Sign up for a free account to take advantage of all the new features and to be able to post in the forums. There have been over 33,000 logged entries in the forums since 1998.  Check out the Fun and Magazine Stores.
Welcome, 1 kB

Working with Worms E-mail
User Rating: / 7
Written by Administrator   
Monday, 03 September 2007

Working with Worms

and Making a Name for Himself

By Amelia Heagerty

Aug 15 2007

In the worm business for just three years, Islander Mark Yelkin admits many people know him better as the Worm Guy than by the name his parents gave him.

Although the nickname is ubiquitous on Vashon, Yelkin, 49, only recently walked away from management work in the gasoline industry and began a sustainable worm business on the Island, composting the food waste of both individuals and restaurants for free in a shining example of conservation.

“I started out after 25 years working for an oil company — we’ve always wanted to raise worms,” he said.

Now, this Island celebrity — a house hold name among the Island’s restaurant owners, organic gardeners and conservationists — is also gaining some national attention.

At ABC’s Good Morning America’s request, Yelkin recently submitted a video extolling the virtues of worm-based composting and asking presidential hopefuls how they would encourage local sustainable businesses like his own.

His video was one of the most-viewed on ABC’s Web site two weeks ago, before the Republicans appeared on the show. And this week, Democratic presidential hopefuls may answer the Worm Guy’s question on national television — quite a spotlight for a man who spends all day up to his elbows in worm poop.

“The people on Vashon think I’m a convert,” Yelkin, father of two, said of his transformation from petroleum employee to grassroots worm farmer. He lived in the Midwest for decades before coming to the Pacific Northwest. “I’ve always composted for personal use, and we recycled, but that was the extent of it.”

Yelkin’s interest in the invertebrates began when he realized how useful and industrious earthworms are — and how talented they are at turning the food scraps many households throw away into rich, nutrient-laden soil perfect for gardens. The worms are low-maintenance, requiring only soil, moisture and oxygen to happily wriggle their days away.

Called castings, worm excrement is odor-free and will not burn at any temperature. Yelkin, his hands dark with dirt and wearing a baseball cap emblazoned with the words “Untamed Vashon Island,” called castings “the best organic fertilizer there is.”

He sells worm castings in 15- and 30-pound bags and emphasizes that “a little goes a long way.”

“Anything (worms) can suck in, they can process,” he said. “Even a rock. ... If it’s small enough they could pull it in.”  Worm castings are also disease-free, because the worm both physically and chemically processes anything it digests, Yelkin said.

Yelkin started with 12,000 worms and estimates he has more than a million at the farm today.

In addition to his commercial operation, he also runs no-cost food-scrap compost programs for both individuals and Island businesses.

At his farm on the northwest side of the Island, two large food waste bins — each about the size of two Volkswagen Rabbits — produce 200 pounds of castings a day, which Yelkin returns to the community at no cost.

The food waste portion of Yelkin’s earthworm operation is a newly minted nonprofit organization, as of September 2005.

Eat it here, use it here, keep it here — Yelkin swears by this mantra, an approach beloved by many in the local food and sustainability movement that is gaining momentum nationwide.

Anyone interested in becoming part of Yelkin’s food-scrap program for households can pick up a 5-gallon food scrap bucket from the worm farm, and when it is full, swap it for a “relatively clean” empty bucket.

Yelkin also works with Island restaurants and grocery stores, collecting their food-scrap containers daily for free.  “There’s so much waste created in the food industry,” said Jessica De Wire, chef and co-owner of Gusto Girls. “If we didn’t recycle and use the Worm Guy, we’d have at least two or three dumpsters of trash a week; now we only have one.”

Gusto Girls has been a part of Yelkin’s program since the restaurant opened its doors nearly a year ago.  De Wire said her restaurant’s participation in the worm program was “responsible.”  Yelkin has big hopes for his worm farm, a sprawling 10-acre parcel with a P-patch in front, just down the street from the Island’s Catholic church. Yelkin has grown vegetables for years, but this is the first year pumpkins will brighten the fields around harvest time.

While Yelkin rents the property’s barn and workshop, a 60-year-old woman lives in the home. Yelkin just began negotiations with the owner to purchase the plot in his nonprofit’s name.

“We’re trying to figure out ... if I can afford it,” he said. “Then the whole place would be an entity of its own, and when I’m gone, the dream can carry on.”

He said he wanted the worm farm to one day be fully functional and house an educational center, especially for inner-city students who may not have much exposure to farming or composting at home.

“The reason I spend so much time with kids is because I think if we can change the kids, we can change the world,” Yelkin said.  He added that city kids love his worm program.

“They get so much out of getting their hands dirty,” he said. “I give them a little bag of worm castings to take home to their parents, so hopefully they can grow something at home.”

Still, Yelkin’s nonprofit may need help to stay afloat. He makes no money off his food-scrap compost program, only eking out a living on the sale of worm castings. And he never charges for appearances or events.

Since his organization is a nonprofit, Yelkin said Islanders have “an opportunity to help this stay alive.” He added he might have to go back to work if community response doesn’t swell in the coming months. Indeed, his wife Jolene will start work in September to help support the family and their two college-age kids.  “We do a lot of good,” he mused.

Yelkin said earthworms even help the health of our planet, reducing the carbon emissions that most scientists believe are a main factor in global warming.

“Because of (the worms’) role in composting and giving back to soil, and our scraps not being put in landfills, there’s some carbon emission reduction going on,” he said. “I’m certain of it.”

He chose Vashon as his worm stomping ground because he felt sure his business could flourish here, and because as an isolated community, he felt his work would make a recognizable impact.

“One of the reasons I decided to go into business here is that people here do get it,” he said with a smile.  Yelkin said a goal he has for Vashon is to place food-scrap bins in neighborhoods across the Island.  “You’d be working with your neighbors to recycle kitchen scraps instead of bringing them to me,” he said.

The Episcopal and Lutheran churches on Vashon have embraced his food compost program. Congregants can drop off their food waste at their respective churches’ bins rather than making the trek to Yelkin’s worm farm.

“How much can one person do?” he asked. If the Worm Guy is any example, a whole lot.

“Just do something. It doesn’t have to be composting. Could be the light bulbs you buy, could be biodiesel.”  As The Beachcomber reporter bid adieu to The Worm Guy, he said with a smile, “I always have to say this: Grow in peace.”

Next >
Site and contents are © 2007 All Rights Reserved.
Earth Worm Digest is a Public Non-Profit 501(c)3 Organization.
1455 East 185th Street, Cleveland, OH 44110
Office telephone and fax 216-531-5374