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Spotlight: UI employee keeps worms as a hobby

BY KENDALL McCABE | FEBRUARY 04, 2011 7:10 AM

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Rachel Williams opened a small, black cylinder full of red wiggler worms. Then, she smelled the container.

“It’s an earthy smell, but not gross,” she said, pointing out seeds the worms had left behind from a piece of melon they ate that morning.

Williams, a UI associate professor, has run her own small vermicompost business, The Pampered Worm, for the past two years.

“Worm farming is one of my deep, dark secrets,” she said, poking around in the container which stands in the family’s laundry room next to the ferret cage.

Red wigglers are native to Europe, can eat twice their body weight each day, and will consume nearly all food except meats and cheeses. The worms grow to a length of 4 inches and can double their population every six weeks.

Vermicomposting is different from traditional composting, which requires microorganisms to break down organic matter. With vermicomposting, worms work together with microorganisms to break down materials.

Initially inspired to try vermicomposting after reading the book The Earth Moved, by Amy Stewart, her husband, Sean Kelley, rejected the idea. He was eventually won over.

“They’re not very good guard animals, but they’re low-maintenance, useful pets,” said Kelley, who works in the UI College of Dentistry.

Williams ordered her first batch of worms online from a woman in Michigan. Now, Williams said she and Kelley love vermicomposting with their children — Jack, a kindergartner, and Rylie, a second-grader.

“It creates a dialogue for all the garbage we produce and how we deal with it,” Williams said.

During the warmer months, her kids participate in a complete recycling process. The family are vegetarians and eat food from their garden in the summer. They feed their scraps to the worms, and the worm “tea” is poured back onto the garden as fertilizer.

At local elementary schools, Williams, who has taught at the UI since 1999, is better known as “the worm lady.” From time to time, she visits the schools with a worm puppet in hand to discuss the benefits of vermicomposting.

The Pampered Worm is a relatively small business — she typically gets three orders a month. But she can rake in $400 in a summer selling the red wigglers. She sells the worms for customers to use for household composting at $28 per pound, and she has shipped her worms all over the United States.

Williams, who is originally from North Carolina, said she hopes to create a map on her website depicting where in the country she has sent worms.

UI senior Tripp Yeoman, who has taken sequential art classes and peer mentored under Williams, said he was unaware of her vermicomposting business but was not surprised to hear about it.

“Rachel’s love for life shines in everything she does, so it is not at all surprising that she’d pick up a pastime that is natural, environmentally friendly, and beneficial to all parties involved,” he said.


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