Compton merchant finds worms wonderful

On the fringe of Compton's manufacturing zone lies a row of boarded-up single-family homes that shelter not humans, but a billion-bug-and-worm breeding enterprise. It's nicknamed "Worm City," and Fred Rhyme is its mayor.


FOR THE RECORD:
Mealworms: An article in the Dec. 13 California section about a Compton worm farm incorrectly attributed a quote to Rosa Gomez. It was Daniel Cervantes, a resident near the farm, who was washing his car when he said, "They've been here all these years before I moved here in 2004." —



For more than 50 years, Rhyme, founder of Rainbow Mealworms, has been raising colonies of crickets, Madagascar hissing cockroaches and the star product of his business, mealworms -- piles of squishy, wiggly, red-orange mealworms.

Each day about 2 million to 3 million of his worms are packaged and distributed across the country, a highly desired commodity for major zoos, bait shops, pet stores, bird and reptile enthusiasts, and on occasion, Hollywood.

"I love my worms," Rhyme said. "They've been good to me."

Rhyme, 84, has known the value of worms since he was a boy digging for tasty fishing bait. He began buying the beige bungalows in the 100 block of Spruce Street, less than a mile from the Compton Courthouse, in the early 1960s. Soon after, his business took off and he made enough money to buy the whole row of houses.

He stripped the structures down to the walls and boarded up the windows. In came wood racks that hold row upon row of plastic trays that are his worm breeding grounds, where the cycle of life churns in industrial-strength numbers.

Rhyme, wearing a brown shirt and white cap, describes nature's delicate course with a husky voice. It starts with a female beetle, which lays hundreds of tiny eggs before it dies. The eggs hatch into mealworms, which begin to scavenge for food, molting as they eat and grow into pupae, which then emerge from cocoons as beetles, starting the cycle anew.

"Altogether, the process takes about 80 days," he said.

Rhyme raises more than a billion mealworms a year. His bounty also includes about 120 million worms that he keeps in a cold storage room, which keeps them in their adolescent stage, he said. In addition, Rhyme breeds about 40 million crickets annually in nearby buildings. And like a good businessman seeking to diversify, he also raises about 10,000 Madagascar hissing roaches each year.

The roaches have appeared in the film "Men in Black" and on television's "Fear Factor." In 1999, 15,000 of his roaches were among 20,050 dumped on "Jungle" John LaMedica, Rhyme said, reportedly setting a world record.

But worms are the bread and butter of Rhyme's business. With such a massive colony, he thought it would be funny to put up "Welcome to Worm City" signs at each end of the block. He also placed a mailbox on top of a flagpole.

"Oh, that's where I get all of my air mail," he chuckled.

Born in 1925 in Hutchinson, Minn., Rhyme was the youngest of three. Growing up in the "Land of 10,000 Lakes," he took up fishing as a hobby, digging out earthworms from his mother's garden for bait.

At age 7, he realized he could make money off the worms. So he began trailing farm tractors that mixed the soil for cultivation. Rhyme would pluck off the earthworms and sell them to local bait shops. To help support his family, he also raised chickens and sold their eggs.

"Working is all I've ever known," he said.

Unable to make a $9 mortgage payment during the Great Depression, the Rhymes lost their home. So they packed up and moved to California.

Instead of enrolling in high school, Rhyme, then 17, joined the merchant marine during World War II, delivering aviation fuel and oil to aircraft carriers. Rhyme said he lied about his age to be accepted.

Three years after the war ended, he moved to Cudahy, where he continued doing what he knew best: He bought a small worm farm from his brother's friend for $900.

"That's how it started," Rhyme said.

He sold his worms from his garage to every bait shop he could find in the phone book, all the while working for General Motors in South Gate as a maintenance painter.

But when his business began to take off, he quit his day job.

"It just got bigger and bigger," Rhyme said. "It was then when I told my mother I was going to raise worms for the rest of my life."

She thought he was crazy.

But Rhyme continued, and his business flourished. He purchased an old machine shop in Compton and converted it into a worm farm. He named his business Rainbow Mealworms.

"I was always told there's always a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow," Rhyme explained. "Whenever I'd see a rainbow as a little kid, I'd ride my bicycle with a shovel and try to find out where the rainbow ended."

And Compton is where his search ended, where he founded a multimillion-dollar business that has allowed him to raise three daughters and live in a 5,000-square-foot Lakewood home decorated with his prized collection of paintings by Thomas Kinkade.

He also expanded his business to other areas, such as Silverton, Ore., where he owns a 54-acre worm farm. In Fallbrook in San Diego County he owns a six-acre cactus farm, where he breeds more crickets. The cactuses are used as worm food.

His Compton neighbors said they are aware of the worm farm around the corner. And most chuckled when they learned that the street had been unofficially dubbed "Worm City."

"I didn't know that," said Rosa Gomez, 60, who is often in the area to visit a friend.

Some residents, however, are sometimes bothered by the farm's stench.

"It smells bad every now and then," said Daniel Cervantes, 37.

The smell, Rhyme said, is from the grain that the worms feed on. Still, residents say they've gotten used to it.

"They've been here all these years before I moved here in 2004," said Gomez while washing his car outside his home.

Carmen Jimenez, 70, has lived in the area 30 years and also noted that the farm was there when he moved in. Eating chips and watching his granddaughter play, Jimenez licked his fingers.

"You get accustomed to it," he said. "What else can I say?"

Rhyme said he has no plans to retire. He continues to work six days a week. Betty, his wife of 13 years, is the president of Rainbow Mealworms. They oversee about 60 employees, most of whom are related to one another.

Among them is Manuel Nieves, 48.

"I started when I was 16," Nieves said.

The job, he admits, is different. But the idea of working alongside family makes it much more satisfying. Nieves said he met his wife at the farm. He also works with his uncle and brother.

"My uncle and cousin and relatives work here," Tony Gamboa, 51, said. The success of the business has allowed him to put his children through college. "My son graduated from Cal State Long Beach and my daughter from UCLA."

The recession hasn't struck Worm City, Rhyme said. He attributes his success to the ongoing business from major zoos across the country. He said zoos make up 90% of his clientele.

Even competitors have good words for Rhyme.

"Fred and Betty are just wonderful," said Russ Bassett, president of Bassetts Cricket Ranch in Visalia in the San Joaquin Valley. Rainbow Mealworms is "a good competitor, and whenever you can speak positive about a competitor, that speaks in volumes."

Some said it's Rhyme's staff of worm workers who have made them into loyal fans.

"He's got the greatest staff in all of California who really care about what they're doing," said Don Haukom, executive vice president of the Bug Co., a Ham Lake, Minn., firm that, like Bassetts, both buys from and sells to Rainbow. "I love those guys."

All of the workers said they were taught how to grow the worms by Rhyme, who is now dependent on them to keep operations moving. But Rhyme said he still likes to stroll through the farm, occasionally dipping his hands into the trays teeming with worms, then letting them slip back into the tray.

"It feels like money," he said.

ruben.vives@latimes.com

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