Sustainable worm farming business booming at Stony Creek, creating a perfect family lifestyle

A lady in a floppy hat, and a  bloke with a big bushy beard and hat hold up earthworms in their hands.

Rohan and Ellie Watson could not be prouder about having worms — millions of them.

Their farm has just taken on 18 extra truckloads of hermaphrodite invertebrates to keep up with demand from Bunnings, councils and community groups.

In 2014 Mr Watson, a carpenter, and his kindergarten teacher wife were working in outback Cloncurry when his uncle posed a question that would change the course of their lives.

Worms are harvested once a week for delivery across Queensland.(ABC Rural: Jennifer Nichols)

“I was down on holidays and he came and said to me, ‘What are you doing when you finish out west?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know’ and he said, ‘Do you want to come and grow worms?’ Mr Watson said.

At the time, he thought his uncle was pulling his leg.

“I said, ‘You’ve got to be crazy. That can’t be a thing’.”

But it is a thing, and Stephen Watson, an early adopter of commercial vermiculture (worm farming) in Australia, convinced his nephew he was serious.

A wide shot of rows of raised worm farms with a tree covered hill in the background.
There are now 138 worm farms on the property.(Supplied: Rural Earthworms)

By the end of that year, the Watsons had packed up their lives, scouted for land, and settled on a property at Stony Creek, not far from the Woodford Folk Festival site in Queensland.

They started with nine raised beds.

Now they have 138, with recycled tin roofing, shade cloth and sprinklers to keep the worms moist and safe from ever-optimistic predators such as cane toads and birds.

Loads of canetoads in a bucket.
Cane toads are collected from under the earthworm beds and humanely disposed of.(Supplied: Rural Earthworms)

Their business, Rural Earthworms, grows reds, tigers and African nightcrawlers for domestic composting worm farms.

They feed the worms once a week on a grain by-product, pasteurised animal manure and lime.

Harvesting, packing and deliveries take another two days, and there is constant work on improvements.

A hand that has just raked off the top of the compost to reveal the worms underneath.
The earthworms try to avoid the light.(ABC Rural: Jennifer Nichols)

The family supplies a national company that transports the worms throughout northern New South Wales and Queensland.

Householders use them to keep kitchen vegetable scraps out of landfill.

Composting worms convert organic waste into nutrient-rich garden fertiliser in the form of worm tea and castings (poo).

A massive pile of worms in a tray, ready for packing into boxes.
Worms cleaned and ready for packing.(Supplied: Rural Earthworms)

Business has boomed and spiked during the pandemic.

Every week the couple consistently sells about 150 large and 120 small boxes of earthworms.

They also collect worm castings and bag them for sale to locals.

The couple fill up bags from a big bin containing rich looking compost.
The worm castings (poo) are bagged for sale.(ABC Rural: Jennifer Nichols)

Ms Watson manages marketing and orders, as well as helping her husband with social media.

“A lot of people don’t even know that worm farmers exist, so it’s always interesting talking to different people and helping them with their worms and their gardens,” she said.

“I get to pass all the interesting questions on to Rohan. I call him the worm guru.”

Mr Watson is endlessly fascinated by the creatures that he and two casual staff care for.

Close up of lots of worms in the bed.
Composting worms are great for reducing vegetable scrap waste and providing castings for fertilising the garden.(ABC Rural: Jennifer Nichols)

Earthworms are hermaphrodites, which means they have both male and female sexual organs.

Mating worms exchange sperm and eggs.

“So, your reds and your tigers, they will have to find a similar sized worm,” Mr Watson said.

“They can’t mate with a worm that’s not the same size because they won’t line up together.

“When you find a pair of worms they look like someone’s tied them in a knot.”

The larger African nightcrawler worms, which are also popular as fish bait, can produce cocoons with or without copulation through an asexual reproduction process called parthenogenesis.

Two very big worm farm beds on the back of a truck with a big shade house in the background.
It took 18 round trips to move 58 worm beds from Burpengary to Stony Creek.(Supplied: Rural Earthworms)

Farm expansion

The past few weeks have been exciting and intense for the couple — their uncle retired and 58 new worm beds have been carefully relocated from his farm.

“It has been a long process with 18 trips back and forth from Burpengary, 3.5 to 5-hour round trips,” Mr Watson said.

“Now it’s time to get them settled into their new environment and ready for a big year of further expansion to keep up with demand.”

Existing worm beds were also moved to a central higher, drier point on the property.

A man stands next to a large pile of compost
Mr Watson keeps the castings under tarps for protection in the paddock.(ABC Rural: Jennifer Nichols)

Mr Watson never imagined business would get this big, assuming that worm farming would remain a hobby to supplement his carpentry.

“But once it started to get going and we started getting a lot of beds and the demand was there we found that okay, it wasn’t really doing the carpentry anymore. The worms needed the time,” he said.

“It’s been great, especially today to look around and see all the worm beds in the new areas. It’s really amazing.”

A child in a stripy shirt and hat uses a spade and wheelbarrow to move compost
Jack Watson, 4, loves to help.(Supplied: Rural Earthworms)

“The lifestyle is definitely the best. We get to work from home and it’s lovely that we can involve the whole family,” Ms Watson said.

Four-year-old Jack and two-year-old Molly already love helping with the worms, chickens, alpacas and cattle on the farm.

“They are naked and wild and free children. I think that’s the best way to describe them,” Ms Watson said.

“They’re great and it’s such a beautiful lifestyle for them. It’s just freedom.”

Soon there will be five in the family, with Ms Watson weeks away from giving birth to their third child.

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