What's the first thing you think of when you hear, worms? Fishing, slimy, early bird? Wherever your mind wanders when worms come up I bet it never lands on coffee. We are going to change that.
Meet our tiniest employees, Earthworms! We've been busy implementing worm composting programs around the world, and turning coffee pulp into rich, organic fertilizer.
Our agronomist, Mario Serracin, wrote the following article about the program:
Earthworms are found worldwide, burrowing throughout the soil while improving aeration and soil nutrient bank. These tiny creatures even attracted the attention of naturalist Charles Darwin as documented in his 1881 treatise, "The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms." This is perhaps among the least well-known of Darwin's many published scientific observations in which the brilliant naturalist measured and calculated that earthworms could turn over, almost effortlessly, over four tons of soil per hectare per year.
In fact, when our green coffee buyer, Pete Rogers, reflected on the excessive amount of chemicals and synthetic fertilizers required to produce coffee, and how the mineral rich coffee pulp was being wasted in dormant piles, often contaminating the groundwater, he decided to find solutions once and for all. This is how we got our hands full of red wriggly worms, or Eisenia foetida.
Pete wanted to be more aggressive with the program, and so he funded the project to transfer the worm technology from Finca Irlanda, in the southeast mountains of Chiapas, Mexico and Selva Negra, Nicaragua to the Rogers' own, newly-planted, coffee farm named "Finca Santa Barbara" in Panama. Our goal was to improve the system and treat, transform, and recycle some 5,000 tons of coffee pulp that was contaminating the Caldera River in Boquete Panama into a nutrient rich organic fertilizer. That fertilizer was to be given to small coffee holders as an incentive to promote organic coffee cultivation.
Challenges are opportunities. The first one faced early on was the slow reproduction of the worms, which we resolved by creating a special diet made of fish meal and coffee pulp, to induce the worms to reproduce rapidly due to the extra protein source found in the fish. The second was to contain the invasion of mites, birds and the hammerhead Planaria which can be devastating. The third challenge was to learn and test the fertilizer and disease fighting properties of worm castings in organic coffee production.
Today, many of our wetmills are encouraged to practice vermiculture. The coffee pulp is removed from the wetmill soon after processing and treated with effective microorganisms, molasses, and calcium. Once it cools down, it is fed to the redworms, which transform it into humus.
Each worm can digest an amount of food equivalent to its own body weight, each day! If you are a worm, you have your own unique reproductive strategy. With both sexual organs active at once and well-fed with the appropriate diet, the worms' population peaked every three months. After starting with a handful of 100 worms, in less than one year, we had some 10,000 square meters filled with billions of worms.
The worm castings, or humus from coffee pulp, contain a rich microflora, macro and micronutrients, and humid acids essential for soil health. The castings are also water soluble, which allow a solution known as ‘wormtea’ to be sprayed on coffee leaves and used in the nursery for germination and transplanting of coffee seedlings.
The castings can also be added directly to the soil. This brings millions of worms to the coffee fields, which in turn, augments the food source and protein supply of birds and the small animals, and improving the entire food chain as experienced in our own organic farm Finca Santa Barbara, Panama.
Since 2009, we have taken this concept to Africa, where nutrient depleted soils are a threat to food security and sustainable coffee production.
There you have it. Billions of slimy little creatures have the power to not only make your coffee better, but to improve the environment at the same time.