Worm Farming in Willow Springs
Wed, 07/22/2020 - 1:06pm admin
Looking into our past, I'm impressed at the resourcefulness of Ozarkers in making a living. I have personal experience with some people who found an unusual niche and a way to make a living in a unique business.
Fifty-four years ago, at the ripe old age of twelve, I found my first job. Wanting to purchase a banana-seat bike and other necessities of a pre-teenager, I found employment a little more than a quarter-mile walk from home, at the Ozark Worm Farm. The rate of pay was fifty cents per hour plus the benefits knowing all about the earthworm business has brought me in life.
The Ozark Worm Farm of Willow Springs started seventy years ago, so this is historical. There were two worm farms in town; the other was Ruby's Worm Farm run by Ruby Baldridge near the south junction of Highway's 60 and 63. The Ozark Worm Farm was adjacent to the Willow Springs City Cemetery. I know, somewhat ironic. Marvin and Anna Dickman were the proprietors, and as you will see, this was a business with worldwide reach.
A feature article in the Springfield News-Leader dated July 22, 1956, reported that the Dickman's the previous year sold two and a quarter million worms all over the United States and many foreign countries, including Greece, Denmark, and Holland. It stated of Marvin, "He advertises in some 40 magazines. The requests are answered by mail. Worms can live for at least two weeks when packaged."
I witnessed the packaging process daily while working. The worms were counted by hand and placed in 10" by 12" muslin cloth bags filled with peat moss. A thousand worms went into each bag, and the moistened bags went into a strawberry crate for shipping. If the worms were to be shipped by mail, the crate went into a larger cardboard box, but many were placed on a bus and rode in the luggage hold to their destination. Counting the worms was an upper-echelon duty for which I was not initially qualified. My job as an entry-level worm wrangler was that of "bed-changer."
The beds looked like bunk beds, two fiberglass lined wooden troughs, one over the other, about two foot deep and four foot wide, running the length of the room, in a converted barn. The beds contained an electric heater cable to keep the worms warm in the winter. One of my jobs was to fill each bed with moistened sphagnum peat moss. I would take a large bale of compressed peat moss, throw it into a large oval galvanized cattle watering tank and spray the moss with a hose until it was wet. This wet moss was placed in the beds to the depth of about a foot and was the happy home of tens of thousands, no hundreds of thousands of worms.
My daily duty of worm care included spraying all the beds with water to keep the moss/dirt moist. That was kinda fun, as the whole bed would writhe when you did that like you would if you were sprayed with cold water. You couldn't see the worms; they stayed under the soil most of the time. A touch of the bed surface revealed tangles of worms just below the surface. I say the stayed under most of the time because the Ozark Worm Farm specialized in African Nightcrawlers, who true to their name, liked to leave home and crawl around at night. To make them stay home, a bare lightbulb hung over their beds at intervals to simulate daytime, twenty-four hours a day. A power outage was always a catastrophe involving scooping up worms covering the walls, ceiling, and floors and returning them to their happy home when the lights came back on.
Another task you likely weren't aware of was feeding the critters. That involved taking chicken starter feed or "chicken mash" and broadcasting it over the top of the beds. The reaction of the worms was the same as spraying them with water; the soil writhed and seemed a living thing. Over the span of a week or two, the worms had to have their beds changed, another duty of the entry-level worm farmhand like me. The peat moss by now was soiled with worm castings (worm poop) and had the consistency of rich dirt, which it was. It did not smell bad and made a fantastic soil amendment. The Dickman's sold this dirt by the bag or truckload to gardeners, and I wish I had access to it today.
One of my jobs, when it came time to change the beds, was to pile up the old dirt crosswise in the beds in neat rows at intervals of about six feet, and fill the space between the piles with new moist, cool peat moss. The old dirt, when piled to a height of about two feet, would start to compost and heat up, and any worm with a brain would leave the hot dirt for the new clean, cool digs I had provided. Yes, worms do have brains, and a heart and nervous system. They do not have eyes, which makes it easy to catch them. Contrary to urban legend, If you cut a worm in half, it will not grow into two worms. The half with the brain and heart will live, and the other will die. The living part will, however, regenerate or grow a new tail.
I eventually graduated to the prestigious job of worm counter. I marveled at Marvin and Anna's ability to carry on a continual conversation while keeping and never losing count. It took me a while to master that kind of multi-tasking, something a kid in the computer age does with ease.
So, back to the history thing. In the News-Leader article, Marvin explained what led him into the business. They reported, "It all began for Dickman some years ago (1950) when he was glancing through a fishing magazine, and his eyes fell upon an advertisement reading 'fishing worms for sale.' A few minutes later, he was submitting an ad to the same magazine. 'And why not,' he asked. 'Our hog pen was literally crawling with worms, so I decided to see if I could sell some of them, too.' When the first letter arrived requesting worms, he enthusiastically took spade in hand and started tilling the pig-pen soil. But alas, no worms. The severe Ozark drought sent the worms high-tailing it for deeper soil, and Dickman's ambitious undertaking appeared on the rocks."
Archaeologists confirm that the Ozarks was, and is, a marginal place to live even for earthworms. The extremes of weather and often poor and rocky soil historically required the people living here to be resourceful and develop ways to compensate for the extra challenges.
"During the following weeks, letters kept pouring in - but a disillusioned Dickman could do nothing but return the orders. Then the worms turned. Came the rains and the end of the drought, they were back. Dickman was waiting, shovel in hand."
Initially dealing in native worms, Marvin found African Nightcrawlers in 1953 that grew much larger, twelve inches, or longer. Originally from Africa, as their name implies, they were livelier and multiplied much faster than our hillbilly variety. Native worms didn't multiply when taken from their native habitat, and though Marvin tried to interbreed the worm types, it didn't work out. The drawback to the nightcrawlers besides their habit of crawling at night was their sensitivity to cold and the expense of having to heat his beds and buildings in winter. When I worked there, they tried to keep the room temperature around eighty degrees. Marvin eventually introduced the Red Wiggler variety of worm to his offerings. They didn't require as much warmth but didn't get as big as the Crawlers.
The worm beds were housed in a field stone barn probably built in 1940. Marvin's brother Clarence had previously used the barn as a chicken brooding facility known as Sunnyside Hatchery.
Marvin wrote a booklet, "Worthwhile Profit Raising Hybrid Earthworms," and the book sold well. The organic gardening boom starting around the time I worked there also increased the demand for his worms. Local folks often went to the farm and bought worms for a fishing trip. Worms became a full-time occupation for Marvin and his mother until they got too old to do it.
Marvin Dickman had a deep interest in local history and often talked to me about Willow Springs and the influence of the railroad on our community. Marvin collected photos of Willow Springs and freely shared them with anyone who asked. Shortly before his death, he loaned me several of his notebooks of photos to copy, and today I frequently draw on those for these articles. He influenced my future interest in Willow Springs's history. Marvin Dickman was instrumental in the celebration of our town Centennial in 1969, served as President of the Willow Springs Chamber of Commerce, and was the Willow Chamber Man of the Year in 1970.
I worked after school and in the summer for the Dickman's for around three years. We had a radio tuned to the local AM station KUKU any time I was there. My first real exposure to popular music of all persuasions came from all that listening. I once told Marvin while listening to one of the announcers that one day I was going to work there. He grinned at me and said nothing, probably thinking, "yeah, right." In1967, I was offered a job as a part-time announcer at KUKU. I was fifteen years old, and my dad had to drive me to work. I've often thought about how listening to the radio at the worm farm led to my future career path. I wonder if instead of radio we had a television on, maybe watching Doctor Kildare or Perry Mason, might it have steered me into a more lucrative career choice? I suspect not.
Kids today don't have the opportunities for odd jobs and part-time work we did growing up in Howell County in the 1960s. I'm grateful for the Dickman's and their kindness as employers and the lessons they taught me about entrepreneurship. Plus, over the years, my "worm wrangler" title has been quite the resume enhancer.