Worm farming

Every spring, Wisconsin gardeners begin their annual rites of passage – planting, pruning, fertilizing and getting ready for a summer of outdoor work.

And a large number of them are probably using products made by Unco Industries Inc., a Racine-based manufacturer. Unco’s two lines of products are for completely different markets, but they are intrinsically linked.

The Racine company raises cultured nightcrawlers from their egg stage to adulthood, producing a line of worms marketed as Tasty Bait Nightcrawlers. The line of worms has given the company steady growth over the years, but is not the main revenue generator at Unco.

Worm castings (an industry term for the worm’s waste product) is one of the most prized organic fertilizers and is giving Unco big sales and revenue increases, said Tom Chapman, president and founder of the company.

“Earthworm castings are worm manure. They make a rich, black, homogenized soil. And what makes castings good and more potent is the digestive process that a worm uses, which makes nutrients more available to plants,” Chapman said. “The industry, most people won’t think of it as serious business. But when they start to see the numbers (they do). The castings, which are more profitable, came second in the beginning. But today, a 30-pound bag sells for $29.”

To produce a consistent crop of worms and a pure castings product that does not contain uneaten food or other particulate matter, Unco has developed a system that allows it to easily track the number of worms it has, their size and the purity of their castings.

The worms live in custom-designed buckets inside Unco’s facility – they are initially packed in a mixture of compost, grains and vitamins. By the time the worms reach set periods of growth, they have consumed all of the edible material in their buckets, leaving only castings behind, Chapman said.

“A worm will eat its weight every day with the right conditions,” he said. “We control the temperatures, the quality of the feed stock and the length of time the worms are in there. By controlling four or five things, you can get consistent, maximum results.”

The worms produce a lot of castings by the time they are adults.

“For every 1,000 worms we produce to full size, we produce just less than half a (cubic) yard of worm castings,” Chapman said.

Demand has been growing for both Unco’s worms and the company’s castings. Typically, slower economic conditions result in larger numbers of fishing permits taken out, which increases bait sales, Chapman said. And increased interest in organic fertilizers has helped grow sales of worm castings.

“(Our castings sales) were up more than 200 percent over one year ago,” Chapman said. “Castings are one of the better pure organic fertilizers out there. People continue to see the value of it.”

To help meet the increasing demand for worm castings, Unco is expanding its Racine facility. The company currently operates inside a 17,000-square-foot building. It is now converting a 5,700-square-foot barn next door into a processing area, which will double its inventory, Chapman said. The work inside the barn is expected to be finished next week.

Last year, Randy Kluth, who owns a small worm castings facility about one hour north of Green Bay in Pound, Wis., began working at Unco as an outside contractor. Kluth and Chapman are now planning to open several worm facilities across the country as joint ventures.

They are planning to open a facility in central Florida later this year. They also hope to establish a facility in California in 2010, and one on the East Coast in 2011 or beyond.

Unco Industries Inc.

7802 Old Spring St., Racine

Industry: Commercially raised worms and worm castings, an organic fertilizer

Web site: www.vermiculture.com

Sign up for BizTimes Daily Alerts

Stay up-to-date on the people, companies and issues that impact business in Milwaukee and Southeast Wisconsin

No posts to display