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Galt-area man says his worms make the 'world's best fertilizer'

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Posted: Sunday, April 5, 2009 10:00 pm

Michael Dunn was a chef and culinary teacher for 35 years. Now he devotes his life to worms and their "castings." Castings?

"Well, that's worm poop," Dunn said, his voice brimming with enthusiasm.

Dunn gets pretty excited talking about that stuff, and he's making a decent retirement income from his worms, which he keeps at his secluded two-and-a-half-acre ranch called "P.J. Dunn Working Redworms" on Kennefick Road, just north of Liberty Road.

Dunn, 59, spends 25 to 30 hours a week on his beloved worms so he can sell them to people who use them as fertilizer for their lawns and gardens.

"It's the world's best," Dunn said. "I get so many (requests from people) with vegetable gardens. I've already harvested 50 pounds of worms this year."

Dunn does all the work himself. His wife, Paula Jean, will help out with large orders, but they have no employees on the ranch.

Dunn has a mound of dirt 250 feet long, 1 foot wide and 10 feet high. They're filled with worms and table scraps for them to munch on.

"They'll eat anything - they'll eat paper pulp," he added.

Dunn's in hog heaven with his mounds of dirt, worms, their food, castings and capsules, which are similar to eggs to create yet more worms.

Worms are asexual and have male and female organs, Dunn said. They reproduce without another worm's help, he said. However, a Web site from Washington State University reports that redworms require a partner to mate, even though they both have organs from both genders.

Dunn feeds his worms every 12 days, which is plenty for them.

He gets his fertilizer into prime condition by putting the worms into a harvester, which separates the animals, the castings and the food.

When Dunn was in the culinary business, he worked at places like construction camps for Pacific Gas & Electric Co., restaurants in the Bay Area, Shasta Lake and Washington state, and at The Summit restaurant at Harrah's casino in Lake Tahoe. He also taught cooking at American River College in Sacramento.

Dunn was ready to retire, but worms weren't on his mind until he read an article in The Sacramento Bee about Rainbow Farms in Davis, which produced worms. After visiting the farm, he decided that was the life for him.

He lived in Lodi for about 12 years before moving to his Galt-area ranch eight years ago. He got into business when the owner of the adjoining property on Kennefick Road asked him if he wanted to join him in the worm business.

The ranch where Dunn now lives was a rabbit ranch at the time, so his worms got to eat what the rabbits , well, left behind. When the rabbit company moved to Pennsylvania, Dunn bought the ranch.

Dunn gets his business primarily from word of mouth. His only advertising is from the Stockton and Sacramento Yellow Pages (not the Lodi-Galt directory, by the way).

Dunn and his wife's interests generally remain around the house, where Paula Jean grows tomatoes, squash and other vegetables.

Dunn doesn't have much in the way of hobbies except visiting their children and grandchildren in places like San Diego and Sonoma County. If Dunn isn't caring for his worms, he's teaching people how to use redworm compost or chatting with other worm farmers about tricks of the trade.

For example, Dunn was really excited one time about meeting a worm farmer in the rural Butte County community of Durham, but Paula Jean was concerned that her gregarious husband would talk to him for hours. So he passed up the meeting and has limited his conversations with the Durham farmer to the phone.

Redworms at a glance

Q: Can they see?

A: No, worms don't have eyes. However, they must have some kind of light sensor. They are very sensitive to bright light. They will try to hide as soon as exposed. You can observe worms with red light. Placing a red cellophane between the light source and the worm box allows you to watch the worms.

Q: Where is the mouth?

A: The worm's mouth is in the first anterior segment. There is a small protruding lip just over the mouth, called prostomium. When the worm is foraging, this lip is stretching out. The prostomium is for sensing food.

Q: Do they have teeth?

A: Worms have no teeth for chewing food. They grind food in their gizzard by muscle action.

Q: How do they grind food?

A: Worms can only take small particles in their small mouths. Microorganisms soften the food before worms will eat it. Worms have a muscular gizzard. Small parts of food mixed with some grinding material such as sand, topsoil or limestone is ingested. The contractions from the muscles in the gizzard compress those particles against each other, mix it with fluid and grind it to smaller pieces.

Q: If a worm is cut in two, will it grow back?

A: It depends on where the cut took place. If a worm is cut at the posterior, sometimes a new tail will grow back on. Sometimes a second tail will appear next to a damaged tail. However, the posterior half of the worm can't grow a new head.

Q: Do worms die in the box?

A: It's hard to find dead worms in a worm box, but they do die in the box. Dead worm bodies decompose very quickly because their bodies are between 75 and 90 percent water. If you find many dead worms, you should find out the cause. More than 84 degrees can be fatal Too much salt or acidic food waste can kill them. It's best to change the bedding with fresh materials to solve the problem. Sometimes, partially replacing bedding may solve the problem.

Q: How long do worms live?

A: Worms often live and die in the same year. They are exposed to hazards, dryness and extreme weather. Eisenia foetida can live for as long as four years.

Q: Do worms need air?

A: Worms need oxygen to live. The oxygen diffuses across the moist tissue of their skin, from the region of greater concentration of oxygen (air) to that of lower concentration (inside the worm.) Carbon dioxide produced by the bodily processes of the worm also diffuses through skin.

Moving from higher concentration to lesser concentration, carbon dioxide moves from the inside of the worm's body out into the surrounding bedding. A constant supply of fresh air throughout the bedding helps this desirable exchange take place.

Source: Washington State University

Contact reporter Ross Farrow at rossf@lodinews.com.

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