Mother Nature sure was thinking about the fisherman when she dreamed up the earthworm. She also might have been thinking about the perfect summer home business for kids. What kid hasn't happily dug into the dirt in hopes of collecting a pail full of worms to watch? Well, this summer it doesn't have to be just child's play: Since an earthworm is probably the most reliable bait in the world and fishing is one of the most popular pastimes in the country, there can be money in them there dirt piles, if you decide to try worm farming for profit.
Known as angleworms, dewworms, gardenworms, nightcrawlers, rainworms, ground, and red worms, earthworms are especially plentiful in old lawns and wild grasslands. But worm burrows are often well-hidden, and the entrances are sometimes plugged with leaves, seeds, twigs, or pebbles. To get them on a moment's notice, the soil may have to be turned over with a fork or shovel. Still, during humid weather, worms do come out of their tunnels to feed, mate, or migrate. Worms are known to travel considerable distances in order to migrate, and they will always emerge during rainstorms at night, and occasionally during the day, too.
Seldom, if ever, will they be on the surface when winds are blowing strongly. But in clear weather, after dark, earthworms can easily be gathered on the surface of almost any piece of fertile soil. The best method: Search under large trees or bushes with the aid of a dim light, such as a flashlight fitted with a red lens or covered with a piece of very light cloth or paper. On a selected night, worms can readily be brought to the surface by thoroughly sprinkling the ground around their burrows before sundown. Collecting worms is a cinch then. However, should the temperature fall below 40 degrees, forget it—you'll have to dig them out the following day.
Wooden boxes 14" × 18" are recommended for raising worms outdoors. They can be stacked easily then, and held apart with small blocks of wood. When arranged in tiers, such a system provides for ventilation, drainage, and easy access for watering. The boxes should be supported above the ground to a height of at least 6". This will prevent the wood from deteriorating and permitting the critters to escape. Fill these containers with one part manure, one part screened top soil, and one part peat moss.
Next, sprinkle in either cornmeal or poultry mash to provide the ration of carbohydrates, protein, and fats needed for good nourishment. If mash is used, hold down the amount to a maximum of one pound for each cubic foot or filler material. In the case of cornmeal, one half-pound per cubic foot will do the job. Mix in either of the foods uniformly, before anything is wetted, and place a layer of alfalfa or hay into the bottom of each culture box. Earthworms favor hay or alfalfa as food, too, and they will improve drainage, along with preventing the compost from sticking to the box bottoms. When all of the culture material is prepared, each box ought to be about two-thirds full.
Put around 500 fully-matured worms in each container and cover them lightly with the combined material. In order to keep the surface dark and damp, cover the boxes with two thicknesses of damp burlap. Sprinkle a little water on the surface once or twice a week, depending on the temperature and weather conditions. The food supply can easily be checked by periodically examining a handful of soil. When additional feeding becomes necessary, an excellent supplement consists of five pounds of commercial rabbit pellets, one pound of soybean meal, and a pound of sugar. Moisten them to form a soft crumbly mass and stir them into the culture. But really, worms will thrive on kitchen or garden wastes, spoiled fruits and vegetables just as well.
A box three feet long, 2 1/2 feet wide and 1 1/2 feet high is recommended if worms are to be raised indoors. It's important to remember that the container must be sealed at any connection to prevent escape. Firm the top with a frame covered with hardware cloth. Several small holes need to be drilled in the bottom for good drainage. Cover the holes with fine mesh screening tacked to the bottom of the container itself. Good drainage is most important, since excessive moisture will surely kill this bait of baits. Feeding and watering procedures are the same for either indoor or outdoor raising.
Any time after 21 days, the box or boxes will be filled with egg capsules and ready for harvesting. Dump the box contents on a table and rake it into a cone-shaped pile. Each capsule will contain more than one egg, possibly as many as a dozen. And after the worms have had a few minutes to work down from the surface, start raking the material from the top of the pile. This is the stuff that contains the egg capsules; it should be placed into the new boxes that have been prepared.
Continue this until two-thirds of the old culture has been transferred to the new box. The bottom one-third of the remaining material contains the breeder worms; return them to the old box. Fill up the old boxes with the new material, and you're ready to start over. And you will learn another thing right about here—breeding crawlers make breeding rabbits look amateur!
The capsule-loaded boxes will be ready for worm-harvesting operations in another 60 to 90 days. Keep in mind that a full harvest of capsules can be taken every 21 to 30 days from mature earthworms. But also remember that worms will stop producing if their culture boxes become overcrowded, so limit their number to 500 to 600 per box. Keep the boxes relatively dark and moist, but not soggy. If kept outside, they must be protected from flooding rains.
You'll most likely market your earthworms immediately upon being dug from the ground. Of course, worms are excellent bait just about anytime, but they live much longer on the hook if they are "scoured" in a stoneware crock or wooden box.
To "scour" worms, put them in a quantity of sphagnum (the kind nurserymen use to pack and ship plants in). Soak, but then be sure to squeeze excessive moisture out of the moss before placing it in the container. Worms can be left like this for at least two days if kept in a cool spot. By that time, the worms will be almost transparent—they will also be tough and lively. Should you want to keep them as long as a week in this state, pour a little milk over them every three days or so. But be sure the moss is rinsed out in clean water from time to time, and squeeze out excessive moisture again.
Living near a lake, I had no trouble reaching my customers. But if you reside further inland, just place an ad in your local paper and hang signs in markets, boat shops, and you think wherever fishers are likely to see it. I charged $1 a dozen for my large nightcrawlers and got a tremendous response. In a good summer, I made $800 to $900, part-time!
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