A wiggly business

Washougal man opens worm-composting business

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Washougal resident Brandon Higgins holds a worm in his hand. Higgins started a "worm farm" in 2020 that he hopes to turn into a business. (Contributed photos courtesy of Brandon Higgins)

Brandon Higgins, of Washougal, spent almost 15 years as a production worker for steel and plastic companies, but after undergoing two back surgeries in 2019, he began to seriously ponder a career change.

“I decided to fall back on something that I love,” he said. “It was becoming more problematic to do that kind of (production) work.”

After recovering from his surgeries earlier this year, he started a “worm farm” from his Washougal home. Now that he’s got it up and running, he’s in the process of turning it into a business called PNW Worm Farming that will sell soil-enriching vermicast compost and fish bait.

“(This business is) very easily sustainable,” Higgins said. “Unlike other farms, where you have to pay for the food that your animals need, people are willing to give me the food and resources that I need for my animals.”

Worm farming, or vermicomposting, uses various species of worms — usually red wigglers, white worms and other earthworms — to create a mixture of decomposing vegetable or food waste, bedding materials and worm manure, also known as vermicast.

Vermicompost contains water-soluble nutrients and has proven to be an effective, nutrient-rich organic fertilizer and soil conditioner. It is especially popular with sustainable or organic farmers.

“Worms break down and eat bacteria,” Higgins said. “So if you have a field that has a lot of worms, especially composting-like worms, running through it, you’re going to have a less likely chance of coming up with a crop that has bacteria or other kinds of infectious diseases on it. Worms tend to cause good bacteria to bloom and come to life.”

Higgins started out by purchasing two pounds of red wigglers from Northwest Redworms, a composting business in west Camas, has since added two other varieties.

“Right now I have seven totes (of worms),” he said. “I know for sure that I’ve at least doubled and possibly tripled the amount of red wigglers that I have, and the other two worm (varieties) are moving just as fast in the same direction. My biggest (challenge) right now is that I’m running out of places to put worms.”

From his front yard and garage, he processes yard waste and cuts up food scraps to make compost, which also includes coffee grounds donated by Twin Perks Espresso, a regional chain of drive-through coffee stands.

“A couple of the baristas help me set up an exchange program, so I’m taking 5-gallon buckets (of coffee grounds) away from them two to three times a week,” he said. “One of my favorite things (about worm farming) is knowing that I’m doing something (good) by removing waste from landfills. Before I went to the coffee shop, all of their coffee went straight into a landfill.”

Higgins acquired an interest in sustainable science as a teenager when participated in the Center for Agricultural Science and Environmental Education program for high school students in Battle Ground.

“I spent all four years of high school there doing science, English and environmental education, essentially learning about how to replicate plants with cloning, tending to some of their vegetable gardens and learning some of the techniques that are used today in agriculture,” he said. “It really kind of sparked my interest.”

After his back surgeries, he originally considered aquaponics, which involves the process of raising fish and using their wastewater to grow vegetables. But he couldn’t afford the start-up costs because of his medical bills, so he turned to worms.

“I spent a lot of time on my back laying around (after) the surgeries, and I read a bunch of articles from state universities and watched a lot of good intellectual talks by some people in the industry,” he said. “I started doing a lot of research and I just started pulling that in more and more. I found a good network of people that are really trying to change not just little parts of the world but the whole world and show that this stuff is actually much more beneficial than everyone actually knows it to be.”