What is near Natchez, employs two full time farmers, and around 20 million worms? Church Hill Worm Farm located in the hamlet of Church Hill in Jefferson County. Rodney M. Burkley has been getting his hands dirty in the worm business for years now. With recent developments into his products, it is interesting how well such a unique business is doing in these economic times.
Burkley has been in the farming business since he was 17. Now in his early 50s, he feels like his product is the best it’s ever been, and continuing to grow. In the beginning, Burkley worked for a family, handling row crops and cattle when a friend approached him with the idea of “vermicompost.” After nine months of research, he decided to pursue this idea. Originally, Burkley decided to sell worms from his farm to bring in money to build his product. Unfortunately, the company that Church Hill Worm Farm was selling through, B&B Worm Farms, subsequently went bankrupt, leaving Church Hill, and other worm farms around the nation, on their own. At this point, Burkley decided to change gears, making Church Hill Worm Farm what it is today, a “vermicompost” and “vermicompost tea” producer, marketed under the brand name WormWise.
Vermicompost is the mixture of decomposing vegetable or food waste, bedding materials and pure vermicast. Mixing finished vermicompost with water makes vermicompost tea. These two products are now the primary products for Church Hill Worm Farm. Burkley expressed his bias toward this product instead of the worms themselves, and even row crops. “Row crops can’t be a controlled environment. But the crop here can be controlled. I’ve put about $15,000 into maintaining this product to be constant, which results in a constant quality product,” states Burkley. But why is this product so much more important than typical gardening products? Studies have shown that WormWise puts back what is missing in most soils whether it is in a container, garden or orchard. It rejuvenates the soil with biological activity that was once originally present before we started treating soils with salt fertilizers, fungicides and insecticides.
So far, WormWise seems to doing well. Two researchers, Dr. Scott Subler and Clive Edwards, of Ohio State University say, “In side-by-side plant growth trials involving 25 kinds of vegetables, fruits and ornamental plants, vermicomposts (worm castings) outperformed both traditional composts and commercial plant growth media.”
But with the economic decline, how well can a worm farm be hanging on? Burkley says that his business is doing well. The spring season is here, and more people are investing time in building gardens and lawn work. Most outdoor sports are moving back into swing, and through a new business venture, Cathy’s Touch Lawn Services, many Mississippi area colleges and organizations are contacting Church Hill Worm Farm to help with their fields and lawns’ growth.
The only issue for Burkley is the lack of knowledge about vermicompost in the area. Burkley is trying to remedy this by visiting garden and patio shows around the state to help teach Mississippians about vermicompost and his product.
“We visited the garden and patio show in Jackson. WormWise did well, and we’ve had plenty of satisfied customers return to us,” said Burkley.
Currently, Church Hill Worm Farm sells mostly in wholesale to local nurseries, but Burkley and the Church Hill Worm Farm staff hope to branch forward into working with businesses as he believes this product will benefit companies who are feeling the economy’s downturn.
“Our products reduce the cost of maintaining landscaping,” he said. “We soon hope to see more work with residential yards and are in the development stages of a rig that will handle this sort of work.”
When asked if there were any plans towards a new branch of the farm in Mississippi, Burkley said, “Unfortunately, no. The problem is freight. The worm beds weigh too much. Hauling our product would be cheaper than setting up a new branch.”
Burkley has few worries with location, though. Church Hill Worm Farm may be a small business, but there currently is no competition in Mississippi. Perhaps not many people are interested in getting their hands dirty with the worm business.
Contact MBJ staff writer Leslie Galloway at firstname.lastname@example.org .