August 5, 2004
Coffee County-- We have all types of farms, but not many people know about a type of farming where animals don't make a sound and reproduce like crazy.
From the road it looks like the usual farmhouse, but in the back, way in the back sits what some people might call a farming paradise. "We're worm farmers," says Jack Brantley.
Follow a pasture road behind an 18-wheeler, and in a few minutes it starts unloading its light brown cargo, creating a small mountain and where steam gently drifts skyward. The cargo of 23 tons of brewer's mash, a mix of ingredients used to make beer, fresh from the distillery becomes a feast for worms.
Close by the mountain of feed stand tall wooden poles that support black sun screens that cover rectangular mounds. White doors laid end to end provide a walkway between the mounds where millions and millions of worms live quietly. "I figure we have three acres in worms," says owner Jack Brantley.
It's early morning before the heat starts building and the worms have moved near the top of the mound called a bed. As the day gets hotter, they move downward, trying to maintain 65 degrees, their ideal temperature. "When you are comfortable, the worms are comfortable," says Jack, walking down a path between beds in his white rubber boots and carrying a pitch fork.
He uses the pitch fork to gently turn the soil, and hundreds of worms appear immediately with every turn. "That's your Big Red," says Jack pointing to worms everywhere as they inch their way back underground. They don't like the exposure. Some of the Big Reds will take a long trip since Jack ships his worms to customers throughout the country, even into Canada, as many as 75,000 a week.
They eat a lot, 23 tons of brewer's mash every seven days that Jack he gets from a beer maker. "Feed three times to four times a week," says Jack as a worker with a big aluminum shovel scoops the mash from a wheelbarrow and throws it across the beds.
For eleven years, Jack Brantley has inched his way up to one of the few worm farmers in the country, a business started from medical necessity. "Twelve years ago I had heart attack," says Jack.
Working cows was too much of a physical strain, and one day he realized worms offered him a slick opportunity. He moved what was left of a bale of hay and noticed worms underneath. At that point, he got the idea of growing fishing worms instead of cows. No heavy lifting, no getting dirty, no wild market price fluxuations, and no expensive equipment, all hooked him on worm farming. "I guess you could say that," says Jack with a laugh.
He must deal with a homeland security issue, when Robins stop by as they migrate to north. The birds descend on his worm farm by the thousands ready for a free meal, but Jack puts a net around the worm beds to protect his investment. He doesn't mind a few local birds dropping by for a snack, but thousands of Robins could hurt his business.
"I see a lot of little ones in there," says Jack pointing to a group of worms he uncovered. They will get to stay in their beds a little longer so they can grow bigger. In a few weeks, the worms get harvested by quick hands that gently pull them from their beds, usually about sun-up when it's cooler.
Jack Brantley started growing worms when it wasn't cool, when he downsized his life out of necessity, one of a very few early farmers who got the worms.
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