25 Feb 2022

Plenty of wriggle room for world's largest worm farm

From Country Life, 9:34 pm on 25 February 2022
Worms processing sticker paper

Worms processing sticker paper Photo: RNZ/Carol Stiles

The world's largest worm farming operation started with 20 buckets of worms, now it has three billion.

"It's probably 16 truck and trailer loads - easily," says MyNoke founder, senior scientist and worm menu-planner Michael Quintern.

Taupo-based MyNoke uses worms to convert 160-thousand tonnes of organic waste into rich vermicast each year which is then on-sold to farmers, orchardists and home gardeners.

The waste comes from the pulp and paper industry, from market gardens, dairy factories, abattoirs and is trucked in from sewage treatment stations.

But Michael would like to see almost ten times more diverted from landfills.

"My dream is having 18 worm farms in New Zealand, central ones and lots of small ones...And, out of our two and a half million tonnes of organic resources, feeding one and a half million tonnes to worms in New Zealand."

Michael Quintern

Michael Quintern Photo: supplied MyNoke

Already MyNoke takes 16,000 tonnes of bio-solids annually from Hamilton City Council's treatment ponds.

"That's two truck and trailer loads a day of this material. That's a lot... It is much cheaper for the ratepayers to use us than send it to the landfill."

The worms also process bio-solids from Rotorua, Te Puke and Taupo.

MyNoke leases farmland and, on it, lays out knee-high windrows of mixed waste.

"It's like being in a kitchen or in the entertainment business," Michael says.  "So you want to have a party, so you need to have something on the buffet. So you need food first. So we are creating a beautiful sandwich for the worms  So they need bread, which is the fibre and they need some mayonnaise or butter and some lettuce and maybe like some chicken - that's the biosolids, the lake weeds, the food waste, milk sludge and we combine it so the worms actually can't resist coming to the party."

Michael says the worms will turn their noses up at some waste if it is too acidic or too alkaline, but that doesn't mean they won't eat it.

"That's the beauty. The bigger you are, we can combine more things. A very small worm farm just working for a milk plant wouldn't work. If we would just operate for bio-solids at a community (level) it wouldn't be successful. As soon as we bring industries together and the end-users, farmers, we have a solution (for the waste).

Once the worms have eaten their way through the food laid out for them they migrate to new mounds of carefully mixed waste.

The original windrows are pushed together and the vermicast sitting on the top is collected.


Vermicast Photo: RNZ/Carol Stiles

MyNoke has permits to farm worms on 700 hectares and has a waiting list of farmers who want to be part of the vermicomposting operation.

"So for one hectare of worm farming, we can supply compost for 50 hectares on the farm. And all of a sudden we have more organic matter in the soil and the worms are coming back and microbes....it's a kickstart for what is now called kind of regenerative farming. But it applies to any type of farming, so any type of farmer can regenerate soil function and soil fertility, just naturally," Michael says.

MyNoke general manager Phil Holland says the business currently produces 40,000 tonnes of worm-castings each year. There are worm farms in Tokoroa, Ohakune. Taupo, Matata and Putaruru.

"And we're just in the process of looking at sites in Matamata, Mercer, Timaru, ...Levin and Martinborough are possibly our next ones as well and the Chatham Island actually...it's looking reasonably likely they'll go down that (worm farming) track.

Phil Holland

Phil Holland Photo: RNZ/Carol Stiles

Phil says worm farming is all about getting the science right.

"So I call this a simple but complicated business. Simple in the sense of what we're doing but complex around the science to it. So you're really making sure that we've got the mixtures right for the worms. I mean we can't control them, as you can see, there's no fences around. If they want to leave, they can leave, we can't stop them. so it's our job to make sure we get that science right."

 He says people look at him in disbelief when they hear he works for the world's largest worm farming operation.

"I mean, I used to be in insurance so it's certainly a lot more exciting than saying you are an insurance broker. But when you explain to people what we do, you know, their eyes start lighting up."

Phil Holland digging for worms

Phil Holland digging for worms Photo: RNZ/Carol Stiles

Sludge ready to be mixed to feed worms

Sludge ready to be mixed to feed worms Photo: RNZ/Carol Stiles

Organic waste

Organic waste Photo: RNZ/Carol Stiles

Pile of vermicast

Pile of vermicast Photo: RNZ/Carol Stiles