A Man and His Worms | Our Town | Chicago Reader

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A Man and His Worms

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With gnats flitting about his face, Ken Otto pours yellowish slop from a dark green garbage bag into a wooden bin. The unmistakable stench of rotting kitchen waste fills the air in this subterranean pump room, lit by a single overhead bulb. He stops and peers into the bin, then adds another splash of the mushy stuff for good measure. "This is pretty ripe stuff," he says, pointing with a small flashlight. "That looks like rice. That's a corncob."

In the bin a few red worms are slowly threading their way up through the new layer of muck. After several years of nurturing these wrigglers, Otto knows how to handle their discriminating palates. "They really don't do beef--they avoid it," he says. "They'll clean up chicken bones, but since they don't have teeth they can't break them up. They just clean everything off." In the process, the worms turn soggy spaghetti, watermelon rinds, and spoiled vegetable scraps into rich composting soil.

The bin is one of four made of pressed corkboard that slide like drawers out of a six-foot-tall frame. Each one is three feet long, two feet wide, and one foot deep. The garbage odor dissipates through the open top and ventilation holes in the bottom of each bin. Otto guesses that there are several hundred thousand worms in his "worm condominium," but he admits he lost track long ago.

He visits the pump room in the basement to measure the worms' progress about once a week, but he only has to feed them once every four or five months. "The nice thing about this is that you can do it on your schedule, not theirs," he says. "When I first started, I was so excited, you know, I had to check on the worms every day--just to see if they were still there."

As the maintenance engineer at the Institute of Cultural Affairs, which occupies several floors of a 1920s-era mid-rise in Uptown, Otto has access to plenty of worm food. He convinced the Institute's employees--who live in the building--to separate their wet garbage from plastic, paper, and other inorganic waste after meals. The worms can't keep up with the building's human residents (Otto just added a fifth bin), so he takes some of the leftovers to his 40-acre Michigan farm, where he's been doing wormless composting for years.

With his bare hands, Otto digs around in the bottom bin, taking a moisture reading. "This needs to be wet," he says, "because worms breathe through the moisture on the outside of their skin, and once it dries out they die." The ideal temperature is about 50 degrees, he says, but the worms seem to be eating and multiplying nicely at the current 75 degrees. "If they freeze, they die," he adds. "And if it gets above 85 they start cooking." Otto moved them to the pump room in mid-June because it was getting dangerously warm in the room near the loading dock that was their winter home. This year he'll have to find a new spot for winter because that room has been leased to one of the building's nonprofit tenants.

A cousin in Michigan turned Otto on to worms after she went to a lecture given by Mary Appelhof--vermicomposting's own Johnny Appleseed. Appelhof"s a Kalamazoo woman who operates a mail-order business selling worms, how-to books, composting units, T-shirts, and bumper stickers ("Make It With Wormpower"). Growing numbers of ecologically minded souls have been feeding their garbage to worms since the 1970s. Seattle is crawling with about 6,000 worm bins, each processing five pounds of waste a week for a total of 780 tons each year.

Otto studied a copy of Appelhof's first manual, Worms Eat My Garbage (which was followed by a sequel, Worms Eat Our Garbage), and bought five tubs of red worms for $100 from a bait dealer in Michigan. The tubs held four or five pounds of worms each and about 1,000 worms per pound. Red worms, Eisenia foetida, are preferred over common night crawlers, which aren't sturdy enough for the job. Otto built his own composting unit, added some shredded office paper as bedding, and put the ravenous invertebrates to work.

The bins are quickly populated, as worms procreate with the wild abandon of hermaphrodites: both partners get pregnant. When the garbage is depleted the bins are refilled at a ratio of about a pound of waste for every two pounds of worms. If there's not enough food the worms will consume everything in sight, including the carcasses of their loved ones, until all that survive, Otto says, are a few "hardy worms."

Worms get all the glory in vermicomposting (vermi is Latin for worm), but it's their invisible allies--moisture, bacteria, and protozoa--who get first dibs on the waste and help break it down into bite-size parts. "Ten to twenty species of critters evolve out of this ooze," Otto says. Fruit flies can be an annoyance if you dump too many banana peels or grapefruit rinds, but the mites and the springtails, the white worms and the sow bugs, scorned elsewhere, make good neighbors in a composting bin, where they help break down organic matter. Other assistants are the grains of sand lodged in the worms' tiny gizzards, and intestinal enzymes, which help the worms absorb the nutrients into their bloodstreams. Undigested materials, such as bacteria, soil, and plant residue, come out the other end, transformed into--voila!--fertilizer.

Otto inspects clumps of soil in a bin with his flashlight. "These are real, genuine, pure worm--" he says, hesitating for a moment to find the proper scatalogical term "--castings, as you call them." Otto sounds proud, as though this worm poop is gold spun from straw. He gives it to coworkers, who sprinkle it on the soil of houseplants. "I've seen worm castings at three to four dollars a quart," he says.

Otto picked up the handyman leanings that led to vermicomposting while growing up on a farm and working odd jobs for 20 years all over the world. As an organizer for the Institute of Cultural Affairs he managed a dairy herd in Alaska, farmed with indigenous people in the Australian outback, obtained loans for a water pump in India. "You figure out how to get things done," he says. "Some people leave that part of life to someone else."

The worms in the third bin down have devoured nearly all of their garbage, so it's almost time to harvest castings. Otto will push the bin's contents--worms, a little remaining kitchen waste, and castings--to one side of the bin, add fresh scraps and bedding to the other side, and cover the garbage with a plastic bag to keep it dark. He'll remove the castings after the worms have crawled over to the new stuff on the covered side of the bin. Or--and this is strictly optional--the worms can be separated from the castings by hand, which some composters claim is "therapeutic." Whether for the worms or their handlers is not exactly clear.

The second bin has also been going for about five months, Otto says, and is about ready for harvesting. "I did keep records when I started, but since it's working I don't bother with doing further research," he says.

The week's feeding complete, Otto returns upstairs to the Institute's front office. A woman passing through gets wind of the conversation and chimes in "I really think this project is fabulous." She manages a Lincoln Park apartment building, she says. "We're not at the worm stage yet, but we ought to be. Yuppies produce a lot of garbage!"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.

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