by Lisa Thompson
Green businesses come in all shapes and sizes. And even the unexpected. Take the case of Ellen Sandberg who not only turned her composting hobby into a successful Duluth business, but also found an environmentally-friendly solution to dealing with discarded organic matter.
Ellen's business, LaVerme's Worms, builds and sells worm composting systems for individuals, schools, offices, and institutions. Some of her business projects include composting bins at Stow Elementary School, Fond du Lac Reservation, Lake Superior Zoo, and the Duluth Federal Prison Camp.
What is a typical day like at your job?
I’m not sure there is a typical day. My work schedule varies, and I sometimes work evenings and weekends. When we have an order for a worm bin, my husband fabricates it while I go out to the worm building to feed and harvest worms. Then I dampen and inoculate the peat moss bedding in the bin, gently add the worms to the moss, lay a plastic sheeting over the moss, and set the lid on top of the bin. If I am lucky, the customer will pick up the bin so I don’t have to worry about transporting it.
On other days, my husband and I drive to Beaner’s, a nice little coffee shop in West Duluth, and pick up old coffee grounds. Then we drive to Stowe Elementary School, where we feed the school’s fruit and vegetable food waste to five 150-gallon worm bins. In the winter, we use the coffee grounds to help keep the bins warm. We also empty the worm juice out of the buckets below the bins and put it in empty plastic containers so the school can sell it for fund raising. (When a worm bin is running right, worm juice has no smell and is a wonderful liquid fertilizer.) Because of budget cuts, the school can no longer afford to pay anyone to feed the worms, so I volunteered to do it. I am also able to harvest worms from the Stowe bins whenever I need to.
When I visit the Duluth Federal Prison Camp (FPC), I talk with the inmates to find out what is going on with the bin and check the quality of the worm juice coming out. I look at the most recently fed sections and the most mature sections of the bin, and review the record book where the inmates record bin temperatures and amount of food being fed. We discuss the inmates’ plans for starting worm businesses after they are released, and I answer any questions they have. With the Safety Officer, I discuss future composting plans and any repairs that need to be made.
Now that I am a federal contractor (official title: “Worm Farm Specialist”), I'll be working once a week at FPC, and will also be setting up worm bins at the Sandstone Prison. Once those new bins are running smoothly, I will check on them once a month.
How did you get started or interested in this field?
I grew up in California. After my husband and I moved to Duluth, I was quite distressed by having to throw perfectly compostable food waste away in the winter. I looked forward to being able to compost in the summer, but quickly discovered that there were so many varmints that it was impossible to compost anything edible without having it scattered all over the yard every night. After three years, I finally ordered $20 worth of composting worms from a gardening catalog, and set up a worm bin in our basement.
It turned out that I had a “worm thumb,” and people began asking me for composting worms. I had to keep increasing the number of bins I was running because so many people wanted worms. I ended up spending a lot of time and money to produce worms for people I didn’t know and finally realized that what I had was a business and needed to start charging for worms. I began trying to perfect a household-sized worm bin that would run easily and efficiently. After years and years of tinkering, I finally come up with a design that works really well!
What type of training or education do you need?
My degree is in studio art, but I have always been intensely interested in biology, and have taken care of quite a few different types of animals. I think the main qualifications one needs to be successful at worm husbandry is being good at problem-solving and paying very close attention to what is going on in the bins all the time. You need to be willing to reverse direction very quickly when things seem to be going wrong. It also helps to have someone train you who knows what he or she is doing.
What skills or personal qualities are good for this type of job?
Curiosity, a willingness to admit one is wrong and fix things quickly, a good feel for animals, and patience. And, of course, it helps if you have a good head for business, which I do not. This is why I am insisting that the Worm Farm Certification Course that we are setting up at FPC include business classes. Being a good researcher is also pretty important. I am also an environmental writer, so being literate is a necessity.
What do you like most about your job?
I get to meet a lot of really interesting people and have made some wonderful friends. I met one of my closest friends when she drove up from the Twin Cities for a tour and to ask my advice about her own worm bin, which was terribly infested with fruit flies. She had bought worms and followed instructions from someone else, and things just weren’t working well. Now she is my Twin Cities regional vermicomposting specialist.
What advice would you give to someone interested in a green career?
Do what you love, but take business classes!
Interested in a green career of your own? Explore MnGreenCareers.