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On Sale, but Not Dirt Cheap : Gardening: Inventory of Vermigro, an acclaimed soil enhancer made from castings left by worms used to eat sludge, is backing up. So the Fallbrook Sanitary District is holding a red tag sale.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With a couple of tons of worms working around the clock and inventory building quicker than sales, the Fallbrook Sanitary District has announced a sale on the price of Vermigro.

That’s the brand name given by the district to the castings left by the worms as they eat their way through 2 tons of sewage sludge daily, like some silent army feasting at a bountiful and constantly restocked banquet table.

The end product is a crumbly dry soil amendment that professional growers and experts say is about the best there is for everything from rose bushes to citrus trees to avocados to shrubs.

For three years, the district has been harvesting the worm-processed sewage sludge, which it sells in 2-cubic-yard bags and four-gallon buckets. As its worm population has grown over the years, the district is now producing tons of the compost, more than it is able to sell.

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But officials in the sewage business aren’t necessarily experts on Madison Avenue marketing techniques. Although they’ve enlisted the help of several retail outlets in Fallbrook and Temecula to sell the stuff, it’s not exactly moving like hot cakes, and the inventory is starting to back up.

Maybe the price reduction, to $5.99 from $6.85 for a bag, and $3.99 from $5.99 for a bucket, will help.

“That stuff is the best,” said one North County nurseryman who buys Vermigro in bulk directly from the sanitary district--but who didn’t want his name used because he considers the stuff “a trade secret” and he doesn’t want the competition to know he’s using it.

“I buy maybe 4 or 5 tons of it a year, and mix it in to my soil at a rate of 10%,” he said. “If I could afford it, I’d buy more.” It’s cheaper for him, he said, to buy heat-composted sewage sludge, versus worm-composted Vermigro, as a soil amendment.

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Gary Bender, a county farm adviser with the University of California Extension, said his office has tested Vermigro against other soil additives, including UC’s own nursery mix and over-the-counter brands, “and it continually gives us the best growth. More and more commercial citrus nurseries (with whom Bender mostly works) are now switching over to it because they consider it the best potting mix.”

Bender said Vermigro gives better growth results than the more commonly used heat-composted sewage sludge.

“We don’t know all the reasons why, but the compost that passes through worms gives better results than the heat-compost stuff,” Bender said. “It does break down the phosphorus better, and one scientific paper said there is bacteria in the gut of the earthworm that helps plants grow faster.”

The chemical components of worm-composted sludge even help battle root rot fungus that afflicts avocado trees, Bender said.

“This is one of the most progressive sanitary districts in the nation, to come up with this,” Bender said.

The Fallbrook Sanitary District assigned worms to process its sewage sludge about five years ago, when officials were trying to find a way to reduce operation costs.

Today, there are 24 “worm beds” at the district’s operations yard on South Alturus Street in Fallbrook. Each is about a foot or two high, 8 to 10 feet wide, and up to 200 feet long.

Ben Price, general manager of the sanitation district, isn’t worried about the worms escaping; for worms, the pastures don’t get any greener than this.

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“It’s a little tricky, branding them,” he said. “You’ve got to use real small lariats.”

Typically, sewage sludge--the solid waste that remains after waste water is treated--is first reduced by introducing bacteria to it, then dehydrated in drying beds, and then shipped to a nearby landfill.

But, because landfill space is at a premium, and because it costs money to send sludge to landfills, Fallbrook officials decided to let worms consume the stuff.

“It was a notion of mine that I had been thinking about for years,” said Price, a worm grower as a kid.

About five years ago, Price said, a man came to his office looking for work and he mentioned in passing that he, too, had harvested worms in a prior job. “The guy had experience in worm husbandry,” Price said. “I hired him.”

Today, the man, Weldon Platt, is project director for Vermigro.

The district bought several hundred pounds of worms the first year, and they have multiplied to the current population, which will now stabilize because they’ve met the appropriate equilibrium for the food source. Worms eat about their weight in sludge every day, and the district’s 17,000 residents produce about 2 tons of sludge a day.

To facilitate the process, since sludge is too compacted to facilitate worm composting, the district takes about 40 cubic yards of lawn clippings and yard waste daily from the county landfill at San Marcos, to mix with the sewage sludge.

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So, the Fallbrook district is not only keeping the sludge from going into the landfill, but it is actually taking “green trash” out of the landfill daily.

In addition to saving about $125,000 a year in what it would cost to dump the sludge at the landfill, the district made about $68,000 last year in the commercial sale of Vermigro.

Vermigro is available through Myrtle Creek Nursery, S.B. Nickerson Nursery, L&M; Fertilizer and the Good Guys Home Center in Fallbrook, the Marine Corps exchange at Camp Pendleton, and at L&M; Fertilizer in Temecula.

Although pound for pound the worm castings are more expensive than traditional, heat-composted soil additives--which sell for about $4 a bag--"you don’t need to use as much of it--maybe just a 10% to 30% mix with the soil, for it do the same job,” Price said.

“We’re going after the ‘designer’ market--the people who would drive all the way to Fallbrook because they know Vermigro is the best,” said Price, sounding ever more like the marketing man.


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