Bentley Christie is the Nikola Tesla of vermicomposting. Wild innovation, the optimism of a visionary, and with the earthy drive to share with people: never since Mary Applehof has anyone promoted composting worms so enthusiastically, so passionately, and reached such a diverse audience. Bentley is a Canadian worm farmer and eco-entrepreneur, an irresistible force of nature.
In a nutshell: what is vermicomposting?
Bentley: Vermicomposting is composting involving the joint action of earthworms and microorganisms. It requires specialized species of worms adapted for life in habitats that are rich in organic matter – not your typical “garden varieties”.
How did you grow so passionate about vermicomposting?
Bentley: It all started with a worm bin! lol
I was working at an environmental consulting firm at the time (this would have been early in 2000 – amazing how time flies!), and I caught wind of the fact that a co-worker had a bin full of worms sitting under her desk. Being the bio-geek that I was (my job at the firm actually involved ID-ing aquatic invertebrates), I knew that I had to see this thing for myself.
I can still remember looking in and seeing loads of rich – albeit rather dry – compost, and this sad little crowd of Red Worms huddled underneath an apple core. I was totally blown away with the idea that these worms could turn that apple core (along with all manner of other food wastes) into “black gold”! It was definitely a defining moment for me.
Of course, I didn’t have a concept of proper worm bin maintenance at the time, so the state of the bin didn’t phase me at all. If I could go back now, and offer my co-worker some advice, I’d definitely suggest a bin overhaul! lol
Anyway – long, story short, when my co-worker saw my eyes bug out and my jaw hit the ground in amazement, she insisted that I take a bucket of worm-rich material home with me (guess there must have been a lot more worms down in the bottom of the bin – it’s all a blur now) so I could start my own system.
The rest, as they say, is history!
[ASIDE: It just so happens that I crossed paths with that same co-worker a few years ago, and when she learned how far I had taken my vermicomposting passion – and how she had played a key role in that – she was absolutely thrilled!]
Worm farming is still fairly unusual. Please tell us about an adventure (or misadventure) that you had while navigating this relatively under-explored territory.
Bentley: Well, the whole thing has been a fun adventure – that’s for sure – but if we’re going to be specific, it’s usually misadventures that come to mind more quickly! PLENTY of those to chose from. lol
One that’s a real stand out came very early on in my vermicomposting “adventure” – not too long after taking that first batch of worms home with me (mentioned in my last response). I had recently started up my first “official” worm bin, and needless to say I was a wee bit “wet behind the ears”.
The bin could definitely be considered “small”, even by home vermicomposting standards – likely 3-5 gal volume – yet for some reason I got it into my head that it would be ok to add nearly a pot-full of cooked rice as food for my worms.
I quickly discovered that one should NEVER add almost-a-pot-full of cooked rice to a small enclosed, plastic worm bin! lol The rice first heated up, before congealing and forming a big glob of goop. Next came the anaerobic (sake brewing?) phase, which resulted in some rather pungent fermentation odors coming from the bin, and general ecological mayhem taking place inside.
Interestingly enough, it seems that white worms (aka “pot worms”) are rather fond of starchy, anaerobic sludge – and I literally ended up with undulating masses of the things oozing out from the air holes (so you can imagine how many were coating the inner surfaces of the bin)!
Amazingly enough, I somehow didn’t kill off all my Red Worms – so I was able to continue on my way (lessons thankfully learned).
This experience helps to explain why I’ve tended to be a tad overzealous with my recommendations on exercising caution with starchy food wastes over the years! lol
What is your vision for composting worms in an ideal society?
Bentley: As cool as I think vermicomposting is (and yes, I’m a wee bit biased),what gets me most excited is its potential as a key component of much larger, integrated systems. Quite a few years ago now, I remember coming across a video online that just completely blew my mind. It featured a large-scale “living machine” project set up by Dr. John Todd in Vermont.
Brewery wastes were sterilized and used to grow oyster mushrooms. The spent growing medium was then fed to Red Worms, which in turn were fed to yellow perch in an aquaponics system. This supported the growth of all manner of different plants and even freshwater shrimp. I can’t remember what happened to the vermicompost – but I’m sure it wouldn’t be challenging to find a use for it (seed balls?! lol).
I think that the more we can mimic natural systems, and the more we can integrate these systems into our every day lives (imagine a set up similar to what I described operating in an office building, for example), the greater our chances of getting things back on track with creating a sustainable future. I think it’s pretty clear that we’re not all just going to hop off the grid and start homesteading (I’d love to do that – haha – but it’s not realistic to expect the vast majority of people to head in that direction, in my humble opinion).
As a Compost Ambassador, Bentley has built numerous websites with an encyclopedia of practical advice for composting and vermicomposting. If you have searched about composting online, you have, no doubt, run into one of his many outreach websites.