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The role of the humble earthworm in sustainable agriculture

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Composting is critically important year-round, but every so often it’s important to celebrate it, not just participate in it. May 29 is Learn About Composting Day, and to help us do that this year, we’re looking at some of the little folks that make it happen – earthworms.

Home gardeners and commercial agricultural enterprises are increasingly integrating more natural and sustainable practices into plant production. Although chemical pesticides and fertilizers can improve crop yields, chemicals can deteriorate soil efficiency and may affect the ecosystem in negative ways. In lieu of turning to a laundry list of products to help the soil, farmers and home gardeners may benefit from relying more heavily on the humble earthworm.

Earthworms Are Beneficial

According to CABI, an international, inter-governmental, nonprofit organization that provides information and applies scientific expertise to solve problems in agriculture and the environment, earthworms are useful for the management of biodiversity.

Earthworms are any gardener’s friend. These shy, light-sensitive creatures burrow through the soil, pulling leaves and other plant matter deep within. When the earthworms consume this detritus, the decomposed plants as well as the worms’ droppings provide nutrients to the soil. Together with microbes, earthworms convert biodegradable materials and organic waste into nutrient-rich products. They also may help reduce instances of soil-borne diseases.

The benefits to worms do not end there. Earthworms also aerate the soil, enabling water to be absorbed, which helps develop strong plant roots. Earthworm burrows serve as channels where roots can elongate into deeper soil layers, enabling plants to grow more securely and deeply. This, in turn, can help reduce soil erosion. While research is ongoing, there are some reports that the unique talents of earthworms can help convert land that is largely barren into fertile soil.

Breeding Earthworms

It may be in gardeners’ and farmers’ best interests to raise earthworms. According to the science information site Sciencing, earthworms are hermaphrodites, meaning they have both male and female reproductive organs. Despite this, most worms need a partner to reproduce – although certain types will reproduce alone if partners are scarce. Worms can be purchased or found for breeding. A worm box, which can be made or bought from gardening shops, is a box made from untreated wood. The earthworms will need a temperature of at least 25º F, and dark, moist soil.

Place moistened paper scraps into one half of the worm box. Place the worms on top and give them opportunities to hide. Place small amounts of organic matter, such as kitchen scraps, coffee grounds and leaves, on the paper layer every day. Leave the other side of the worm box empty, as this will be where the worm dropping compost will eventually collect. After two or three months, there will be quite a number of hatched worms to release into the garden along with the compost. Leave some worms behind to continue to reproduce.

Earthworms amend the soil in natural ways that can reduce the need to use chemical products and protect biodiversity.

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