of potting soil and added several pounds of goat manure and spoiled goat feed. After moistening, the mix quickly heated up as the organic material began to biodegrade. With occasional turning, the mix eventually cooled resulting in a very rich soil compost.

After the worms were introduced on Friday we began adding kitchen scraps, keeping the whole thing covered with a layer of cardboard. So far so good. No mass wriggler die off or escape.

Never Underestimate a Stressed Out Buck

When we began raising goats almost a year and a half ago we decided we wouldn't keep a buck around. With bucks being somewhat smelly we didn't want to take the chance of offending our neighbors. Grown bucks can also behave aggressively, so I didn't want to put the boys or neighborhood kids at risk. And they have certain unmentionable habits.

That being the case, we either sold off or castrated the bucks in our small herd. In the end, however, these practices are unsustainable, especially if one wants to maintain a herd over the long-term. So we decided that a couple of times a year we'd borrow a buck from Mr. Piak, the man who sold us our first goats (and buys occasional spares).

By the way, in most parts of Thailand, you won't see many goats. As Thais aren't partial to goat meat, the animals are rarely encountered except in Muslim or other minority communities. Mr Piak, who is Muslim, raises a fairly large herd of mixed breed goats on the east side of Chiang Mai.
Anyhow, some time ago I made a deal with Mr. Piak that I would borrow a buck from time to time. If he'd provide a young healthy male, I'd do my best to feed and care for the animal.

So on Friday, after picking up my first batch of worms from Scott, we headed over to Mr. Piak's. He had picked out a fine young buck that I hauled back to the house. After settling Bucky into a new pen that we had constructed in the corner of the goat yard, I gave him some water and feed and told him to make himself at home.

A few hours later, while trying to finish up e-mails at the office, Ellen called and said for me to come home immediately. The buck was MIA. It wasn't in the goat yard and was presumably in the large, overgrown lot adjacent to the pen.
So how the heck did Bucky get out? The wall is six feet high. Ellen pointed out that I had brilliantly left three sacks of goat manure against the wall. That provided a two-foot tall spring board that the adrenaline-powered buck used to his advantage.

Fortunately, by the time I got home, Ellen and Bui Loi had located the buck in the corner of the Hmong neighbor's backyard farm. Because he was quite exhausted from the day's ordeal, we caught Bucky fairly easily and hauled him back over the wall.

The sacks of manure have been removed.

Mission Accomplished

Saturday was the first day in weeks that I had the chance to tackle the tall dry grass and brush standing in the adjacent vacant lot (where Bucky made his escape). After hours of hacking away at the vegetation with a machete and stacking the biomass about 10 meters away from our wall, the area in question is now cleared of combustible material and I can sleep at night without fear of a sneak wildfire igniting either our thatch and bamboo animal pens or our house.

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