Earlier this summer, I was disheartened to learn that “Wormz Organic” had turned out to be a worm business scam operation. I certainly viewed the enterprise with healthy skepticism – their repeated requests (sent to me and multiple worm farming friends) for quotes on HUGE quantities of worms, along with the overall ‘feel’ of their site – were definitely red flags. But I felt it was important to give them the benefit of the doubt.
In all honesty, I (naively) believed we were past all this. With the level of social connection online, and the speed at which news (especially bad news) travels, I figured there was NO way a snake oil operation like this could even gain a foothold.
In hindsight, I realize I shouldn’t have been surprised at all. It’s not as though scammers, in general, have become a dying breed in this modern world. They always manage to find ways to adapt, and groups of people who are easy to exploit.
More than a decade ago – fairly early on in my own vermicomposting journey – I immersed myself in two of the major worm composting publications at the time: “Castings Call” and “Worm Digest” (including ALL the back issues). It not only provided me with a fantastic education on the topic, but also a fascinating look at the history of the worm farming industry.
As I quickly learned, it is an industry with a pretty ugly past – certainly a stark contrast to all the positive attributes and advancements I also learned about. The early years of worm biz were actually quite benign – according to “The History of Vermiculture” (an article in Worm Digest #14, p.3), the first known worm supplier was the Shur-Bite Bait Company, established in 1901. It wasn’t until the early 70’s that things started to go downhill.
It was around this time that Ronald Gaddie – a well known worm farming book author (and business owner) – came up with a concept that became known as the “buy back” business model. It’s unlikely that Gaddie had unscrupulous motives himself – he was simply looking for a way to expand an already-booming worm farming operation – but nevertheless, it was indeed this business model that resulted in a HUGE surge in shady worm farming pyramid schemes, and ultimately, a massive crack-down by the Securities Exchange Commission during the mid-to-late 70’s (along with a scathing expose published in the Wall Street Journal in 1978). Countless innocent, honest people were scammed out of millions of dollars, left with no way to get it back – and the industry as a whole was left in serious need of a facelift.
Related Aside – The fallout from all this may have been a little slower to reach us up in Canada. In the early 80’s, when I was still a young lad, a business called “The Wiggly Worm Company” set up shop in an old factory just down the street from where I lived. Although my memory is a little hazy all these years later, I clearly remember taking a tour of the operation. It was basically a huge room filled with quite a few large worm beds. I seem to recall being shown some sort of “Jumper” worm (likely an Alabama Jumper), but can’t remember if any other worms were being grown there.
Interestingly enough, not all that long after the business was established, the factory burned to the ground in a mysterious fire. Looking back now, it is easy to speculate that this might have been a case of someone trying to recoup (via insurance) their investment. But it’s hard to say for sure.
Naturally, the “boom and bust” period of the 70’s left a lot of people feeling cynical of all things vermicomposting/vermiculture-related by the early 80’s, but it can be argued that it ultimately resulted in the stronger growth of the industry as a whole. Thanks to the efforts of worm composting proponents such as Mary Appelhof (a tireless educator in the field, until her sad passing in 2005), and Dr Clive Edwards (academic researcher), the environmental and agricultural benefits of worms started to overshadow the “bad press” as the years passed.
If ever there was a period I would call the “golden era” of vermicomposting, it would have been during the 1990’s (give or take a couple of years on either end). The collective activities of some key industry leaders, important publications (namely, the aforementioned “Castings Call” and “Worm Digest”), and a variety of conferences and important meetings helped to bring together huge numbers of vermicomposting professionals, amateurs and academics like no other time before or (sadly) since. One such leader, Peter Bogdanov, who was responsible for “Castings Call”, and various conferences, referred (in an RWC interview) to Mary Appelhof’s “Vermillenium” – which took place in September 2000 – as “an international watershed event of historic consequence”.
Interestingly enough that was the very same year I got into vermicomposting. Oddly enough, things have kinda gone slowly down hill ever since!
OK, I’m mostly joking…but there is no doubt that quite a few of the key players did start to move on, or (sadly) pass on – as in the case of Mary Appelhof. Bogdanov himself decided to stop publishing “Casting Call” in 2006, and became less and less active in the industry as a whole. He seemed to get back into it a bit more in recent years, but even just the title of his most recent blog post (on his Vermico website) – “FAILURE IN VERMICOMPOSTING“, posted more than a year ago at the time of this writing – kinda says it all in terms of his overall feelings about the industry.
I myself go through periods of doubt and skepticism from time to time, but all in all I’m very optimistic about the future of vermicomposting! While it’s difficult to determine HOW MUCH interest there has been in the field from year to year, I can’t help but feel like we are on a gradual upward trend. With the long-term success of businesses like Worm Power, Sonoma Valley Worm Farm, and Vermitechnology Unlimited (not to mention many other newer businesses), and the tireless, continued efforts of people like Rhonda Sherman (a key player since the “Golden Era”), I can’t help but feel like we’re headed in a positive direction.
My heart goes out not only to the victims of the Wormz Organic scam, but also to all the hard-working, honest folks who are attempting build legitimate worm farming businesses. It’s not easy to “make a living” in this biz at the best of times – it involves a lot of dedication, and a lot of EDUcation. Sadly, all it takes is a few bad apples putting on a public show of idiocy to make it that much harder for the rest of us to thrive.
On a more positive note, I learned that one of our (WFA) members, Matthew Wilson (Worms ETC) has actually been purchasing a lot of worms from Wormz Organic victims. Hopefully this has at least provided them with some encouragement about the possibility of establishing a legitimate business in this industry, and a demonstration of the fact that there are honest, hardworking worm farming pros who have a genuine desire to help others succeed with this type of business!