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'All that food came from the soil’: How earthworms make our Thanksgiving feasts possible

From farmers to researchers, Coloradans are embracing the benefits of worms
John Anderson the Worm Man and Forrest Carlson
Posted at 3:15 PM, Nov 23, 2023
and last updated 2023-11-24 08:48:33-05

FORT COLLINS AND AURORA, Colo. — For almost 30 years on a farm in Fort Collins, John Anderson has nurtured something other than crops: Red wigglers. That’s how he earned the nickname “the Colorado Worm Man.”

“I always say feed the soil, not the plant,” Anderson said. But mixing up his compost piles was back breaking work, until he discovered worms.

“I hate to say that I'm lazy, but I'm lazy,” he said. “So, I let the worms do all the turning for me.”

Now, the Colorado Worm Man is passing his knowledge on to the farm’s new owner, Forrest Carlson.

Carlson grows vegetables and raises chickens and turkeys on the OwlTree Farm. Once he started using worm castings to nourish his crop, “the results were just undeniable,” Carlson said. So, he bought Anderson’s worm composting operation and plans to expand it.

Their enthusiasm for the benefits of worms is also backed by science. Earthworms contribute significantly to food production worldwide, according to a recent study by the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

John Anderson worms in hand
In the palm of his hand, in a small clump of compost, John Anderson holds dozens of tiny worms.

“Soil is just so fundamental to obviously all of our agricultural production,” said Steven Fonte, a professor of agroecosystem ecology who contributed to the study. "The soil’s the most diverse habitat that we have on the planet, and there are so many different organisms living there. But worms are the most visible and likely one of the most beneficial."

He added worms "do so much in terms of making nutrients available for plants and recycling old or dead organic matter and releasing those nutrients."

Through CSU’s research, “we were able to find that earthworms increase overall agricultural production by about 6.5%, which doesn't sound like a lot. But that is roughly equivalent to the grain production of Russia, which is the fourth largest grain producer in the world.”

earthworm global study
Earthworms contribute to the global growth of crops like grains and beans, according to the CSU study.

“Thanksgiving's a good day to recognize that since we're all focused on eating,” Fonte said. “If we can leverage the value that nature's already providing us in terms of soil biodiversity, we really stand to gain a lot as a society.”

On the Front Range, the Colorado Worm Man has recognized that value for decades.

"People keep saying they 'gotta throw it away. Gotta throw it away.' And I've never been able to find where away is," Anderson said. "Landfills are filling up faster and faster than ever and all that nitrogen is poisoning groundwater, poisoning the air."

Raising worms is a way to recapture that waste and make it into something useful. And now, younger generations are joining him.

Alyssia Richardson Princess Gardens worm composting
Alyssia Richardson teaches young people how to use worms in their urban gardens through her business Princess Gardens.

Alyssia Richardson runs Princess Gardens, a sustainability center in the Denver metro area where she promotes urban agriculture and worm composting.

Worms “help us to just close the loop through their poop,” Richardson said. "Once we've taken our kitchen scraps out for them to eat, they eat it, poop it out, and then we take their poop and put it back into a garden. And it's just this cycle of them helping us to eat more healthy.”

With appreciation for worms growing, Anderson knows his retirement isn’t an end to his passion project.

“It's a great hobby for people, and they get to feel good about not throwing stuff away. Those are resources, not waste,” he said. “You're only limited by your imagination.”

'All that food came from the soil’: How earthworms make our Thanksgiving feasts possible

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