CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Wendie McClain, left, wife of University of Hawaii president David McClain, chats with former legislator Mindy Jaffe about using worms to recycle organic waste. Jaffe has become one of the state's leading authorities on worms and has started her own business, Waikiki Worm Co. Below, McClain holds some of her worms.
Slimy dinner guests
Worms recycle organic waste at the UH president's house
GUESTS at College Hill may be startled to see the University of Hawaii president's wife feeding worms in the kitchen.
"They're little dainty red worms," said Wendie McClain, scooping up a handful from a bin. "Everybody who comes for dinner, I take them and show them the bin. Some people say we're crazy. Some think it's great."
McClain said she started a worm composting system, known as vermicomposting, about a year ago after meeting former state Rep. Mindy Jaffe on the Manoa campus during Earth Day. "I said 'I love worms' and she introduced me to worm composting."
Jaffe has become one of Hawaii's leading authorities on worms. She started Waikiki Worm Co. about a year ago to address problems of recycling organic waste and since "has started over 2,000 people on the road to better waste management, using worms essentially to eat their garbage."
McClain's enthusiasm for worms dates to her years as a Massachusetts preschool teacher. When worms surfaced in spring rains, she said she held a "Worm Week," teaching children about worms and how things grow.
She invested in a worm-breeding bin, thinking she would donate it to the campus when her husband David, then-interim UH president, was replaced. But he accepted a permanent appointment and the bin is still hers.
McClain started her vermicomposting system with a pound of worms, about 1,000, that Jaffe got from a Hilo pig farm. "They had lots of babies right away," McClain said.
The bin and starter worm colony cost about $300 a year ago. The cost now is $325.
Though red in color, the composting worms are Indian blue worms (Perionyx excavatus), also known as Malaysian blue or blueworms.
In the beginning, McClain said she had to collect food for the worms because she and her husband are light eaters.
Their housekeeper, Devie Mantanona, who has two sons, would bring food waste for the bin, she said: "She's my worm caretaker. I ask her to water it in the morning.
"We started changing our diet for the worms," McClain said, explaining they like watermelon, vegetables and lemons. "We feel guilty throwing anything out. We bring leftovers home when we eat out."
Caterers that go to College Hill also are asked to save leftovers for the worms. "They peek in," McClain said. "They love it."
"Anything that goes down the disposal should be recycled and go back to earth," Jaffe said, explaining worms eat everything -- rinds, peels, moldy bread, tortillas, fruits and vegetables.
CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Wendie McClain, left, with Mindy Jaffe, is a worm enthusiast; she plans menus to provide food to feed to worms for vermicomposting. She has taught caterers and other house visitors how to care for worms.
Meat and dairy products aren't recommended because they smell, she said. Otherwise, it's an odorless operation, recommended for the kitchen because it takes the place of a disposal, Jaffe said. "It surprises people so much. It's more hygienic than trash."
The bin resembles a small garbage can with stacking trays. Worms are housed in the first tray with food and wet strips of paper or cardboard to hold the moisture in and add structure to the decomposing waste, Jaffe said. As they eat the food, the tray fills with worm poop or vermicast.
When the first tray is filled, the second tray is placed on top and the worms migrate up to reach the new food. The third tray is placed on top when the second one is filled.
When all three trays are filled, the vermicast can be harvested from the bottom tray and the empty one goes on top.
Feeding the worms during a recent interview, McClain put some red peppers in the tray and "a little lettuce on this side and a little lettuce on the other side." She put wet newspaper strips over the food. "If they need something they come up to the paper," she said. "The Star-Bulletin's good recyclable."
McClain also is pleased to have her own "Miracle Grow" from worm juice. The drippings technically are called leachate but known as worm tea. She waters the plants with it and says "they're doing much better."
Real worm tea is brewed with other nutrients as Jimmy Perelli is doing on Kauai, Jaffe said. Perelli started making "earth tea" from worm castings as an organic alternative to lawn and garden care about a year ago.
"We go out and apply it to any grass or turf, ornamentals as spray or nutrient drench," he said by telephone. "It protects against fungal disease and makes plants stronger so they can resist insects and stuff. Over a longer period of time, it helps to rebuild the soil."
Jaffe said it takes about a year for the worms to work through all the material in the bin, producing "extremely rich, beautiful fertilizer with nutrients."
McClain is looking forward to her first vermicompost harvest. She plans to use the fertilizer to grow garlic chives in little pots for gifts.
She said she told her husband: "I'm sorry, I guess I'm the comic relief in this relationship. Most women are doing art and culture. I'm doing worms."
But he thinks it's "wonderful" that she's turning food waste into fertilizer for the garden, she said. She's also introducing others to vermicomposting.
She hosted a workshop in January at College Hill for 10 friends and each left with a little flowerpot and an ounce of worms, about 100. "They have all gone on to do great things with worms," said Jaffe, who helped with the workshop.
Jaffe has about 8,000 worms eating 8 pounds of garbage a day in her apartment, a "Waikiki Worm Warehouse." She takes garbage from all of her neighbors.
"It's quite wonderful," she said.
She sells worm poop to gardeners.
"People who try it in their gardens go crazy," she said. "It is marketed as 'gardener's gold.'"
Jaffe has put worm composting systems in 37 schools. Waianae Elementary Public Charter School will be the first school to vermicompost all the lunch room wastage by next year, she said, adding: "My goal is to have all school lunchrooms process garbage on soil."
Worm composting makes a big difference with kids, who eat more fruit than chips to get food they can feed to the worms, she said.
Jaffe said she heard a lot of testimony about waste management and landfill while serving on the House environmental protection committee and "was pretty appalled at how the state manages waste."
She started doing research and "reading everything that was written" and vermicomposting kept popping up, she said. "Everybody was doing it all over the world."
No one was doing it in Hawaii because it is unlawful to import worms and no one had found a suitable worm to do the work, she said. She eventually found a local stock at Olomana Gardens, then located others and created a network of suppliers.
"I can tell if a farm has worms 100 yards downwind," she said. "If it is sweet smelling, I guarantee it has worms."
Conference digs deep for worm info
Three renowned specialists in worm and soil science will speak at the first Hawaii Worm Conference on Oct. 7, sponsored by Waikiki Worm Co.
The meeting will be from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Christ Church Uniting, 1300 Kailua Road, next to Castle Medical Center. The church and Kokua Hawaii Foundation's 'AINA in Schools Program are co-sponsors. Presenters will be:
» Dr. Sam James of the University of Kansas Museum of Natural History and Biodiversity Research Center. He has received many research grants for ecological and biodiversity research and is working on southeast Asian earthworms, primarily in the Philippines.
» Kelly Slocum, former Washington State vermiculture specialist and associate editor of Worm Digest. She is an authority on alternative waste management systems that use composting and vermicomposting methods and has been a consultant and educator since 1992.
» Dr. Scott Subler of Pennsylvania, president and co-founder of Environmental Credit Corp., leading supplier of environmental credits to global financial markets. He was a researcher and professor at Ohio State University before starting his own business marketing soil fertility products. He serves on the U.S. Composting Council's Board of Directors and other scientific advisory boards.
Sessions will deal with worm identification, worm bin ecology, how earthworm castings affect plant growth and health, understanding teas made from earthworm castings and composts and commercial production and marketing of earthworm castings.
The conference is for beginners, organic farmers, gardeners, teachers and hobbyists who are composting worms or who are interested in starting a breeding bin, said Mindy Jaffe, owner of Waikiki Worm Co.
The cost is $125 for the day, including meals. To attend, call Jaffe at 382-0432 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, see www.waikikiworm.com.