The noble, selfless worm
When Captain Jack Chambers accepted an early retirement package and left Delta Airlines in 2011, it marked the end of his 33-year career as an airline pilot.
But he had little time—and even less reason—for pondering past accomplishments. He immediately plunged full-steam into his other career, a business that he’d been building, part-time but passionately, for nineteen years.
Where once he soared high amidst the clouds, Chambers now delves “underground” as co-owner, with his wife, Lois, of the Sonoma Valley Worm Farm.
When the Chambers bought the worm farm in 1992 from Earl Schmidt, it was essentially an old-fashioned bait business selling red wigglers to fishermen.
“I’m big on gardening,” Chambers said, “so I first went out to there to buy a 5-gallon bucket of worms for my compost bins. I came home, split the worms between two compost piles, and took off to fly a 5-day trip. When I got back home I couldn’t believe what the worms had done so quickly—the compost was rich and deep.”
When worms transform plant waste and/or animal manure into compost, their own manure—known as Vermicast or worm castings—becomes mixed into it. This mixture is called Vermicompost.
Compost in and of itself is a highly-nutrious fertilizer and soil amendment. When combined with worm castings, which contain an extremely high concentration of water-soluble nutrients, the mixture is an amazingly nutrient-rich organic fertilizer—a staple of organic and bio-dynamic gardening.
Research studies, such as those carried out by the Worm Research Center in England, have shown countless benefits of Vermicomposting to soil and plant growth. And as Chambers began using the Vermicompost created from Schmidt’s worms in his own garden, he was increasingly impressed.
“Everything grows better with Vermicompost,” he said. “In 20 years, nobody has ever come back to us and said ‘This stuff doesn’t work.’
“When you plant something, just put a cup of it in the hole and you’ll get fewer losses, a superior flavor—it’s thought that high levels of microbial activity increase flavor. Plants look better, have an increased yield, there’s evidence of disease suppression, and there’s no chemical runoff. You feed the soil, and let the soil feed the plant.”
Buying the farm was a leap of faith for the entire Chambers family. Jack, Lois, and their two daughters sold their lovely home on the east side of Sonoma, with easy access to the girls’ schools, and moved to the then-dilapidated worm farm off Arnold Drive. They completely remodeled the house on the property, although in retrospect Chambers thinks it would have been easier to start from scratch.
“I didn’t know much about worms at first,” Chambers said. “This was before the Internet. But I read everything I could get my hands on. I’d go to international worm conferences since I could fly for free, and I started meeting leaders in the field.
“It wasn’t long before I began to see that worms were hard workers, and the true product in this field was Vermicompost. Research papers were just beginning to be published that showed the value of worm castings. I thought we might make a good future with this, helping people grow better food.”
He was right. You can still buy worms at the farm, although they’re now sold for composting purposes. Any other connection to the former bait business disappeared long ago.