Father and son entrepreneurs Fred and Steve Sturman are getting dirty while hoping to clean up.
Since last spring, the two have been transforming a large warehouse in Nikiski into a large warm nursery, or vermiculture company, in hopes of harvesting swathes of excreta —a highly sought after fertilizer for organic farmers and gardeners. Currently, they have roughly 90,000 red wigglers helping them in the venture, they’ve yielded about 3.6 tons of castings.
“The more worms you turn, the more poop you produce,” Steven Sturman said.
To turn a worm, buckets of worm-filled dirt is dumped onto, what the Sturmans call, a “two-screen harvest table,” which separates the soil which also contains cocoons from the crawlers, from the poop. Fred Sturman spends time on production almost on a daily basis.
“’We got involved in this but it has become dad’s passion,” Steve Sturman said. “…I don’t remember dad ever nine-to-fiving it.”
Both Steve and Fred have had careers as commercial fisherman and are starting the business as a way to generate some supplemental income. They said they settled on the idea after hearing about the business model from a friend.
That conversation led to a partnership with Circle M Farms Organic Worm Castings based in Ontario, Oregon. It produces the natural fertilizer on a mass scale.
Rob Mairs, co-owner of Circle M, said his millions of worms produce between 10-12,000 tons of castings every month. That equates to 20 million pounds of poop.
The company has only been producing since 2013, but already Mairs is supplying to a large local garden center and growers in the booming marijuana cultivation market. He said there is big demand for the product and, at this point, not an overabundance of suppliers.
“For one it’s a completely non-synthetic, natural fertilizer. The movement right now (is) turning to ‘organic’,” Mairs said. “Price-wise it is affordable compared to even other organic (fertilizer) that can sometimes be very expensive, and it can be used on literally everything, like the lawn, garden, and house plants.”
Mairs and his Lower 48 partners have roughly 800 acres where they have been cultivating organic products, including grass-fed beef and pork, for nearly 15 years. He said farming as naturally as possible is a high priority for the company, and that philosophy translated well when they went into casting production.
Mairs and his partners settled on purchasing the licensed methods of Wisconsin-based UNCO Industries Inc. Mairs said the practices are all-organic, and allow a producer to reach any scale they want.
“Steve happened to come along at right time,” Mairs said. “He was looking for someone to partner with, and we wanted to branch out our name…and it worked out really well for us.”
Mairs set Steve and Fred up with some equipment to help get the business going.
Most of what the Sturmans use had to be shipped to the Kenai Peninsulabecause infrastructure, like the harvesting table, isn’t produced anywhere in Alaska.
While it doesn’t look like it, the table itself cost nearly $3,000, Fred Sturman said with a laugh.
The machine is powered with electricity and bounces two levels of wire mesh, with large and small spaces, up and down until all the components are separated. If the worms are too small — usually, younger than 20 weeks, also called the “twentieth stage” — they will fall through and end up in the castings.
It was also perhaps easier for the father and son to edge into the business because they already had the space and some of the furnishings to set up in, Steven Sturman said. And, of course, their partners in Oregon are on call.
“I should say also, in the community of producers that are similar to us, everyone I have dealt with or met has been very helpful in giving me hints that helped along the way,” Mairs said.
They were also able to identify an unfilled niche. There are, at the least, very few commercial vermiculture producers in Alaska. Grandpa’s in Kasilof is sold in 15 or 50-pound bags at Kenai Feed and Supply, and a few others operate on small scales around the state.
Alaska Berries Owner Brian Olson said in his 20-years of farming on the Kenai Peninsula, he hadn’t heard of anyone producing castings locally. For an organic farmer, worm poop is the ideal option for infusing nitrogen into soil, he said.
In fact, worm castings are so nitrogen-rich that it could damage or kill a plant if it makes direct contact, much like synthetic fertilizers.
Olson plans to mix the Sturmans’ fertilizer with additives in what is called a “top dressing,” which he applies to his Haskap berry — also known as honeyberry — bushes every spring.
In Alaska, which has young, less-developed soils, enrichment is essential for producing quality yields.
“You can’t just dig a hole and plant something and expect it to grow,” Olson said.
He prefers buying locally. Everything he uses to make his wines, jams and other products are grown in Alaska, further if people didn’t buy locally, he would have no business, which is why it is important to support other community ventures like the Sturmans. Shipping in hundreds of pounds of castings is pricey, he said. Lucky for Olson, he said, they are turning out a good product. Olson said he tested it and saw the nearly ideal compost analysis completed by Brookside Laboratories, Inc.
The Sturmans were told by the Casey Matney, the University of Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service Agriculture and Horticulture Agent for the Kenai office, that it might help is a little fish mill to the worm food, Steve Sturman said.
Other than that, the pair had their official business license at the end of December and are ready to sell. There is really only one hitch, Fred Sturman said with a laugh. They can’t get their worms to reproduce as much as they’d like.
Right now the nearly 100,000 worms of various ages they are fostering should be about ten times that many for as long as they have been breeding, Fred Sturman said. Sometimes, when he dumps out a box of wigglers onto the harvesting table, he will find 50-60 at the end, or as many as 600.
But that is the nature of building an undeveloped business in Alaska, Steve and Fred agreed. The two aren’t too worried.
They are confident with the product that they are making, and feel there is market of local growers interested in buying well-priced, well-produced worm poop.
“We kind of fell into a sweet spot,” Steve Sturman said.
For more information call 283-WORM(9676) or visit organicfarm.guide.