December 16, 2004 | General

Vermicomposting In Ontario

BioCycle December 2004, Vol. 45, No. 12, p. 47
Neighbors and school children are getting the message that Toronto’s organic residuals can be better managed in worm bins than in Michigan landfills.
Larraine Roulston

UNTIL 2002, Cathy Nesbitt – now the owner of Cathy’s Crawly Composters in Bradford, Ontario – was employed as a social worker. Like many residents in the Toronto area, she is a good recycler and backyard composter, but upon hearing continual reports about the region’s trash being transported to Michigan, she wanted to do much more.
“I began to see the vast amounts of food scraps and other organic matter heading to the United States’ border and decided that it was time to get really involved with red wigglers. When I discovered for myself the value of these lowly industrious heroes, I felt that here is something apartment dwellers, classroom teachers, and office workers should have,” Nesbitt explained. “Also, I placed a worm bin under my kitchen sink and one in the basement which saves me the task of trudging through the snow in winter to my own backyard composter.”
As soon as Nesbitt and her husband Rick built insulated worm bins in their modest backyard, she began to educate neighbors. Open house invitations and workshops provided opportunities for local citizens to see bins of various sizes in action, learn about maintenance and harvesting of castings, as well as ask plenty of questions. She dispelled the myth of worm bin odor through the right moisture balance and mix between carbon-rich materials of leaves, paper, straw and nitrogen-rich materials of vegetables and fruit peelings. What about fruit flies? Again, not a problem if the proper moisture balance is maintained and the bin is topped with a good layer of leaves or shredded paper. For those who think of worms as “icky”, Nesbitt points out that these creatures are industrious, shy, can live up to 10 years, and may just be the best way to deal with food scraps. She is quick to add that the ancient Chinese symbol for worm translates to “Angels of the Earth”.
To her open houses, she also invites local media and coaxes the mayor and local counselors to attend in order to encourage them to implement city-wide compost systems. Nesbitt’s nearby region of Holland Marsh, Ontario’s lush peat bog farming area, has been diminishing. Without compost helping to replace the nutrients, this Ontario jewel soon will be lost.
That same year, Nesbitt was asked to be a part of a Halton Region pilot project to introduce red wigglers to children. The event entitled, “Junior Worm Farm Day,” was hosted by ConnectUs International and took place in Oakville where Nesbitt provided worms and information to over 40 youngsters aged seven to ten. The project helped encourage children to recycle as part of an environmentally-aware program for their schools. Attendees, who also came from summer camps and area schools, viewed Mary Appelhof’s video Wormania, were entertained by Nesbitt’s worm mascot Casey, and given a kitchen catcher from Halton Region.
“The worms can also teach children a biology lesson since one handful of the critters will soon become two handfuls once they’ve reproduced,” she states. “In addition, a worm bin in a classroom can be of benefit for many other subjects such as offering creative writing ideas, math for volume, history through Darwin and Cleopatra, public speaking by demonstrating, art to decorate the worm bin, and even as a fundraiser to sell the castings.”
On a mission to divert organics from landfills, Nesbitt asked coffee/donut shop owners to give her their coffee grounds with filters. She connected with Rehmat Khan, former owner of Country Style Donuts in Bradford, who was delighted to be involved in a one month project that was good for the environment. Khan agreed to give Nesbitt all his coffee grounds and filters (over 250 pounds per week) that normally would be destined for a dumpster. A win for Khan and his staff who were free for that month from taking heavy wet grounds to the trash bin and a win for those little crawly composters. The following month, Nesbitt set up the same project at “No Frills,” a local supermarket chain store, and collected 3,300 pounds of nonsaleable produce.
As an entrepreneur, “Cathy’s Crawly Composters” sells complete vermicomposting kits, including containers with tight fitting lids, one pound of red wigglers, bedding, and step-by-step instructions for transforming organic household food scraps. She also carries a selection of compost-related books and videos.
There have been several trials and tribulations along the way. Nesbitt had her fill of bureaucracy and had to field concerns from local counselors who began to look at her worm farm as a commercial enterprise about to evolve in a residential area that might be a concern for neighbors. Fortunately no complaints resulted.
However, in order to expand with more worm bins, Nesbitt partnered with a nearby farmer where she now has a handy reliable source of donkey manure to feed her worms as well as space to test various feedstocks.
In all, over 3,700 people have seen her inspirational workshops. During October 18-24, for Waste Reduction Week in Canada, she visited four schools and a horticultural society.
In her relatively short time in the business of vermicomposting, her love of what she is doing together with a creative friendly ability to generate media attention, have raised the level of resource management with red wigglers to a higher level of awareness. For contact information, visit Nesbitt’s web site,
Author Larraine Roulston based part of her article on Cathy Nesbitt’s presentation at the Composting Council of Canada’s 14th annual conference in Gatineau, Quebec in September.

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