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Saturday, March 20, 2021

New local worm business

Westerly Business Uses Red Wigglers to Eat Up Food Scrap

By GREGORY PETTYS/ecoRI News contributor 

James Cruso uses the food scrap he collects, and diverts from being
landfilled, to make nutrient-rich compost. (Vita Nova Compost)

WESTERLY, R.I. — Vita Nova Compost is a curbside food-scrap collection service that aims to divert organic waste from landfills and convert it into nutrient-rich compost using worms. The practice is known as vermicomposting.

The business is owned by James Cruso, a Westerly native and avid environmentalist.

He is motivated by the country’s waste issue, noting that a family of four can create 400 to 800 pounds of organic waste annually.

“Worm farming is big on the West Coast,” Cruso said. “I was on the West Coast for a couple of years with a friend and we experimented with planting and vegetables. We went to a soil symposium led by Dr. Elaine Ingham. She’s part of the organization called Soil Food Web and they preach vermicomposting.

“When I moved back home to Westerly, I wanted to run my own business and this was the perfect business because it’s zero waste and I can feel good about doing it every day.”

Vermicomposting, or worm composting, produces a rich organic soil amendment containing a diversity of plant nutrients and beneficial microorganisms. The material is the product of worm digestion and aerobic decomposition.

Cruso grew up and went to school in Westerly, before earning a degree in civil engineering from Wentworth College in Boston.

Upon his return from the West Coast a few years ago, the Westerly High School graduate bought his first thousand worms and an 18-gallon bin to get his business started.

Cruso then contacted the Westerly Land Trust about renting a community garden plot.

“I wanted to rent one of plots at the original community garden and got on their email list,” he recalled. “They needed volunteers at the farmers market and we started talking. I told them I was getting into worm composting and a few months later they sent out a request for proposal to local farmers. I put my presentation together, some renderings of the green house, and told them it would be low impact and off grid from their system, which they accepted.”

With the help of family and friends, Cruso erected a greenhouse and got his composting venture started.

“The worms we use are the red wigglers, and they’re the worms that most worm farmers are using,” Cruso said. “They’re a temperate species and there are about a thousand worms per square foot in each bed. When we collect our waste from residents, the raw organic waste, food scraps, they’re combined with recovered leaves, mulch, or straw. That mixture is combined with water and air and it breaks down for about 60 days. That becomes worm food and we feed it to them.”

He explained that the worms’ waste product, their castings, which defines vermicompost, is created inside the body of a worm. It’s a great nutrient source for plants. He said the material ends up filtering down through the bottom of the bed and is collected underneath, dried, sifted, and bagged.

His operation offers clients either a weekly or bi-weekly pickup plan, and they receive a composting kit and a collection bucket. Membership also includes receiving 40 pounds of finished compost annually — 20 pounds in the spring and 20 pounds in the early summer.

“Every Monday morning we go around and we collect the 5-gallon pails,” Cruso said. “We have some teachers that are members and they teach their students. They’re becoming involved and familiar with the idea that your food waste is not trash.”

From bucket to finished soil bag, it takes five to six months and 7 pounds of waste to make 1 pound of finished product, according to Cruso.

Last year, Vita Nova Compost diverted more than 53,000 pounds of organic waste from being landfilled, where it would have emitted methane into the atmosphere, lowered air quality, depleted the ozone layer, and wasted a valuable resource. In 2019, some 21,000 pounds were diverted.

“There are two ways that this process sequesters carbon,” Cruso said. “First, you’re not releasing as much into the environment as it breaks down. Second, when you have finished product you put back on the earth, and in the soil, the carbon that’s in the air is captured and sequestered by the compost on the ground. It’s very powerful stuff and a great system that happens naturally with just a little bit of human help.”

As for his business, he said, “it’s still a work in progress.”

“We’re not there yet but it’s the foundation of what I want to do,” Cruso said. “I believe when we get to where we want to be and totally functioning, we’re going to have a really great thing going. I’m very excited about it. I love it and I’m really happy to be doing it.”

Gregory Pettys lives in Misquamicut, R.I., and writes historical non-fiction and stories about the environment.