Of the many projects that comprise the Peace Corps volunteer’s agriculture extension handbook, one of the strangest and trickiest to sell is lombricultura (worm composting in English). On the surface this might seem like a bit of an esoteric endeavor, seeing as the worms need to be of a particular species and the conditions under which they must be kept tend to be rather specific, but the reality is that lombricultura is perfectly suited to helping poor, rural farmers get a quick and lasting boost in production.
The concept is as follows: Certain species of worms (in this case, California red worms) can live entirely within organic material. While other species require soils containing varying quantities of organic material, the good old California red is snug as a bug (or a worm) in a bed of 100 percent organic matter. This means that its digested product—worm excrement, or as it is more scientifically called, worm castings—is itself entirely composed of organic matter. This creates a sort of supercharged compost that can be used in a household garden or, if the operation is big enough, with field crops.
Worm compost has several advantages over regular compost. While both are wonderful and can complement each other greatly, worm castings package the nutrients in a way that is more readily available to plants. The process of worm composting can also be faster than regular composting (this, of course, depends on your methodology and zeal for both).
So the question becomes, how do you sell this type of project to rural, impoverished Paraguayan farmers? In a country where governmental health agents have been warning for years against the harms of intestinal worms, the first challenge is to convince my Paraguayan neighbors to distinguish between parasitic worms and earthworms.
Luckily for me, I have several neighbors who have taken to the concept like fish to water. In particular, Don Garcia, with whom I have been working for quite some time, is enthusiastic about raising worms. We have begun constructing a worm box, a long trough made of recycled brick, concrete, and wood protected by a fence to keep out pests. Soon, a thatch roof will guard it from the sun and excess rain. Upon seeing the care and effort he was putting into this worm project, I joked that his worms were going to have the nicest hotel in all of Paraguay, to which he responded with his typical hearty and soul-lifting laugh.
The worm-farming project won’t change Don Garcia’s life. It won’t help him escape from poverty, something that seems to have a particularly strong grip on him and his family. Still, it will help him improve his daily situation. From helping boost the production of his garden, to helping him increase his livestock quality (worms can also be used as a protein-rich animal feed), to increasing household income (through marketable garden produce and direct selling of worms for fishing bait, a common pastime in my community), this project will help Don Garcia prepare for the future.
The other day he said to me, “People have been asking me ‘Why are you doing this, why do you want worms?’ and I tell them, I am not doing this for me now, I am doing this while I am young so that when I am old I will be able to receive the benefits.” As always I am astounded at his wisdom and perspective, which is rare among Paraguayan campesinos. And so, with that in mind, I continue to plunge knee-deep into smelly worm castings as we endeavor to make his humble vision a reality. —Mario Machado
My garden has really taken off in the past few weeks. The relatively mild summer helped by keeping the frost away even if it also meant significantly less and unpredictable rainfall. The vegetables I planted came up with varying success. Squash, Swiss chard, onions, green onions, tomatoes, beets, carrots and peppers are all on their way, slowly but surely, to becoming delicious meal items in the next few weeks or months.
I have added several things on the technical side of my garden in order to help with future production. First, using recycled wood and brick, I constructed a worm bin (above), called lombricultura in Spanish. With an underlying bed of dry, leafy material and kitchen scraps for food, California red worms can produce wonderful organic fertilizer in the form of worm castings. These castings are rich in nutrients that are readily available for absorption by plant roots. In a month or so I should have excellent organic fertilizer to add to my plants.
Also, to increase the diversity of my garden, I have planted several banana plants and a line of pineapples along the outside fence. These will grow and produce fruit in about a year or so, but in the meantime, the flowering fruit trees will help attract bees. And thorny pineapple plants work wonders against curious chickens.
I was experiencing some problems with erosion during large storms and watched several of my meticulously formed raised beds wash away. To prevent this I have used old soda and wine bottles, as well as scrap wood, to create more permanent sides for the beds. So far this seems to have helped hold the soil in place. —Mario Machado